'80s video explores the blend of sounds and the spirit
Within the first 10 minutes or so of 'Rock My Religion,' Dan Graham's critically acclaimed 1984 video, the conceptual artist rolls out a vast and seemingly disparate array of topics: the sexual equality (and sexual abstinence) of the Shaker religious sect, Patti Smith, mosh pit frenzies, dance as religious ecstasy, the Puritans, Sonic Youth.
Then, a few more minutes into the 55-minute film, we are introduced to the Sioux Ghost Dance, surf rockers the Meteors and Elvis Presley.
Graham's method of melding these subjects isn't any less multifarious: He stitches together a hodge-podge of grainy black-and-white as well as color footage, still images, historic drawings and scrolling frames of text in crude and fuzzy block letters. What little voice-over there is sounds scratchy.
But don't let the mash-up of concepts and the rough presentation fool you.
'Rock My Religion ' -which screens for free tonight at 7 at the Blanton Museum of Art - is a cogent essay on the undeniable links between rock music and religion in contemporary American culture.
Since the mid-1960s, the New York-based self-educated Graham has carved out a singular artistic path that has included photographs, video, sculpture and yes, rock criticism and other critical writing. Driving his creative output is a profound curiosity about the American culture and current events immediately surrounding him.
Though 'Rock My Religion' is now more than a quarter-century old, the film reads absolutely au courant.
Graham starts his multimedia think piece by taking a look at the Shakers, the early American religious sect that practiced DIY simple and independent living as well as self-denial (chiefly, they were sexually abstinent). And yet the Shakers nevertheless expressed their faith in weekly circle dance, an often frenzied affair in which participants reeled and thrashed and screamed, believing they were casting off the devil.
Cut to some scratchy footage of a frenzied mosh pit. Then switch to a few minutes of a 20th-century religious revival with believers packed together, gyrating and speaking in tongues. Next is some footage of Jerry Lee Lewis in live performance - his exploding frenzy of movement clearly little different from the revivalists. (Lewis' brother was a preacher, we are told.)
Yet with only minor narration, Graham's intellectual thesis is developed visually, free of any didacticism. Instead, the ideological codes and social-historical contexts of rock's development flash by in segments of found footage linked with brief exposition. 'Rock My Religion' is elliptical.
That leaves the resolution of Graham's thesis somewhat open-ended. After all, the rock 'n' roll youth subculture didn't abide by the violence-free, sexually abstinent dictums of the Shakers. But an ecstatic devotional frenzy? Yeah, that part followers of religion and rock 'n' roll do share.
Graham's gently presented yet compelling collage leads us to Patti Smith, whose creative output - her music and her poetry - explicitly declare rock to be a form of religion.
'My belief in rock 'n' roll gave me a kind of a strength that other religions couldn't come close to,' we hear Smith say.
Yeah. As Graham suggests in his grainy filmic elegy: All hail rock 'n' roll.
'Rock My Religion'
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 20
Where: Blanton Museum auditorium, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Avenue.