Modernist Revisitations | Claire Bishop | Samstag, 26.10.2013

Delirious Anthropology

I feel like I’ve spent the last four weeks overstating my scepticism about contemporary art’s retrospectivity—as seen in the repurposing of modernist art and architecture, the incorporation of pre-existing archives, and the retrieval of outmoded mechanisms of display. All three are examples of art’s fascination with the past that too often forgets to keep its sightlines on the present. This week I’d like to conclude my series of blogposts by looking at three recent videos that take past works and pre-existing archives as their starting point, but which do so in order to assess the present: Provenance by Amie Siegel (recently on show at Simon Preston Gallery in the Lower East Side), Grosse Fatigue by Camille Henrot and Ricerce Three by Sharon Hayes (the last two exhibited at the Venice Biennale).
Amie Siegel, Provenance, 2013 (HD video, color, sound, 40' 30") courtesy Simon Preston, New York, (installation view)
Siegel’s lingering, luxuriant hour-long Provenance (2013) takes us back to the first week of my blog, when I asked why so many contemporary artists are making work about modernist art, architecture and design. Her video deals with the fate of Pierre Jeanneret’s chairs for Le Corbusier’s complex in Chandigarh. Designed and fabricated in the 1950s, these chairs are today sold as luxury furniture for the discerning one percent. The twist is that this story is told backwards: as the video opens with lingering shots of spacious, perfectly-arranged homes in London, Paris and New York, and aboard a luxury yacht. Jeanneret’s chairs—now refitted in coloured calf-skin—are identifiable not just by their distinctive design, but by the handpainted serial numbers on their sides. Siegel cuts to the photographer’s studio where two of these chairs from Le Corbusier’s government buildings in Chandigarh are photographed for an auction house catalogue, and then cuts to the auction where they sell for $60,000. Her camera then turns to the Belgian restoration factory where the chairs are gutted and refurbished around the original teak structure.
Amie Siegel, Provenance, 2013 (HD video, color, sound, 40' 30") courtesy Simon Preston, New York, (HD video still)
And then we move to Chandigarh: a forest landscape at dawn, the sound of birds and monkeys, and exquisitely framed shots of Le Corbusier’s architecture. The familiar chairs can now be seen in use, in government offices drowning in piles upon piles of paperwork. In the attic backspaces of these buildings, hundreds more of these broken and dusty chairs are stacked high on top of each other—and we soon find the reason why. In a renovated suite of offices, the clutter of paperwork has been replaced by computers in open-plan booths, complete with corporate swivel chairs covered in plastic. Over at the Punjab Assembly, meanwhile, Jeanneret’s bright-coloured chairs are still in use, zinging in yellow, red, blue, green. In University library, amid the ambient rustling of research, students also use these same chairs. The film ends here in the university, with the chairs valued for their function rather than for the luxury signifier that is ‘Le Corbusier’.
Amie Siegel, Provenance, 2013 (HD video, color, sound, 40' 30") courtesy Simon Preston, New York, (HD video still)
In the great slew of contemporary art that repurposes modern architecture and design, Siegel’s piece is one of the few I have encountered that deals with the economic status of these objects in today’s global marketplace. It’s a lavish work, but this also makes me uneasy. Provenance tells a story, but does so in a visual language that is as luxurious as the private dwellings wherein these objects now reside. Collectors’ (second or third) homes and Punjab University Library are filmed alike in the most sumptuous fashion, to the point where any position (criticism, indignation, or approval) is smoothed over in gliding camerawork. Siegel reports on a state of affairs, but declines to comment, letting a story speak for itself. The experience is ravishing, but its cost is a loss of the grit that made the storytelling function of previous photographic practices so poignant and memorable (Sekula, Goldblatt, Sternfeld).
Sharon Hayes, meanwhile, has long made work that draws on the past, especially popular archives and political protest. Her recent video for Venice also looks backwards to go forwards: it takes as its starting point Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Comizi d’Amore (1965), in which the director interviewed a wide cross-section of Italians about sexuality and relationships—from schoolchildren to the elderly, male and female, urban and rural, north and south. Crucially, Pasolini didn’t interview his subjects one to one, in the manner of ‘talking head’ documentaries, but collectively—in the streets, cafes and fields. His interviewer asks small boys where babies come from; he asks an elderly farmer if a woman’s virginity is important; he asks young women if they approve of brothels. The latter passages are the most poignant, almost painful, as young women struggle to speak out in front of their cocky male peers.
