|Matthias Muller and Christoph |
Girardet’s Play (2003)
Each time, though the dialogue remains the same, key changes are made to the characters’ gender and nationality. The repetitions become involutions, turning over the cinematic building blocks of character, performance and mise-en-scène, holding them up for us to inspect and reflect on how these different aesthetic choices construct our experience of a film.
Hit is emblematic of what Anne Demy-Geroe described as “the intimacy of the relationship between ‘cinema’ and ‘art’.” In her elegant opening address to the audience at the opening of Artists vs Hollywood, the director of the Brisbane International Film Festival noted that a Brisbanite in mid-winter is a rather spoilt spectator: there’s the opportunity to experience the latest video art, as showcased by Artists vs Hollywood, and then follow it with the special Film as Art program and a host of other offerings at the Festival. From all this activity, according to Demy-Geroe, whether it’s called artists’ film and video, or film by artists, or avant-garde cinema, it is evident that this kind of creative work has a home in both the gallery and the theatrical setting.
Nonetheless, Demy-Geroe couldn’t help being struck by the “sense of oppositionality” in the exhibition’s “delightfully combative” title. She located the show’s ‘versus’ in the staging of the battle between concurrent but antagonistic forces: a tension between engaging with the cinema as a critical subject and revelling in its guilty pleasures; between the very different processes of appropriation and approximation; between the endeavours of fine art and the ubiquitous presence of screens in our lives. The very naturalisation of the ever-present moving image, it seems, is what has attracted so many moving image artists to critique it. Croft does this—in Hit and in another work in the show, The Death Waltz (2008)—by making what are properly ‘meta-movies’—scripted, directed, acted, filmed and edited like other films, but with commentary on and exposure of the process, rather than the seduction of the spectator, the main game. Croft commits to the classically avant-garde gestures of detournment—using the film industry’s formal language turned back on itself—to expose the artifice and manipulation inherent in this most pervasive of products.
With its racy storyline and quick-and-dirty dialogue, though, Hit is dangerously seductive—at least before the story repeats in a new permutation. In a 2004 review of this work, Martin Herbert declared this makes the film like “a confidence trick”; you “cover for yourself by saying, ‘Ha-ha, I was just kidding.’ You’ve already handed over some capital, but if you’re smart you’ll leave before losing any more.” I thought emotional capital was fully restored by The Death Waltz, an entertaining filmic version of a murder mystery parlour game, where a group of dinner guests in a grand baronial mansion present another circular storyline (this time about a pair of soldier ghosts who dance a demonic waltz). One by one, they recount the gothic story, inflecting each version with a unique point of view. The innovative multi-view technique—entirely shot by the actors using a super-8mm film camera passed around the table in a circle—means that this very contemporary critique of narrative point-of-view touches base with analytic cubism, while reflecting the ongoing resonance of early cinema’s ghouls and devilry in artists’ films.
The other major methodology employed by the artists against the Hollywood machine is not imitation, but appropriation. Found footage film is nothing new—artist Joseph Cornell famously ‘reassembled’ film fragments in the mid-1930s in a technique analogous to Surrealist ‘automatic writing’—and the genre has remained highly visible in avant-garde film since. German experimental film pioneer Matthias Muller is among the most famous proponents of this approach, and while many of his films do evoke the Surrealists’ privileging of the free-associative, unconscious mind, the works in Artists vs Hollywood have a much more conscious, directed task, which is the use of select film fragments to examine the ‘dream factory’ itself. Muller’s work Play (2003), created with Christoph Girardet, consists of shots of different audiences responding to some theatrical moment; we never see what they are watching, and instead have to work it out from their variously rapturous, unimpressed and critical expressions.
A similar use of repetition for effect structures Candice Breitz’ Soliloquy Trilogy (2000), another important work by a major artist which isolates and ‘stalks’ (in the artist’s own words) three of the most iconic stars of recent Hollywood. In Jack (Nicholson), Sharon (Stone) and Clint (Eastwood), we see the star and only the star; Breitz has removed all other characters and shots which show anything but the celebrity, editing in black screens whenever the star is not foregrounded. Decontextualising the stars from their settings, Breitz defamiliarises our experience of the movies in order to force attention on the extent to which the cinema’s representative language is dependent on community for meaning.
What is perhaps most significant about this exhibition is the use of the space at The Block, a challenging venue for group showings of moving image. Housed in a series of sensitively constructed darkened spaces whose fanned shapes funnelled attention to the screen, these mini-theatres enabled each work to be considered in excellent conditions for light and sound.
As moving image curator Chrissie Illes has argued, there are critical differences between the staging and reception of moving image work in the cinema and in the gallery; in “the closed space of cinema there is no circulation, no movement, and no exchange...in the darkness, spectators sink into their seats as though slipping into bed.” This model, Illes notes, “is broken apart by the folding of the dark space of cinema into the white cube of the gallery.” To a significant extent, the success of Artists vs Hollywood lay in its rejoining of those pieces, its recasting of the black-box-within-the-white-cube in a coherent and sensitive way. Some might see the artworks in this show as typical of video’s ‘mise en ruine’ effect on the cinema—fragmenting film into meme-sized pieces in order to recombine them in new, separate artworks. These works of “tertiary cinema” which, according to author and curator Chris Dercon, “consume the whole of cinema”, would all translate into a more traditional white-wall gallery setting, but their nuanced dialogue with Hollywood, as both their matrix and their adversary, was greatly enhanced by the atmospheric setting here. Australian-born curator Joanna Callaghan’s highly developed, thoughtful selections and brilliant presentation generated a potent art—and cinema—experience.
Just after the show drew to a close, the world lost a significant artist: Bruce Conner, whose seminal film A Movie (1952) catapaulted the found footage film to a new level of criticality and rhythmic possibility, and which finds numerous echoes in Artists vs Hollywood. As the experimental film world mourns the passing of one of its brightest stars, recurrent amongst the fond remembrances has been the issue of the model staging of that remarkable film artist’s only solo show (at MOCA—Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles—and other venues) in 2000. As the conversation shifts to matters of detail about how best to showcase the ongoing evolutions of artistic moving image, Artists vs Hollywood was a timely example of what we can—and should—expect.
RIP Bruce Conner
November 18, 1933-July 7, 2008
Artists vs Hollywood, curators: Joanna Callaghan (UK), Lubi Thomas (Australia), Courtney Coombs (Assistant Curator, Australia), QUT The Block, QUT Precinct, Brisbane, June 12-28
RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 25
© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com