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Plural Selves

and the Art of David Rosetzky by Anne Marsh


In a time of cultural anxiety, David Rosetzky creates entrusted spaces by establishing relationships between himself and others, initiated through conversations he has with the people who appear in his works. He does this with a professional eye that speaks to art history and concepts such as modernism/post-modernism, gender difference and performativity while maintaining a minimal aesthetic that is inclusive and multi-dimensional, often involving collaborations with other artists and professionals. A Rosetzky performance, video, installation work might include dancers, choreographers, dramaturges, designers and actors, as well as people who have no experience in the arts at all.

  • Category
    modernism/post-modernism, performativity
  • Published In
    Air To Atmosphere, Sontag Press, 2023.
  • Year

Plural Selves

David Rosetzky came of age as an artist in the mid-1990s, when he was instrumental in establishing 1st Floor, an independent artist-run initiative for experimental artists and writers. Although Rosetzky is best known for his work in lens-based media, at art school he trained as a painter and this influence is apparent in his cinematography. There is an avant-garde experimentalism throughout the artist’s work as he pushes the medium, form and history of each expressive platform he utilises. This is apparent in the making and the editing process, which carefully create a fluidity and tension between forms that are reflective of the themes in the work.

The Desiring Subject and the Signifier of Desire

In his early works, David Rosetzky looked closely at documentary, reality TV, fashion and advertising to analyse how these platforms construct images of self and other. The talking head of reality and confessional TV recurs as subjects face the viewer to tell intimate stories about their own lives and experiences. These video, photographic and sculptural installations present a seductive critique of the psychological relationship between power and desire in an attempt to uncover the complexities of identity and subjectivity.

In these works, attractive young people ponder their existence and their failure to connect with each other. Justine (2000) is one of the fifirst collaborative works in which the artist recorded a conversation with the subject based on themes he wanted to explore. 1 The video focuses on the anxieties of a young woman who cannot know herself because she is so tied up with other peoples’ image of her, as monitored through commercial culture. She says: ‘In my spare time I get stressed out ... I feel like I have to create my whole lifestyle. Like, does my music match my mood, my décor, my hair?’ Trapped in this teen pop psychology, Justine disconnects from who she is. The signififiers of desire presented through consumer lifestyle infifiltrate her psyche and become her desire. In Lacanian terms, the human subject strives toward the desire of the other, and wants to be the other’s desire. 2

In the video work Hothouse (2001), beautiful men and women in designer swimsuits look directly at the camera and describe their romantic relationships. Each subject’s body is trapped in an especially-designed enclosure that has holes 

in it to allow others to penetrate the space and caress the body. The touchers are anonymous and unseen. The camera slowly pans the flesh of each body. The soundtrack is a mix of erotic porno-disco. Hothouse was on display in a window that faced onto Centennial Park in Sydney, which is a known beat for gay men seeking anonymous sex with strangers in the middle of the night. This is a bold work and one that neatly explodes the boundaries between art and life, confession and sex, while creating an edgy analysis on the failure of relationships in a material world where lifestyle magazines determine experience for so many people.

Custom Made (2000) and Maniac de Luxe (2004) are described by Rosetzky as immersive installations. Both works, installed in a gallery setting, present the viewer with a mirror image of the set in which the video characters perform; in this way the viewer cannot escape their own complicity in the psychological scenes being enacted. In Custom Made, we sit in the same alcove seats that the video subjects inhabit; we hear their confessions while occupying their place. In Maniac de Luxe, we sit in a designer retail space and watch the video characters on screen in a duplicate space. The meeting of video and sculptural installation in these works acts to blur the distinction between the viewer and the screen, suggesting that we are all infected by a consumerist malaise that increasingly infifiltrates our sense of self and subjecthood.

Performative Selves and Video Collaboration

Rosetzky’s work shares common aspects with earlier avant-garde artists who worked together and/or in collaboration to stress the importance of the ordinary and everyday. 3 This is done to undermine the concept of a single authorial voice, and to underline the position of the self as split, plural and performative. What emerges in the work, through stories told about self and situations, are the multiple voices of memory and the sub-conscious. The works look almost simple, until we slow down to think about what is happening.

