‘Other & Father,” Mariah Garnett’s exhibition at Ltd Los Angeles, couldn’t really have a richer premise. It would have all the makings of a self-searching, made-for-TV documentary, were Garnett simply more interested in narrative than in odd juxtapositions and contradictions.
In making this body of work, which is showing concurrently at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast, Garnett sought out her long-estranged father in Belgium, and then located the 1971 BBC documentary that features him and contributed to his exodus from Northern Ireland later in the ’70s. She traveled to Belfast and dressed herself up so that she approximated a 19-year-old version of her dad, red-haired mullet and all, and then filmed herself as him.
With this film, L.A.-based Garnett employs an approach similar to that of a past project. When she made Encounters I May or May Not Have Had with Peter Berlin in 2010, she filmed herself dancing and gyrating under a disco ball, dressed like porn star Peter Berlin (i.e., barely dressed at all). Later, she tracked down Berlin and showed him the video, filming him as he watched her performance. He couldn’t get over how like him she seemed; he spoke to her as if she were his protégé. In watching Garnett with her father, one assumes that the stakes must be higher and more intimate, even though she doesn’t betray more emotion on-screen here than she does in her previous work.
The show’s centerpiece, a two-channel film installation, pairs footage from the BBC documentary with Garnett’s reenactment. David, Garnett’s father, was dating a brunette electrician’s daughter named Moira when the BBC asked to feature him in a documentary about The Troubles. He was Catholic, she Protestant, and sectarianism was at its height in Belfast. In the documentary, the BBC producers want to discuss interfaith marriage. They don’t seem to mind that Moira and David do not actually plan to marry. The producers can imply marriage plans through voice-overs and strategic editing, and they do so skillfully. Moira and David walk past brick buildings on blustery days as a deep voice describes their lives as hovering on the brink of change.
At Ltd, the original BBC footage plays on the westernmost wall. The opposite wall shows Garnett and her Moira, played by Irish trans actress Robyn Reihill, doing exactly what the original couple do. (“I wanted a similar gender thing to be happening with that character, but I wanted it to be earnest,” Garnett said in a recent BOMB magazine interview, about casting Reihill). They go dancing and sit for interviews, lip-synching while nodding at an imaginary interviewer. They seem more mature and aware than do the original couple.
The second video in the show, single-channel and playing on a monitor propped up on a bright orange pedestal, shows Garnett’s father seeing the documentary for the first time. “None of that is true!” says the father, now older, larger, and grayer. He sits in front of a desktop Mac. When the film was made, David and Moira had been assured the documentary would air only in England. They realized they’d been lied to the day after it appeared—someone on a bus recognized David from television.
In her video, Garnett seems to have set up the camera on a tripod, and she sits next to her father as he watches the film, responding to his reactions with quiet interest. He recalls how the interviewer would interrupt him whenever he began to talk politics, and he shakes his head at the twisted narrative. He never planned to marry Moira. He wasn’t consumed with inner turmoil over wedding plans. Also, the woman the narrator identifies as his aunt—the woman who insists interfaith marriage is doomed—wasn’t related to him at all. As he watches, he doesn’t seem angry, however; he’s more bemused.
Garnett avoids editorializing in her films. She is neutral, understanding, and genuine on-screen—a good mimic when she’s inhabiting her dad’s poses and mannerisms and a good listener when she’s showing him the BBC footage.
If the exhibition only consisted of these films, it would be a smartly edited, surprisingly minimal meditation on closeness and misinformation. But behind the single-channel video, Garnett also installed a series of simple black wall texts sourced from the diary she kept when filming her father. She is having odd dreams, one in which her dog runs away and then the world ends. Her father is unsure about being filmed. She’s often out of batteries when he starts recollecting. Then he’s acting manic and anxious, asking what it was like for her to grow up fatherless, and telling her that her “work is exhausting.” After reading these, the show becomes not better, or more poignant, but different: heavy, confusing, and self-exposing. One agrees with Garnett’s father. This work must have been exhausting.