The tragic heroine Ophelia—who is often portrayed as passive—received rough justice in both seventeenth-century letters and nineteenth-century oils. But Bait, artist Puck Verkade’s new video piece involving karaoke and anthropomorphism, reappropriates the Ophelia narrative, giving it a playful, unexpected twist.

 

Though Ophelia appears to die a poor victim of patriarchal oppression in the fourth act of William Shakespeare’s 400-year-old stage play Hamlet, she comes back to life to lip-synch to the disco classic Enough Is Enough in Puck Verkade’s new video work Bait. “I see all my videos as moving collages that function like mental maps, like a messed-up version of Google Maps that takes you to the wrong places in your mind,” Verkade explains.

Tell me about the genesis of Bait. It’s a heady brew of sources. One of the most instantly recognizable female archetypes, John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia lying supine in the water, makes an appearance.

While making Bait I was interested in drawing parallels between sexual violence and environmental violence, in particular the narratives of mystification and “covering up” that surround both of these problematic topics. I’ve used the formats of the confessional and karaoke, “talking heads” and anthropomorphism, to unpack conflicting perspectives; the video never gets to a conclusion really and loops infinitely when shown as a video installation.

Archetypal images become my actors as I animate them. They act as lead characters. They have the capacity to signify larger societal issues, like Ophelia, for example. Ophelia, from the Shakespeare play Hamlet, has been interpreted and adapted as a passive feminine character who appears to take her own life to claim some sort of agency. In my adaptation for Bait, Ophelia is not dead or passive: rather she lip-synchs the lyrics to the disco song Enough Is Enough, a 1979 duet between Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand which had a lot of political meaning at the time—it’s still relevant.

Then Millais’s famous painting, of which the Tate is so proud, renders her as a feminine archetype seen through the eyes of a male painter. It’s a beautiful work aesthetically, but the question arises: what do we take from it psychologically? How does the depiction of women suit the patriarchal narrative and what are the consequences? In all my video work I try to question how we tell popular stories, from what angle and why, and how that has an impact on the human condition.

Bait, by Puck Verkade, at Dürst Britt & Mayhew
Bait at Dürst Britt & Mayhew

“I like to work with stories of repetition or images that are culturally regurgitated, and then alter and chip away at them with a feminist agenda”

You like to use what’s been called in Hito Steyerl’s phrase the “poor image”. What kind of filmic reality are you aiming at?

Steyerl’s study of image circulation and the “poor image” has had a great influence on my thinking and practice, especially when I was a bit younger and worked as a documentary filmmaker. The poor image is a copy in motion, infinitely shared and altered. That idea gave me a lot to think about regarding my position as a filmmaker and it made me question how to be part of image production and of the perpetuation of their power in a way that I find constructive. Nevertheless, I’ve rarely considered a “filmic reality”. I’m not trying to evoke a cinema-like state with my work—is that what you’re getting at with that term? I see all my videos as moving collages that function like mental maps, like a messed-up version of Google Maps that takes you to the wrong places in your mind. It triggers responses both real and surreal, funny and awkward, to hopefully unhinge certain psychological patterns in the mind.

You’ve referred to editing and collaging as a form of time travel. Can you explain that?

Editing and collaging are my main tools to tell a fragmented story—more a collection of snippets if you will. I don’t use scripts or think out the entire work before I start editing. For me, editing is a way of moving through linked references, times and their representations. It feels almost archaeological, digging for past and near-future notions that can be interlinked to tackle repetitive issues of the human condition. The use of non-linear narrative can hopefully give the viewer a certain playspace to detach from experiencing real time. This is what I see as some sort of time travel: experiencing layers of time, sound, image out of sync from the regular patterns that the mind is used to making. A bit of trivia—I have synaesthesia, a neurological condition that makes links between different senses, and I think this has a lot to do with how I edit.

Bait, by Puck Verkade, at Dürst Britt & Mayhew
Bait at Dürst Britt & Mayhew

“Claiming originality in any way in a position of cultural production is ignorant, I think: all impressions and ideas come from what’s been before”

What draws you to adaptation and appropriation as modes of making work? How easy/natural is it as an artist to speak through materials that aren’t, in the first place, your own?

Claiming originality in any way in a position of cultural production is ignorant, I think: all impressions and ideas come from what’s been before. In that respect I’d say it’s neither easy nor natural. Through alteration or appropriation of existing types of material, images, footage, I can very directly deconstruct signifiers that have an actual place in the world. In that process I don’t just carelessly take anything I want because it’s available, I employ a set of rules that make it a relevant process to me. One of them is that any adaptation or appropriation has to go throughout transformation: I crop, mask out, keyframe, recolour, compose and layer until I get to a point where I feel the image has evolved severely from its original context. Somehow it gets a new agency when it’s semi-separate from its origins but will always be attached to signify its societal archetype.

I like to work with stories of repetition or images that are culturally regurgitated, and then alter and chip away at them with a feminist agenda. Not to mention: this is where I (gratefully) make use of humour and absurdity as partners in crime to make sensitive topics easier to reconsider or discuss. This is also where I get the most joy out of making work. If I can’t laugh about it myself then something’s not right. The work should move beyond my own comprehension somehow.

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