You seem to have a lot of people telling you who you are, so I’ve actually thought less and less about who I actually am and I’ve been content to let people say, you know, at one point: strident or opinionated, or fragile or needy, or whatever you happen to be on the particular day you meet someone ... because who I am is constantly shifting.

Cate Blanchett in Portrait of Cate Blanchett (2008)

In Rosetzky’s video portrait of the famous actress, Cate Blanchett speaks her own internal dialogues. In one of the fifinal images, she speaks over an image of herself laying on the floor of the studio where the work has been created. Her body is vulnerable, open to the camera and to our gaze. This moment epitomises a tenderness of self, while acknowledging its multifarious and performative nature. The camera caresses this image as if it were hovering across a painting. Cate’s relations with herself and who she is mirror our own, as the 

artist explores the internal dialogues that haunt our relations with ourselves and others. When Blanchett says, ‘you seem to have a lot of people telling you who you are ... who I am is constantly shifting,’ she could be another voice in another Rosetzky video or performance, revealing the artist’s ongoing preoccupations.

In much of his performance and video art, Rosetzky does not name or flesh out his characters. They speak to camera, live in performance and/or in voice overs. They speak for each other as well as themselves, and we are hard pressed to determine who the actual person is doing the speaking. In many ways, these nameless people can be anyone and everyone, allowing us to see ourselves in these dialogues. Rosetzky has said that he is influenced by avant-garde modernist writer Nathalie Sarraute, who was a champion of the Nouveau Roman (French ‘new novel’) in the mid-twentieth century. 4 Sarraute is famous for exploring the everyday, the internal dialogues that haunt the self and all its differences and neuroses. She pays homage to Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust and others and was admired by Roland Barthes. 5 She famously rejected conventional Freudian/ Lacanian psychoanalysis because, in her words, ‘the psychoanalysts always fifind the same thing of everyone’ 6 Of her work, Ann Jefferson wrote that ‘questions of sameness and difference are inextricably associated with anxiety in Sarraute,’ and we see this in Rosetzky’s work as well, where the viewer is drawn into internal dialogues so as to present a complex psyche. 7

David Rosetzky’s video works are usually conversational but the voice overs, spoken by the actors, operate on another level – one that both objectififies the other and injects an intimacy, as we come to understand that the voice of the other offscreen is often the narrative that the actors (who have contributed the script) have spoken or will speak. In other words, the actors speak for themselves and assume the selves of the other actors. There’s a paradoxical relationship between languages thought and spoken, as a plural self emerges.

Often the narrative sequences remind me of the embarrassing yet revealing moments in therapy – the diffifficulties in talking honestly about thoughts, fantasies, feelings, and the resistances that emerge. These are reflected in the videos through the language of psychoanalysis, the wellness industry and self-help books. Think of Yourself as Plural (2008) starts as a classic reference to modernism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, with a woman standing before a mirror selecting CDs to play. 8 Who will she be today? In the following narrative, the camera pans slowly to a young woman lying on the floor of a studio reading copies of Hello, Flash Art and other popular magazines. A female voice starts to ask questions over a digital sci-fifi soundtrack, each sentence punctuated with a cool game show ‘ding!’

What is the threshold of going too far? How do you feel about compromise? Do you admire certainty? Are you fully confifident that you can achieve what you want to achieve? Do you fear being weak, not getting your own way, exerting your will? Do you think you stay the same or do you improve? Do you fifind yourself wanting to say, ‘Am I invisible?’ Do you have a fear of being destructive in relationships? Do you fade into the background? When you feel there is an expectation, when you don’t  need to fifit into that construct ... When you don’t like the idea of being needy and you wouldn’t want to be thought of as anything less than perfect, think about it, then you can think about what is important and shift the approach ... Have a bit of a reassessment about what your desires are, what your goals are and devise a bit of a plan ... You need to develop a strategy ... 9

We might ask: who is speaking here? A parent or a patriarch, a new age therapist, a psychologist, a journalist with a wellness column or TV quiz show host? It is certainly the voice of the other. But as we continue watching, the actors in the video start to repeat or reference the same phrases as they speak about themselves to each other. They slip and slide through gender narratives, each speaking the other.

