A Programmer's Chronicles, May/June 2007
by Gertjan Zuilhof
Film at an art exhibition is nothing new any more. The Dokumenta in Kassel has brought in a serious film programmer to provide a film programme for the full hundred days of the festival. And people have tried to close the gap between video art and cinema many times. In the last decade, it is almost impossible to conceive a visual-arts exhibition without moving images. For instance during the most recent edition of the Venice Biennial. The Dutch pavilion was a respectable example of committed video as spatial art. We could justly be proud of Aernout Mik on this international stage. The Spaniards could say the same thing. Mik was given the whole Dutch Pavilion, including several special outbuildings, while the Catalan film maker
José Luis Guerin had to share the pavilion for his installation Women We Don’t Know with three other artists.
During an exhibition like that in Venice, you soon get the idea that a space could have been larger. You’re seldom standing on your own in front of something. Guerin managed to place no less than 24 screens in a relatively modest space and it worked too, although people did occasionally stand in the way. The work largely comprised documentary shots. In black & white. Many of them shot in Strasbourg, the city of La Ciudad de Sylvia, his most recent film that has not yet been presented. The shots follow young women during their journey through the city. Most of them beautiful young women. So it is a selection. Is it too voyeuristic? Probably. A film maker spies on how the wind captures a blonde lock of hair or how the hard work of cycling fails to make a pretty face uglier. And all these images surround the viewer the way the city surrounds a city dweller. With just as little meaning. Or at least without much point. Yet Guerin has no trouble matching up to the goal-oriented Mik.
Alongside Guerin there was another outspoken film maker representing his land and he was no less than Tsai Ming-liang who represented Taiwan as a Malaysian immigrant. The Taiwanese do not have a recognised country and so they don’t have a pavilion either, but the Palazzo delle Prigioni they rented turned out to be a more than satisfactory replacement. Tsai is new to the world of the fine arts and in his contribution he stayed as close as possible to classic cinema.
From a derelict old cinema in Kuala Lumpur, he bought up old cinema seats to furnish his own cinema in Venice. There he showed the portrayal of a dream he had about his grandmother, mother and father in a cinema. The result works like a mirror. The viewer looks at an auditorium with seats identical to the seat he is sitting on. Mirrors in the space stress the mirror effect. There aren’t any shuffling spectators to block the view here. The screening is at fixed times and you’re not allowed in after it starts. It’s even stricter than a real cinema.
You can’t say that about the presentation of the work of the Chinese Yang Fudong that was extensively included in the main exhibition. Unlike Guerin and Tsai, Yang is an outspoken and familiar face on the fine-arts circuit. He already attended a previous Biennial and in recent years there have been few major exhibitions of contemporary international art for which he wasn’t selected. His work is however extremely cinematographic. It is also made as film. With actors. On 35mm. In black & white. His aesthetic idiom is emphatically that of a film maker, yet he is almost exclusively screened in a visual-arts context and rarely if ever at for instance a film festival. And that is rather strange.
In Venice, Yang Fudong showed his five-part series Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest. Each part has a length of between half an hour and an hour and for each part a large box was built, white on the outside and black on the inside, functioning as just as many small cinemas. These are major obstacles in the exhibition trajectory, both spatially and temporally.
Imagine that you want to see each part in its entirety, then you’ll spend nearly four hours in the viewing boxes. That is already almost twice as much time as most people spend on a whole exhibition. Not that the work by Yang isn’t worth it. It’s beautifully shot and an intriguingly symbolic work. It’s pregnant with cinematographic references from Shanghai cinema of the 1920s and 1930s to the French Nouvelle Vague. It’s even more full of elements and phenomena from Chinese society – from the present economic hysteria to these philosophical stories of all the dynasties.
Basically this opulent cinematographic work was not really in the right place at the exhibition where visitors have to move on to another following attraction. A film auditorium would not be a bad home for the films of Yang. In this way, Yang might be able to make the move in the opposite direction from Guerin and Tsai. From film auditorium to exhibition space and vice versa.