At the Carnegie, a British artist lets Istanbulites karaoke to The Smiths. | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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At the Carnegie, a British artist lets Istanbulites karaoke to The Smiths.

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On the screen, a Turkish man, unshaven and blemished, his face long and innocent, like some kind of Byzantine skinny-Elvis, belts out his life's story to a melancholy tune. "Sing me to sleep / Sing me to sleep / I'm tired and I / want to go to bed."

Readers born between 1965 and 1978 will likely recognize these lyrics not as some translated Turkish lullaby or folk song, but as the work of England's oft-celebrated Smiths, the Manchester band whose five-year stretch atop the British pop charts in the mid-1980s signaled a sea change in Western music. More indebted to Oscar Wilde, Alan Sillitoe and Jean Cocteau than to any Beatles, Stones or Faces, flamboyant songwriter and frontman Morrissey became an icon for ostracized youths.

Now he's also the wizard behind the curtain in British artist Phil Collins' three-part video series The World Won't Listen, part two of which is displayed at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Forum 59: Phil Collins.

For these videos, Collins (himself born in 1970) created a note-for-note instrumental double of the Smiths' eponymous singles collection, and traveled to three cities noted for their volatile living conditions. In Bogotá -- over the course of several months of parties, gigs and self-publicizing -- Collins sought out Colombian youths who were then invited to sing karaoke-style versions of the songs in front of Collins' now-trusted camera. For part two, titled dünya dinlemiyor, and seen at the Carnegie, Collins did something similar in Istanbul. (Part three, yet to premiere, was finished in Jakarta, Indonesia.)

Essentially, The Smiths are about cultural claustrophobia. A nation of young Brits was raised to believe that "England expects that every man will do his duty," and yet also that its "finest hour" had already passed, plunged now into the claws of Margaret Thatcher's world, in which "there's no such thing as society." The Smiths relayed tales of alienation within the very culture which one is led to embrace -- prototypically English and yet scorning the blue-eyed machismo which seemed to define England at that time.

It's this dichotomy that Collins establishes to such effect in The World Won't Listen: An inherently British experience like The Smiths translating so perfectly to more literally claustrophobic cultural experiences such as life in a kidnapping capital, under smothering machismo, or within religious and political lockdown.

Concepts aside, The World Won't Listen succeeds on the screen because of the cathartic emotion of its participants, culled by Collins from dozens of performances to fully recreate the album, one version per song. A duo of Turkish men -- like a natural Martin and Lewis -- croon "Unloveable" purposefully out-of-tune, and an obvious Morrissey aficionado undoes his shirt and apes his hero's movements for all they're worth. Perhaps most potently, a young Turkish woman, wailing on the set-ending "Rubber Ring," seems to break down entirely -- these phrases she's learned, probably phonetically, somehow encapsulating a life's worth of entrapment.

Collins' work fits neatly into British art's recent obsession with re-enactment as pop-culture ritual -- Rod Dickinson's re-enactments of Jonestown and Waco, or Jeremy Deller's staging of a miners' strike battle -- and with the social possibilities of art-making. (Collins happily admits that these works are far more about the networking involved in creating them than the final-product videos.)

But perhaps most of all, The World Won't Listen re-establishes the "question-the-answers" ethic initiated by punk rock -- a stance forsaken by British pop culture in the '90s, with the rise of those twin spires of conformist rebellion, Oasis and Tony Blair. Collins' piece questions the state of British identity even as it affirms British cultural imperialism; questions the necessity of the "star" even as it affirms The Smiths' legendary status. And most of all, it questions the relationship between an artist and his subject, simultaneously removing both from the equation. The result may not have any meaning at all to some viewers, but to a very few, it could mean the world.

Forum 59: Phil Collins continues through July 1. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org

Her inner Morrissey: still from Phil Collins' dnya dinlemiyor
  • Her inner Morrissey: still from Phil Collins' dnya dinlemiyor

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