“In the beginning, a dark ocean washed on the shores of nothingness and licked the edges of Night.”
(Grosse Fatigue, 2013, Silver Lion Award Winner at the 55th Venice Biennale)
Some time ago in Paris, I went to see two video art exhibitions that broached existential questions that have been plaguing mankind for centuries.
Camille Henrot, in Grosse Fatigue (2013), choose a blunt — albeit aesthetically beautiful — approach. To a spoken poem which touches on the creation of the universe, sexuality, gods, animals, science, and death, she adds images which pop-up like adverts for our existence.
Taken from her time as a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, Henrot shows clips of the institute’s large collection of (stuffed) animals and insects. Collaged to these are images of animals walking, eating, being. These illustrations of nature, such as the slimy rawness of a tortoise laying eggs or the prickly face of a bearded dragon lizard paired with a tearing-up eyeball slightly repulsed me. Yet this repulsion is what transfixed my eyes to the screen.
Against a bright yellow background, two-tone manicured hands present objects: a black egg is peeled, pages of books are turned and artificial eyes are disturbingly massaged. This seems to be Henrot’s strategy, she lays everything bare. No religion, object, or animal is venerated over others — a bold act of equality which surpasses one of the more tragic aspects of society.
Yet the title Grosse Fatigue — a weighty tiredness that arises after the laborious creation of the world, according to Henrot — bothers me. She delivers a digital explosion of images and words, which, incessantly, imprint on the viewer’s brain and become the world as we know it. Yet that is it, we are merely onlookers.
My friend and I, sitting in the dark room of the Galerie Kamel Mennour with a few other flâneurs, did not feel this fatigue, even after the thirteen-minute film was finished. I left feeling elated, slightly dizzy but also a bit inadequate, for my generation and I — what pop-up window would represent us?
Later that same day, at the monumental Grand Palais, Bill Viola’s captivating moving paintings and installations blew me away. The whole exhibition had a surreal, almost mystical quality. Moving through dark corridors to pitch black rooms, the walkway exposed by the works, nobody spoke, as though we had entered another world where secrets were to be unveiled, and no one dared disturb this eerie experience. Skilfully, Viola brings a two-dimensional medium — the video — into the third dimension, as the viewer oscillates between spectator and participant.
A monumental work and one that encompasses Viola’s oeuvre is Going Forth By Day (2002). Five scenes are projected in a large room. I shall focus on three: the first depicts a Giotto-esque house in which two people attend a dying man whilst movers slowly fill a boat with belongings. In the next screen paramedics unhurriedly gather their tools on a beach after a traumatic event, the overall chilling tone reinforced by a distraught woman looking into the distance. The final scene, opposite the entrance, is a street-view of a house with people coming and going. There is no conversation in these videos, only sounds of human activity emphasising the fabricated and uncanny display of it all, reminding me a little of The Truman Show.
Time, measured differently in Viola’s world, is painstakingly slow, so much so that I left the room, frustrated that nothing was really happening. Unaccustomed to watching such inconsequential activities, we yearn for action, drama. A few moments later, I came back at the climax — a deluge hit the house, breaking the windows as it swept people, now corpses, away. The old man died and embarked on the boat of death. A body rose from the water by the beach, towards the sky. Was it worth the twenty-minute wait?
Time is an important component of video art; time is the work’s dimensions. Artists enchantingly play with and manipulate it. Blurring the traditionally hierarchical notions of art history, these video works offer an altered reflection of our world. As painful as the accelerated or lethargic pace is, however, we reassuringly find ourselves somewhere in the middle.