Archive: Issue No. 54, Februray 2002

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William Scarbrough

William Scarbrough

William Scarbrough

William Scarbrough

William Scarbrough

William Scarbrough
'The Trials of Dr Kawalski', 2001
Installation view

William Scarbrough: 'The Trials of Dr Kawalski' at The | Premises
by Sean O'Toole

"For the next 50 years," wrote Don DeLillo in the December issue of Harpers following the September 11 attack on New York, "people who were not in the area when the attacks occurred will claim to have been there. In time, some of them will believe it. Others will claim to have lost friends or relatives, although they did not." This "counternarrative", says the acutely perceptive US writer, contains "a shadow history of false memories and imagined loss". These words perfectly describe the mental terrain explored by William Scarbrough's "information installation", 'The Trials of Dr Kawalski'.

A multi-genre installation composed of interview recordings, digital prints and an interactive wall projection, 'The Trials of Dr Kawalski' seeks to chronicle the life of one Dr Jason Kawalski, medical researcher and murderer. It presents a factually exhaustive document on an ostensibly noble man with terrible secrets, and unfolds as a noir PBS documentary, if you would.

Take up a headphone, and you will hear audio recordings of interviews with key figures linking Dr Kawalski to the murder of a young girl named Tina Lubrano. The digital prints similarly lend authenticity to Dr Kawlaski's claim to being there, from his youth in Bolivia to his old age in Vermont. The audio stations and digital prints, however, only serve a secondary function, acting as support documents to the heft of the interactive presentation.

The blank narrative monotone of Dr Regina Garcia, an historian involved in researching Dr Kawalski, guides the viewer through the linear trajectory of the doctor's life. Her monologue is framed by an officious looking interface not that dissimilar to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's financial television channel. The overall aesthetic of the interactive projection conspires against doubt. The slick media vernacular oozes professionalism, a purposefulness whose only interest is the facts.

In presenting only the facts, Scarbrough populates this biographical portrait with disparate fragments from America's 20th century. President Franklin Roosevelt. The mast to the New England Journal of Medicine. A black and white head-shot of the infamous US defence lawyer, F Lee Bailey. Even discredited President Richard Nixon gets a mention. As does George W Merck, of Merck Pharmaceuticals. The truth is incontrovertible. Dr Kawalski worked at the Mary Fletcher Hospital in Vermont, and we are briefly shown a photograph of the hospital's invincible architectural façade.

Viewed simply as a bogus multimedia narrative constructed around the fictional figure of a disreputable doctor whose insidious medical ethics killed a young girl, and may also have been responsible for engineering the AIDS virus, this is compelling stuff. Yet this work offers more than a mere chuckle. As with the achievements of the Apartheid Museum down the road, Scarbrough's work is intriguing because it is a composite of fragments, a splinter of narratives, that firmly inserts the individual into the continuum of history's grand chronology of dates.

There is, however, one key difference that distinguishes Scarbrough's surreptitious tomfoolery from the stern record at Solly Krok's Apartheid Museum: authenticity. Ernest Cole, the photographer whose works at the Apartheid Museum take us on a journey through a period of insidious social Darwinism and misery, was a real person. Dr Kawalski isn't. Dr Kawalski is a fictional being, a fake narrative insinuated into the haze of history and memory.

Does this mean that his story is any less poignant, any less revealing of a stretch of US history defined by its misaligned social idealism? It is a difficult question, one that in the context of this review is circuitously answered.

DeLillo writes: "The internet is a counternarrative, shaped in part by rumour, fantasy and mystical reverberation." The internet, both as conduit and platform, has become a mecca for transactional exchange. In his work 'Prosthetic' (1999), Scarbrough trawled through this murky underworld, crafting a fake narrative founded upon the boring, everyday stuff that clogs the internet, things like photographs of holidays, graduations, houses, cars and family siblings.

In many ways 'The Trials of Dr Kawalski' extends the artist's initial inquiry. Using as artistic tools the very mechanisms of our information society, Scarbrough probes the truth imperative. Truth is, however, a strange ideal. In the swift passage of one decade, South Africa has learnt this, having had to confront the multi-racial, Babel-tongued facets of the word.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so poignantly demonstrated, fragmentary narratives fill in the blanks of a troubled history. And as the Apartheid Museum makes manifest today, it is also a collection of horrible fetid little things that authenticate history. Things, objects - they serve as the links to veracity. Like the objects that rained out of the twin towers of commerce; raindrops composed of paper - status reports, résumés, insurance forms. As DeLillo observes, we need these things. The hangman's noose and the mellow-yellow Casspir that sit idly reminiscent of a dark past out in Gold Reef City.

But does Scarbrough's use of factual events, things and people necessarily redeem the sham that is Dr Kawalski - that bloated factual impostor? In a way, yes. His story offers a momentary view of history unbound from the strictures of chronology. 'The Trials of Dr Kawalski' does not simply satirise the medium, something of a stock view of Scarbrough's elaborate hoax. It also offers a compelling view of history awkwardly colliding with the narrative of the individual. As an artistic product, and taking liberal license with DeLillo's essay, we need such devices, so that we can set them against that massive spectacle that continues to seem unmanageable. History. South African history.

Sometimes, as DeLillo asserts, the past can be too powerful a thing to set into our frame of practised responses. This, in my view, might explain why such art offers a very valuable clue to reclaiming the sincerity of humble everyday narratives from the aloof truth of history.

Until January 31

The | Premises, Johannesburg Civic Theatre, off Loveday Street, Braamfontein
Tel: (011) 403 3408 ext 184 (Boy Bangala)
Hours: Mon 10am - 6pm, Tues - Sat 12pm - 8pm