Re: Staging the Labyrinth
Since the 1990s, a decade dominated by dashed and bracketed exhibition titles, institutions have made a staple of exhibitions that are re-configurations, re-framings, and re-imaginings. This pattern continued at this spring’s exhibition at the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art.
Organized by curator John Zeppetelli, Re-Enactments is the second show at DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, a gallery opened in the fall of 2007. A sense of anticipation hangs around this curiously renovated historic property in the heart of Montreal’s tourist district. After the somewhat arbitrary inaugural exhibition by Mark Quinn raised gasps of dissent—because it opened with a British artist’s work in Montreal—the precise role and reception of this institution has been hotly debated. Nonetheless, DHC has already proven its ability to pull in some of today’s most prestigious artists, drawing the attention of the international circuit through past screenings of works by Matthew Barney, Douglas Gordon, and Philippe Parreno, and as sponsor of the David Altmejd exhibition in Venice, and a public talk by Whitechapel’s Iwona Blazwick.
_Re-Enactments_’ curatorial thesis proposes that artists draw from antecedent forms and histories for the development of their work, including performance, popular film, and television. The selected works march in predictable and militant cadence with the theme, one that is widely evident in contemporary cultural practice at large.
The much-praised Documenta contribution Deep Play (2007) is a video-based installation by Harun Farocki that records in minute detail the 2006 World Cup Final, when France’s Zinedine Zidane infamously head butted Italy’s Marco Materazzi. The popular leisure pursuit of football is analyzed and charted beyond what seems reasonable over twelve screens: players’ movements are traced on one screen, their passes on another, digital renderings of the game reduce their features to angular, pixelated forms, and several audio components, including police communiqués and broadcasters’ messages, compete for the audience’s attention. A surveillance camera on the Olympic stadium captures a Mercedes cleaning buggy lugubriously traversing a dreary street. The installation includes aluminum settees and the floor is—a bit too cutely—Astroturf. Hyperbolically billed as “cumulatively thrilling” by the exhibition literature, this work’s documentary strategy is, in fact, to anyone not an enthusiast of the sport, paralyzingly boring. With such a glut of information on display, the details fade into obscurity.
The piece ruminates on the kind of recording now so prominently a part of life in the western world, generating a habitual need for updates, for news, for information, for a sense of safety and connection with current events. Deep Play is certainly not Orwellian for, in this work, the surveillance is absurd, or at worst constrictive.
Rather less interesting is Paul Pfeiffer’s video installation Live From Neverland (2007). The work involves Michael Jackson’s post-scandal televised statement on a small monitor, muted, and a chorus of dozens of children on risers, dressed in white formal wear, chanting out his monologue in syncopation with the musician’s lips. The children take his voice. An emotive display like Jackson’s is obviously directed as much at his detractors as it is his supporters, and so he uses a backpedalling language: “If I have been guilty of anything,” it is of saving suffering children, caring for them too much, loving them too much, and so on. He actually quotes the words of Jesus Christ to plead his case. Is the work primarily a reflection of cults of celebrity and indictment? However sharply executed, Pfeiffer’s abduction of Jackson’s words, expelled from the mouths of children, seems like a cheap shot. A stranger taking the piece in next to me had a look of utterly enthralled disgust on her face. It left me entirely cold.
Ann Lislgaard’s I-You-Later-There (2000) falls victim to the DHC’s architecture, where some galleries have an entrance on the left and exit on the right, as well as an elevator interrupting the space, creating narrow hallways and causing visitors to forever pass in front of the works and interrupt the view. Lislgaard’s work is a minimal, white-clad panel made of floorboards, outfitted with halogen lighting that pulses according to the intensity of a narrator’s voice as she dryly notes her observations and movements: “A red car speeds by, I close my eyes, I check my voice mail, I listen to the same messages over and over again.” One gets the impression this is all meant to be dreadfully poetic and analytical, but the effect is not especially convincing.
