Re-enactments, DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art

Art Papers (May-June 2008)

Nancy Davenport, Earth & Space Sciences, from the photo series Campus, 2004. Courtesy: Nancy Davenport.

Perhaps the theme of re-enacting various bits of art history and media culture and has been revisited too often, but this curatorial framing does not prevent the work included in Re-enactments from dialoguing between themselves [DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, February 22-May 25, 2008]. Side by side, the installations by Nancy Davenport, Harun Farocki, Ann Lislegaard and Kerry Tribe tell a story of the Herculean task of finding and conveying coherent meaning. Each installation structures a relationship with the viewer that suggests the possibility – or impossibility – of asserting agency in a culture that is governed by the ubiquity of the screen.

Harun Farocki makes this difficulty – and the urgency of countering it – most obvious. In his Documenta XII hit Deep Play, 2007, a striking green soccer field is overlain with graphs of data, dynamic diagrams outlining the players’ every move, arrows tracking the ball, and a continuous stream of sports reportage. It imprints itself on the retina as though we ourselves were a surveillant oculus. The power implied in this transfer is quickly eroded, however, as our attention is fractured over twelve competing screens. In this case X-ray vision does not provide access to a “deep” truth: the apparatus has swallowed its referent. Instead, we are ensnared in the seemingly infinite analytical permutations of the World Cup, caught by the gaze like a fly, prey to the media.

Equally bleak but less seductive is the video loop Weekend Campus, 2004. Nancy Davenport has composed hundreds of still photographs of stalled cars, accidents and dull-eyed witnesses into a long tracking shot that runs along a road in front of an art school. Neither credibility nor pathos is attempted, and there is no suggestion of narrative resolution. The scene is also devoid of action: it consists of crumbled, piled-up metal and an immobile group of students and teachers. Unlike Godard’s Week-end, 1967, Davenport empties the scene of black humor. What is left is even darker: Godard tactically alienated the audience from cinematic immersion in order to prompt reflection; now the audience stands inert in front of Davenport’s video in an exact mirror image of the impassive witnesses on the other side of the road. We face each other frontally with the wreckage between us. There is no way to insert ourselves into this tableau: we are given the finger by a teenager in a sports car.

Kerry Tribe’s Here and Elsewhere, 2002, also cites Godard, taking its cue from his televised interviews with French schoolchildren in 1978. In the video an elderly man off-camera interviews a precocious adolescent girl with an English accent and bright red hair. He poses hefty philosophical questions about identity, space, time and the limits of knowledge. For example, he asks: what does it mean to remember? Do you go back in time or do things move forward in time to meet you? The girl answers with confidence: they come forward. Question: are you being yourself or are you playing yourself? Answer: I’m doing both. The image has a visible seam in the middle where two different projections meet. Rarely registered and sometimes showing altogether different footage, the combined image reveals more contradiction than the coherent worldview the girl is trying to enact. As the camera zooms out over the Hollywood hills, the video’s self-reflexivity seems to demand reflexivity on a much greater scale: is it only from the perch of privilege that such “truths” can be decreed?

Ann Lislegaard does not cite Godard but, like Tribe’s Here and Elsewhere, her installation I-You-Later-There, 2000, concerns a female protagonist in her domestic environment. In the place of the screen, there is a large section of white flooring leaning up against the wall. A bright light flashes on it intermittently: it is synchronized to the woman’s voice. She walks around her apartment recounting pre-narratives of daily life: I turn on the light; I turn on the lamp; I listen to my voicemail; I listen to the same message over and over again. The woman continues to detail her actions but never her thoughts. Here the theme of re-enactment comes closest to its flip side, melancholia: she moves in circles from the window to the desk to the fridge to the shower to the window. There is no extrapolation and no interpretation and no escape. In the audience we only see shocks of bright light, but gradually we fill the missing stimuli with our own phantasmagoria.  

Whether the source material references televised sports or Jean-Luc Godard, the installations included in Re-enactments depart from appropriation as critique. Instead, these artists use it as a malleable material: they bend it to depict a world that seems technologically deterministic, emotively empty, philosophically incoherent, or simply beyond reparations. Perhaps “Sisyphean” is a more apt descriptor of the tasks these installations outline for the viewer.

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