Saturday, April 27, 2013

David Claerbout, Kunsthalle Mainz

David Claerbout, Oil Workers (of the Shell Company of Nigeria)
returning home from work, caught in the torrential rain
In Mainz a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to enjoy a private viewing of the current exhibition of video works by Belgian artist David Claerbout. In their insistence on the power of time as a subject in and of itself for video, the works reminded me of those by Steve McQueen. But while I am always disappointed by McQueen’s exhibitions, Claerbout’s was innovative and provocative, especially as they interacted with the medium’s capacity to visualize time. Each of the handful of pieces in the exhibition presents as a series of still images, and then, over time, we recognize the slow unfolding of a narrative. Whereas in Steve McQueen’s films and videos the narratives are predictable and often looped, Claerbout’s are focused and goal oriented.

David Claerbout, Riverside, 2009
Each of the pieces in Mainz is, in some way, about isolation. In Riverside, 2009 a young man and a young woman on two adjacent screens appear to walk towards each other through a rugged landscape. However, they never meet in a single image. There are several moments when they almost meet, but they never do. The young man hurts his hand, he is bleeding, we want the woman to come to his rescue, she never does. Rather, each is left to inhabit his and her own reality, even when the other is always present in imagination, if only in our imagination, not theirs.

In Oil Workers (Of the Shell Company of Nigeria) returning home from work, caught in torrential rain (2013), a piece made specifically for the Kunsthalle Mainz, we approach the piece that takes up the whole of one wall, with colonialism on our minds. We feel sorry for the workers and assume, because they are in Nigeria working for a multinational company they must be poor. Poverty is, of course, the general disposition of workers in Nigeria. And yet, they are lined up, well-clothed, completely in control of the gaze throughout the length of the video. Their line of sight follows that of the camera and, by default, ours as the camera moves around them in slow motion. Simultaneously, the water flooding the street increasingly becomes the focus of the film images, creating a churning, a nausea in us as we, not the workers, lose our balance before the image.

David Claerbout, Arena, 2007
Water is everywhere in Claerbout’s videos: he is obsessed with water, reflections, isolation, separation. Water and the camera together, isolates us from them, the characters in the images. The people are isolated from each other, even when there is more than one in a frame. In Arena, 2007, even the spectators to the basketball game are isolated, usually because they are all looking directly at the camera. Their relationship is with us, looking directly into the camera, or rather, with the technology that films them, not with each other. They never speak to each other or interact in any way. This particular image is also soulless – the colours are glaring, the image highly saturated, making the people plastic, vulgar, brash, and their world uninviting.

David Claerbout, The Quiet Shore, 2011
In this piece in particular, we see Claerbout engage with different types of perception: looking at the camera, the camera looking at the subject, our awareness of our own placement as viewers, our ideological perception – of the Nigerian workers – the actual processes of looking. And the nausea we experience as we follow the camera around the water of the flood creates a physiological, corporealization of vision. While the effects he creates in Oil Workers (Of the Shell Company of Nigeria) returning home from work, caught in torrential rain are more transparent - the use of multiple different techniques at the same time to create a simultaneous pulling away and lateral movement that creates physical discomfort, there are other pieces such as The Quiet Shore that frustrate us because the logic of the piece is not revealed through looking. What looks at first like a narrative proves to be many stills taken of the same scene at the same moment but from different places around a beach in France. As we watch, we only ever see part of the piece: we think we are looking at photographs but we are not looking at photographs, and some shots appear to stay longer on the screen than others, perhaps this is an illusion. Similarly, we want to know how he has determined the placement of the people, especially because some reappear at apparently different places on the beach, but perhaps it is at a different time? Among other of its complex narratives, The Quiet Shore reflects the inadequacy of the human eye to the knowledge we seek in images. 

Copyright of All Images: David Claerbout

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