The carnage is endless in Nancy Davenport’s Weekend Campus (2004), an achingly slow video loop that seamlessly strings together what seems to be thousands of digitally melded photographs taken in front of brutalist-designed university campuses where havoc reigns. Jeeps are overturned, students are in pajama-bound post-traumatic stress, activists dressed in black are boom-miked by a man in J. Crew clothing, youths huddle on curbs while other figures seem passive or mildly uninterested, disaffected—all punctuated with scenes of destruction. The title is a reference to Godard’s long pan of a traffic jam in 1967’s Weekend. In the nouvelle vague film’s seven-minute tracking shot, cacophonous, interminable car horns introduce an overturned auto, or two, or three, and finally, a cluster of maimed bodies. Godard’s panorama is initially comical but ends in a ghastly mess. Weekend Campus hasn’t a drop of blood, is silent, and pans opposite to the direction of _Weekend_—suggesting the chance they might meet somewhere halfway. Davenport shows us Anywhere, North America, and this unfixed locale seems the right choice, until a NYPD cruiser appears, destroying that effect. Davenport’s take on Godard is no more or less grisly than the original, but it does profile current North American killing fields: the university, the college, the high school. In Montreal, where institutions of learning have been sites for gun-related violence more than once, this link is chilling and immediately evident. If Godard’s protagonists drive off through a side road into a pastoral oasis in their stylish black auto, Davenport’s subjects are locked in, as is the viewer.
Stan Douglas’ Inconsolable Memories harkens back to the narrative technique he used in Win, Place or Show (1998). Douglas’ work takes its cue from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), whose protagonist, an architect, adamantly remains in Cuba, while others flee after the missile crisis. For Inconsolable Memories, two synched 16mm films are projected onto one screen, alternating and looping to create several permutations, offering a shifting narrative. Many of the sequences are audio without any visual component. Intertitles read “ADVENTURE,” “PROBLEM,” “SITUATION.” Douglas shifts his narrative from Alea’s 1960s to 1980—a year when many Cubans escaped to Florida with Castro’s permission. Inconsolable Memories’s protagonist wanders through melodrama: he is questioned and detained by authorities, argues with a girlfriend, rifles through drawers in dramatic light and shadow—and then he’s squarely back at the beginning of the loop, only to stumble through the same events in different order. Unlike conventional cinema, this work presents no narrative resolution. Inconsolable Memories underscores the contentious and provisional qualities of any attempt to relate history. The outcome of the tale is never concluded, and its sequence is never fixed.
Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s television program France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1978) is a series of interviews with adolescents. Participants were asked questions that were ontological, philosophical, and scientific in nature. This program is Kerry Tribe’s source material for Here and Elsewhere (2002), a two-channel projection of landscape pans and dialogue between off-camera British film historian Peter Wollen and his eleven-year-old daughter, Audrey. The dozens of questions Wollen asks his daughter are persistent and reflexive: “Imagine something in the past—now did that event come forward to you, or did you go back to it?” and “Is light still, or does it move?” To the second question young Audrey develops a pretty convincing series of observations about what can be empirically proven about light and what has been scientifically demonstrated on the subject. She then withdraws shyly, saying: “It’s a confusing question.” It’s like watching a smug existentialist philosopher badger a kid—tenderly, paternalistically. In this heady interrogation, Wollen presents many of the same questions Zeppetelli uses as a frame for all the works on display—concerning the nature of history and memory and the methodology of empirical inquiry.
Inconsolable Memories’s curatorial premise couldn’t fairly be called a revelation. Instead, the exhibition follows a line of thought that has been in trade for years—see Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction (2000) amongst dozens of other exhibitions and publications. The positive consequence of this is that the curator’s approach is firmly theoretically anchored while also remaining accessible, with points of entry for fans of remix culture and for academics who consider Deleuze bedside reading. A few of the works play together dynamically. Tribe’s ontological drill, for example, is significantly heightened after Douglas’ and Davenport’s endless tales. The show manages to function in the labyrinthine and sometimes narrow DHC galleries, largely showing off the spaces’ advantages. Re-Enactments is ultimately a solid, if not unique, rumination on cultural archeology, and it demonstrates the seriousness of this fledgling but important institution.
About the Author
Mark Clintberg is an artist, writer, and curator based in Montréal, Québec. He is currently a Ph.D. student in the Interuniversity Doctoral Program in Art History at Concordia University. He earned his MA at Concordia University and his BFA at the Alberta College of Art and Design.