Sharon Hayes, Ricerche: Three, 2013 (single channel HD video, 38') Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin, (installation view)
In Ricerche: Three (2013), Hayes redirects this informal interview format to interrogate a group of thirty-six students at a women’s college in New England. The resulting video, simply filmed in the spring sunshine, is some 38 minutes long and provides a cross-section of gender positions at an institution that many would regard as implicitly conservative. It turns out that the college houses the greatest diversity—from those with a strong religious framework (often from South East Asia) to the most radical (becoming transgender). The style of filming sticks closely to that of Pasolini, with individual faces framed within the collective body. Some of Hayes’s questions also overlap with those of the Italian director: Do you think you’ll marry soon? Do you think of yourself as a Don Juan? Others are more tailored to the context: Why did you come to an all-female college? Can you be more free sexually here than politically or intellectually?
Sharon Hayes, Ricerche: Three, 2013 (single channel HD video, 38') Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin, (HD video still)
The result is a generational snapshot that is also geographical. If Pasolini travels Italy to gain a diversity of results, Hayes finds a global spectrum on one campus. And if her respondents’ answers have a common theme, it is the overwhelming pressure to identify and label oneself in the marketplace of identity. The appearance of these young faces in the sun, struggling to express their independence and individuality in front of their peer group, is unexpectedly hypnotic. And while Ricerche: Three can be seen as a historical update of (and antidote to) the gender politics of Comizi d’Amore, it also opens up to new questions. If Pasolini’s film shows women struggling to articulate their sexuality in a macho Italian culture—the light of feminism still a faint glimmer on the horizon—then Hayes captures a moment when female self-assertion is unquestionably more confident, but where uncertainties now congregate around biological modulations of the body. Unexpectedly, the all-women’s college becomes the testing ground for the co-existence of gender’s own multiple modernities.
It is telling that Hayes’s mining of the past doesn’t lead to a fascination with the Italian neo-realist director or with one of his actors, but to a discussion of sexuality today. In a similar fashion, Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013) turns to the allure of the archive but in order to prompt thoughts about the acquisition and storage of knowledge in the twenty-first century. Her thirteen-minute video resulted from a residency at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, and some of video’s material is shot directly in its natural history archives and laboratories: drawers upon drawers of preserved parrots, toucans, insects, fossils. But rather than wallowing in archival nostalgia, Henrot turns this experience into a pounding, percussive video set to a soundtrack with a text by poet Jacob Bromberg, voice over by Akwetey Orraca-Tettehand and music by Joakim Bouaziz. The work opens with the image of a galaxy upon her computer desktop, and proceeds to rhythmically layer knowledge upon knowledge in the form of stacked open windows. Natural history collides with technology, colonial history, poetry, Wikipedia and creation myths in a kaleidoscope of colour and taxonomy, research and incantation.
Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, 2013 (video, color, sound, 13') © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris (video still)
Grosse Fatigue also marks an update of the multi-channel video installation: rather than surrounding viewers with simultaneous projections (à la Isaac Julien or Doug Aitken), Henrot makes a single-screen work that places images on top of one other, as windows on a desktop. Turning pages of books, scrolling pages on a website, video of archivists and storage systems: Grosse Fatigue is a poetic response to information overload and an antidote to the archival impulse, replacing the latter’s austere aesthetic (the type-written text, the faded photograph, the glass vitrine) with acidic hues, virulently painted fingernails, and a sensuous, mythological soundtrack. It evokes the persistence of creation myths and deep time in the visual imagery of computers—from galaxy screensavers to the iPhone’s globe motif—to produce a delirious anthropology of present-day perception exhausted by information.
Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, 2013 (video, color, sound, 13') © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris (video still)
These works by Hayes and Henrot mine the past, but not in the name of retrieving and presenting obscure histories, minor figures and overlooked episodes for their own sake. Instead, the past is a starting-point for analyzing the present day. This is not to deny that archivally-oriented art, smitten with the vitrine and curatorial methodology, can offer important counterpoints to officially sanctioned histories, it is more frequently the case that they exacerbate our sense of unmanageably fragmented knowledge (‘the Google effect’). The ‘artist as historian’ is today’s equivalent of the nineteenth-century history painter, but chooses to focus on minor events rather than major, subjecting it to microscopic analysis. By contrast, the works of Hayes and Henrot are more interested in using the past as a way to grasp our own time, as if through binoculars held the wrong way. The present is seen from afar and defamiliarized, always with half an eye on the future’s judgement-to-come.