Tom Dale - Towards An Absolute (Plymouth Arts Centre Publications)
Back in early 1970s playgrounds the only toy to have was the Evel Knievel stunt-cycle. In the TV adverts (here) it all looked mighty impressive; the racing along dirt tracks, the death defying leaps, the effortless wheelies. In reality, it was something of a let down. You wound up the white handle on its red contraption and the thing whirred and whirred and then it shot forwards about 5 feet and fell over.
Like the toy Evel, the real Evel promised a lot but generally just fell over. I can remember getting very excited about his jumping over double-decker buses at Wembley Stadium in 1975 but somehow not being so surprised that it ended in an horrific crash landing. And his jet cycle leap across Snake River? Another total failure. So what? Evel was a self-styled superhero who had chosen gravity as his arch-villain. He could never win. The exquisite pointlessness of his escapades were verging on art. Even when his jumps failed spectacularly (check out the horror landing in Las Vegas here) there would be at least one moment when he was triumphant and, for such a macho dunderhead, strangely beautiful. Bike and man captured mid-air, a temporary sculpture, a brief moment before the inevitable fall. (At this point Google Yves Klein's Le Saut Dans Le Vide, as Yves plummets, a man goes by on a bike. I like to think that was Evel picking up ideas.)
The artist Tom Dale is simultaneously fascinated and appalled by Evel's grandiose gestures, hyper-patriotism and sheer idiocy. In a series of works Dale has created new ramps for fictitious stunts, ramps that twist and turn in on themselves. Ramps that seem to just point straight into the ground. Ramps that would surely have resulted in horrific injury with not even the merest possibility of success. It's almost as if Dale is daring the spirit of Evel to take them on.
Evel pervades Tom Dale's excellent new book. The ramps are reproduced, there are stills from re-cut video work where fictional-Evel and real-Evel merge, there are Knievel portraits made from shark's jaws and jump-suits, there are anecdotes illuminating the sheer preposterousness of Evel incarnate.
Dale is a witty and extremely clever artist. His work is immediate and enjoyable but wears considerable intellectual investigation. When you get it, you get it. But wait a moment. You get some more. Although represented only by a still in this book, his tremendous auto-destructive art film Shot Through in which a full drum kit is destroyed by gunfire is the most rock'n'roll piece of contemporary art I can remember seeing. At the end of the film the shattered, gun riddled drum wreckage lays spent in the grass, as if 50 years of rock history had instantly exploded out of it. Keith Moon meets The Terminator (wait a minute, isn't that a Sigue Sigue Sputnik song?).
In Towards An Absolute, the video work from which the book takes its title, Dale has edited together various stunt riders jumping off ramps and falling into darkness, riding into the abyss. But like Disney's stage-managed leaping lemmings, there is nothing glorious about their endeavour, Dale guides his suicidal ghost riders over the edge. They die for us over and over. Unlike the mythical Evel, they are never going to get back up again.
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Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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