Exhibition review: We Invented Halloween, Michael Fortune, PEER Gallery London

We Invented Halloween is an oddly compelling exhibition, celebrating everyday people and places. Characteristic of Michael Fortune’s idiosyncratic approach to documentary video, it’s a deadpan display of the ordinary. Without comment or romanticisation, a selection of single- and multi-channel videoworks show us banal scenes from everyday life – from a family unpacking their weekly shop to cars at a junction in Co.Wexford.

Filmed with a hand-held (and occasionally shaky) video camera, or from a fixed viewpoint, Fortune’s films are remarkably unpretentious. Modest, mildly emotive, they offer a series of snapshots into Irish life with little by way of explanation. The only ostensible framework – as seen in works such as Hunter Gatherer – is a sincere fascination with life at it actually is.

We Invented Halloween, Michael Fortune, installation view. Photo: Chris Dorley-Brown

At times unashamedly boring, Fortune’s work is difficult to conceptualise. Hunter Gatherer is a case in point, as it seems to provoke frustration. Without any apparent agenda, Fortune positions the most routine domestic activity – unpacking the weekly shop – in the charged confines of a contemporary art gallery. Literally put on a pedestal, the work incites a bemused kind of boredom, quickly replaced by impatience. Why the f*@k, you might ask, is this video here? And what the hell is the artist trying to say?

Those familiar with Fortune will be aware of his work as an Irish community artist. With a focus on local engagement, his work is often created through a process of social collaboration. At PEER, however, his videoworks are detached from their original locality. Shown for the first time outside of Ireland, works such as Hunter Gatherer can be read as fragments of an ongoing project – to seek art in the random arrangements of everyday life.

At PEER, Hunter Gatherer is situated among a myriad of ordinary situations. In Terminal Communication, for example, the artist presents a bird’s eye view of a dysfunctional road layout in Wexford. The impulsive reactions of drivers – hazardous swerves, confused manoeuvres and farcical last-minute U-turns – are accompanied by a soundtrack of kitsch accordion music. In this context, Fortune’s work takes on a slapstick quality, imbuing reality with an air of absurdity. The artist doesn’t over-edit or embellish his work – as Sarah Tuck explains, Fortune’s videos can be seen as “a document of the carnivalesque of the everyday”.

Still from Terminal Communication, Michael Fortune

In videos such as Terminal Communication or Bingo, Fortune’s use of a fixed camera angle allows him to work with a minimum of intervention. Shaped by a process of looking, of searching for moments of intrigue, the everyday rhythms of people become a readymade artistic medium. In Bingo, Fortune observes a group of bingo players who, in response to the government-imposed smoking ban, have transformed a car park into an outdoor bingo hall. Viewed from behind in the early evening light, we see a collection of cars and the occasional billow of smoke. Interspersed with faint murmurs of activity and conversation, the cries of the bingo caller echo loudly across the scene, creating an artwork that’s both surreal and utterly banal.

In other works, such as We Invented Halloween, Fortune’s use of a hand-held video camera breeds a sense of spontaneity and informality. This five-screen video work, which follows the artist’s mother on her annual trick-or-treat outing to his grandmother’s house, is little more than a process of documentation. Full of aural and visual imperfections – like the incessant rustling made by cheap Halloween costumes – this is an awkward, yet honest, portrayal of a peculiar family tradition.

Less about aesthetic quality and more about the act of perception, Fortune elevates everyday life into the realm of art. In turn, he encourages a more contemplative or inquisitive appreciation of what normality actually is. In this sense, we can draw parallels between Fortune’s work and the idea of reality television, where observation is often bound up with a desire to find meaning in other people’s lives.

As if watching the world from a distance, Fortune offers us a series of films where the banal and the downright boring are approached with the same fascination as the unique or the extraordinary. There’s no spectacle here, no escapist desire – Fortune invites us to appreciate life in all its glorious shades of grey. We Invented Halloween is one of the oddest exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time, proving that reality is often as strange, as interesting, as anything we see in an art gallery.

We Invented Halloween 
Artist: Michael Fortune
Details: PEER Gallery, London, 9 February–2 April 2011
First published: CIRCA Art Magazine, April 2011. View the published article here