In How to Feel (2012), these intensities of self-talk are punctuated with dance sequences exploring the same issues. Dance features in many of Rosetzky’s works and it serves to remind us that we are bodily creatures, not just minds. It shows how the body performs the self, how it replicates wounds, holds onto memory, allows instinctual expressions. Dance also allows the artist to slow concepts down so the viewer can absorb the ideas more fluidly. Rosetzky utilises the repetition of dance sequences in much the same way as he replicates the dialogues within each work, insisting that the viewer slows down, sees it again from a different perspective. The focus is often on conflating gender positions – each seeing, thinking, the other’s sensitivity or perspective. The violent sexual fantasy spoken by both masculine and feminine voices in How to Feel underlines this. In the fifinal conversation sequence a woman speaks the fantasy of revenge or retribution, saying to her male friend:

I have a fantasy of a sexual assault. Like that terrible feeling when you witness something that’s going on that’s completely out of line and then the powerlessness of the situation ... But I have this fantasy that I’m riding my bike past a park. If I’m riding home at night past a park, I think, ‘What happens if I see that now?’ This is what I’ll do. And I get off my bike and sometimes I call the police and sometimes I don’t. And I creep up behind where it’s going on and I fifind something like a rock or a branch or something and in my fantasy there’s two or three guys doing whatever they’re doing and they don’t see me coming and I whack the fifirst guy as hard as I can and I feel the quality of what that’s like coming down on his head and he’s out of it and the other guys turn around and I just whack them and beat them off and it’s not even about her it’s about this feeling that comes up and I go, ‘I’m going to fuck you up now’ ... It’s horrible, it’s horrible but it’s like, it’s a fantasy.

There is a tension in Rosetzky’s work between the superfificial surface, the desire for truth and the persistence of the unconscious, or what Nathalie Sarraute called sub-conversations. 10 A quest for ‘authenticity’ recurs but the characters in Rosetzky’s work are not as essential as what they represent – the yearning, experiencing, feeling subject, forever reflecting, chewing over and throwing up ‘themselves’ in carefully choreographed scenes that repeat endlessly. 11

In this process of unbecoming, the concept of the individual-centred self that powers fantasies of individuality, patriarchy, colony and empire is undone and the unconscious fantasies that prop up these constructs can be revealed. For Sarraute, ‘all our remembrances ... are “screens” ... in the sense that they “ serve as a screen” to “traces” they both conceal and contain at one and the same time.’ 12 This is also true of Rosetzky, who often constructs a dialogue in which different voices appear to share a common memory or subjectivity. Writing about Saurrate’s autobiography Childhood (1983), where she uses two narrating voices, Claire Boyle explains: ‘the impression we gain is not of a self that is split, which implies loss, the breaking of something which was whole. Instead, we fifind a self that is plural, and is more than a sum of its parts.’ 13

Plural Selves: Biography, Autobiography, Documentary

Half Brother (2013) and Composite Acts (2019–21) are concerned with more immediate and intimate relations for the artist and his collaborators. In both works we see an exploration of the plurality of memory and the emotions that attach to these memories after the deaths of signifificant others. In my mind, these works create the conceptual avenues that provide a path into Rosetzky’s recent video works, where real people tell their stories.

After the passing of his father, Rosetzky spent considerable time going through his personal effects and graphic design work. From this experience he created Half Brother, one of his most autobiographical works and an homage to his father, who is remembered through his creative process. Here, the son both mourns his father’s passing and enshrines his memory. There are no voice overs as a small troupe of male dancers interact with one another and the materials Rosetzky’s father used to create his work. Silently, the dancers move original artworks, samples and leftover art materials around the performance space. Pushing and sliding paper and cardboard artefacts across the floor, they are creating relations between these objects and themselves. Everything is expressed through the abstraction of information, and the emotion that the dancers bring.

Composite Acts also references the death of intimate others, but this time there are several voices exploring remembrances. The work was originally inspired by a story that choreographer Jo Lloyd, one of the collaborators, told Rosetzky about a beloved coat that her mother had left her. The coat plays a central role in the performance, as the dancers take turns at wearing a sculpturally constructed facsimile of the garment. The passing of both a mother/aunt and a father/uncle are commemorated in this work, which tells a compelling story about childhood memory from different perspectives. There are moments of joy and sorrow here as we are introduced to the ways in which memory is affective, like a sticky psychological substance that attaches to feeling. 14 Eakins says that ‘memory itself ... is plural.’ 15 This psycho-dramatic understanding of memory undermines our search for truth, as each remembrance is interpreted differently by the subjects who experienced the events. Composite Acts is a sensitive exploration of how this plays out in families. In these works, participants approach the real as they reflect together to create a polyvariant experience of memory. Interviewed about Composite Acts, along with the actor/dancer participants, Rosetzky spoke about ethics and the real, saying:

