Fail again, fail better - Heaven's Gate comes to Carlow
One artist’s interest in failure led him to rebuild the roller skating rink scene from a box-office flop – and challenge visitors to experience art in a different way
MICHAEL CIMINO’S Heaven’s Gate is notorious as the film that broke United Artists, the studio that financed it.
Flushed with the runaway success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino lost all sense of proportion and his production, as detailed in Steven Bach’s book Final Cut, ran massively over budget and over schedule. Cimino himself was portrayed as a vainglorious megalomaniac and his epic, released in 1980, bombed at the box office.
The very title Heaven’s Gate is virtually a synonym for gigantic flop, and to take such a failure as a starting point for an art project seems slightly perverse. That is exactly what Brian Duggan does, however, with Everything Can Be Done, In Principle, a formidable, participatory installation that is a centrepiece of the Éigse Carlow Arts Festival at the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art.
In fact, Duggan explains with a rueful smile: “The notion of failure has always been there in my work. I’m interested in the idea of grand failure, of a complete mismatch between aspiration and achievement. A lot of the performative pieces I’ve made have been about people trying to do something and failing . . . failing, well, ridiculously. There’s an element of slapstick to it, of putting yourself in the position of making a fool of yourself.”
Heaven’s Gate is a fictionalised account of the Johnson County War, which took place in an area of Wyoming in 1892. Incoming European settlers and small ranchers were pitted against the established big ranchers who grazed their vast cattle herds on land that was, theoretically, in the public domain. The big ranchers hired gunmen to tackle “rustlers” and after several deaths there was a stand-off between the gunmen and a local sheriff’s posse.
The events have been viewed as a straightforward class struggle, as a clash between corporate and individual interests, and even as crystallising a transitory moment in agricultural strategy, relating to land management and ownership.
One of the hubs in the film is the town’s roller-skating rink. Oddly enough, Duggan notes, although it may seem unlikely, this is historically accurate. In the film, the rink where everyone – be they settlers, ranchers or lawmen – skates in a spirit of playful communion around a centrally positioned stove, is a neutral, social space. He liked the idea of that social space.