It is impossible not to be drawn into the fight that perpetually unfolds on the projection wall at the centre of the darkened gallery. The grunts and smacks of two men engaging in an unrelenting, no-holds-barred fistfight resonate throughout the very room they were recorded in. Onscreen, fists and limbs puncture drywall. The holes, still visible behind the screen, swiftly cast the gallery as both a film set and an art space. ‘Hound Dog’ (1952), a song about a deadbeat lover originally recorded by American R&B singer and songwriter Big Mama Thornton, provides something of a cinematic score, though her voice is mostly drowned out by the coincidental violence. The title of the exhibition ‘Takers’ references both snatching opportunists and recording artists who capture a perfect take by re-recording the imperfect ones. In either sense, the act of taking results in a void or an erasure. With this cinematic presentation and its musical accompaniment American visual artist, Nikita Gale uses language to suggest an allegorical read, which spins into a vertiginous view of history that feels both objective and abject.
The two men in the video are neither distinct nor memorable. Their shared features—white skin, brown hair, beards, broad build, and similar attire—designates either of them as a double for the other. Without a star to stand in for, they represent two empty mirrors, metaphorically reflecting an intense void between them, fueling the desire to destroy each other. The subjects do not bleed or bruise, which references the supernatural. Even as their energy wavers, either a second or third wind blows in, or the three-minute video (the approximate duration of ‘Hound Dog’) loops, creating a mutually Sisyphean task that never consummates. As a result, the characters are perversely god-like, locked in an eternal, mythological battle in total disregard for the collateral damage.
The building, now occupied by LAXART, is one of a cluster of buildings operated by Radio Recorders, Inc., and initially housed a studio that conducted radio recordings in the 1940s before expanding into two additional buildings. Together, they produced a range of output, from adverts to classical music and radio hits. The Thornton version of ‘Hound Dog’ was recorded in the Annex a few blocks away. Subsequently, Elvis Presley’s rendition (1956) dominated the airwaves ushering in the rock era. Presley’s legacy, however, is fraught. To many, he is a god, while to others he represents appropriated traditions that are made slick and consumable by a predominantly white genre.
It is easy to succumb to unintentional wordplay and double entendres when discussing the elements and references of Gale’s exhibition, starting with the title itself: ‘Takers’. ‘Takers’, hits, projection against the fragile white wall; even the original wooden acoustic baffling revealed by the wall’s wounds inadvertently highlight the challenge to understand the reoccurring fighting, and also the issue of reconciling celebrated cultural output arguably built upon a foundation of greed, opportunism, and never-ending conflict. Gale’s aesthetic is simple, yet relentless. The remarkable apparatus for the exhibition heightens what language aims to express, and archival history. The exhibition mediates its symbolic background radiation, commenting on the significant historical impacts, and imprinting new and layered connotations atop literal meaning.
‘Hound Dog’, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (1952), is lyrically simplistic: six lines of extended metaphor repeated over three minutes, admonishing a selfish and unproductive lover. The repetition and power of Thornton’s voice emphasise and intensifies the double meaning––the hound dog takes, offering no reciprocity, only cries of grievances mirrored within the singer. It is admonition with no proposed action, singularly pointing to the facts of the matter: this is how it is. In Gale’s video, Thornton maintains a forefronted presence. However, when the powerful voice of a black woman calling out a ‘taker’ drowns the ruckus of the absurdly harrowing violence exchanged between white men in a white room, the ageing wooden slats release the absorbed sound waves rather than a produced recording. ‘Takers’ demonstrates how objective history, if even possible, is given its voice. Written by Reuben Merringer.