... there is this ongoing checking-in with the participants that I feel needs to occur to ensure that they are comfortable with what material is being used and how it is used, and also how it is described after the work is made. There’s a responsibility that comes with working in this way – one that I don’t take lightly – because one has to respect people’s privacy and what they want known, or not known. And also respect that to contribute to an art project in this way is hugely generous – it’s an act of generosity and belief in the process. 16

This ethical approach is apparent in Rosetzky’s most recent works, where he collaborates with members of the LGBTQIA+ community to create video and photographic portraits (Being Ourselves, 2020, Monash Gallery of Art and Air to Atmosphere, 2023, Castlemaine Art Museum). Now we encounter subjects in their ‘real’ lives talking about their coming out stories, relationships with family, community and culture. In these works, there is a warmth and tenderness between the artist and those being interviewed that allows the true diversity of the human psyche to become present. Here, the plural self represents what it is to be human, a trope that resonates throughout David Rosetzky’s practice.

– Anne Marsh

1. David Rosetzky, ‘In Conversation’ in David Rosetzky Composite Acts, Sonntag Press, Fitzroy North, 2021, p.130.

2. See: Jacques Lacan, ‘Sexuality in the Defiles of the Signifier’ in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, Penguin, Middlesex, 1979, p.54.

3. Brigid Moriarty makes reference to Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg in relation to Rosetzky’s work – see: David Rosetzky, ‘In Conversation’, p. 131. I would also include Phillip Glass, Robert Wilson and dancer/ choreographer Pina Bausch, for whom speaking to the other and presenting a multifarious self is paramount. Moriarty also cites our own living avant-garde in the experimental works of Shelley Lasica, Jo Lloyd, Stephanie Lake and Lucy Guerin.

4. David Rosetzky, ‘True Self: David Rosetzky in Conversation with Naomi Cass and Kyla McFarlane’, True Self: David Rosetzky Selected Works, exh. cat., Centre for Contemporary Photography and NETS Victoria, 2013, p.7.

5. Ann Jefferson, Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp.1-8.

6. Anne Halicks, ‘A Conversation with Nathalie Sarraute,’ Artful Dodge Magazine, Ohio, 1980, n.p.

7. Ann Jefferson, Nathalie Sarraute, p.1.

8. Jacques Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I’ in Écrits A Selection, Norton & Company, New York and London:, 1977, pp.1-7. Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) and Jeff Wall, Picture for Women (1979) all oscillate around similar positions on the gaze, identity and sexuality.

9. This section of the script was co-authored with the late writer, dramaturge and poet Margaret Cameron, who was the dramaturge on this work.

10. See: Nathalie Sarraute, ‘Conversation and Subconversation’ in The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel, trans. Maria Jolas, Braziller, New York, 1963, pp.79-80.

11. Rosetzky calls the ‘characters’ that are presented in the works ‘fictions’ because what they say is a result of a long process of script collaboration that emerges from conversations with his subjects. These are then edited by the artist to produce ‘fictional’ characters. See David Rosetzky, ‘In Conversation’ in David Rosetzky Composite Acts, p.134. In his later documentary works, the approach is different and concentrates on the integrity of the individual stories being told; these people are real not fictions.

12. Marc Augé, Oblivion, trans. Marjolijn de Jager, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p.23.

13. Claire Boyle, Consuming Autobiographies: Reading and Writing the Self in Post-War France, Legenda, London, 2007, p.37, as cited in David Lewkowich, ‘The Slippery Simultaneities of Remembering and Forgetting: Memory, Autobiographical Narrative, and the Case of Nathalie Sarraute’s Enfance,’ Auto/Biography Studies, 31:2, 2016, p.342. Childhood was published in French as Enfance.

14. See: David Lewkowich, ‘The Slippery Simultaneities of Remembering and Forgetting,’ pp.337-42.

15. Paul Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1999, p.107.

16. David Rosetzky, ‘In Conversation,’ p.134.
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