Tuesday, October 9, 2012

MARATHON MAN: Guido van der Werve Runs 'Home'

Guido van der Werve, Nummer veertien, home
Sep 7-Oct 20, 2012, Luhring Augustine Gallery, 531 W 24th St, NYC

The explorer George Mallory was once asked "Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?", to which he famously (reputedly) responded: "Because it's there." This economical quip expresses something meaningful about the willingness of spirit that takes triumph and failure under consideration in equal measure as potential outcomes of any endeavor. It is this same spirit that artists, generally speaking, understand all too well: the aspiration of overcoming self-imposed obstacles; the uselessness of doing things just for the sake of doing them; the poignant pointlessness of it all.

Guido van der Werve, the Netherlander artist and oft-described 'Romantic' (and triathlete, marathon runner, filmmaker, classically trained composer and pianist), also tried to climb Everest; or rather, the equivalent of it (he failed). He documents a more successful labor in his latest film, Nummer veertien, home, the centerpiece of an exhibition on view at Luhring Augustine gallery. The film follows van der Werve's elliptical journey from Poland to Paris as he swims, bikes, and runs a circuit that traces the birth, death, and unusual burial arrangements of composer Frederic Chopin. Chopin's dying request was to have his heart removed and smuggled back to his birthplace in Warsaw; his body, however, remains entombed at a pubic gravesite in Paris. These dual points of interment mark the start and end points for van der Werve's circulatory, oddball triathalon-as-pilgrimage, which concludes with the exhausted artist placing a small container of soil from Chopin's birthplace upon his grave.

The twelve-act film (structured after the classical musical form of the Requiem) is certainly replete with enough melancholic, wide-framed landscapes to earn the artist his "Romantic" credential, but also contributes to the canon of 'Endurance Art', which enacts extreme physical stress as a process and a kind of performance (see: Matthew Barney, Marina Abramovic, Ragnar Kjartansson, or--why not-- David Blaine). However, van der Werve's exertions are not an end unto themselves; they are actions which position and isolate the character within the broader visual narrative of his films and projects. We are rarely subjected to close-ups of the artist's bodily or emotional trials; rather, the film's dispassionate formality captures the wide, precisely-split horizon lines and flat, constructed 'Nature' of modern European suburbs. The inescapable grid of civilization, even in these semi- bucolic environments, undermines whatever sublimity the 'lone figure in the landscape' trope might evoke. Endurance requires a sense of rigorous interiority and discipline; it is no surprise that the lonely duress and directed purposelessness of the marathon runner is a state that appeals to van der Werve's sensibility.

Perhaps alienation is our contemporary Sublime, but, despite the beautiful, elegiac score (written by van der Werve), the artist undercuts any pathos or heroism with small episodes of abrupt, whimsical absurdity. In the opening scene, we see the artist playing a grand piano while outfitted in a swimmer's wetsuit; in another, the artist--who has inscrutably set himself on fire--calmly extinguishes the blaze by jumping into a small canal. Periodically, a full orchestra and chorus appear, nonchalantly performing the film's score while seated in fields, driveways, bedrooms, and other incongruous pop-up locations, in moments that seem more Monty Python than Greek chorus. The meaning of these moments is left open to interpretation, thankfully, adding a bit of mystery and shock to contrast to the film's otherwise top-heavy explication--and to help the audience forget about the ponderous, mostly unnecessary side-narrative about Alexander the Great. 

Unlike traditional narratives, which rely on external conflict and heroic resolution, van der Werve sets up a course of self-determined problems to solve, working from what he knows and pushing towards the outermost edges, seeking meaning, as most artists--or athletes, or explorers, or maybe anybody-- would do. Nummer veertien, home is not quite an indie film, a performance document, or an art installation. If anything, it's an extended-cut music video, by way of an act of self-flagellating devotion. It's a total work that threads together the physical and aesthetic enthusiasms of van der Werve, a (self-described) non-artist who nevertheless employs the the art world to provide a context of meaning to his variegated activities, skills, and obsessions. Why climb Mt. Everest? "Because it's there?" Nah. "Because I can. Because I must."

Friday, September 21, 2012

SONG 1: Doug Aitken at the Hirshhorn

Over the years, Doug Aitken has developed a singular and enviable practice: as a purveyor of large-scale, well-funded, ephemeral projects supported by a handful of devoted, established institutions, he is that rare artist who has figured out how to straddle the parallel tracks of commercial and fine art, an ambition achieved by few--and perhaps shared by none, considering the more conceptual, as opposed to pop, leanings of his oeuvre. He seems to have scarce need for the routine approval of the gallery circuit (actually, I don't know if that's true, but his New York gallery's website shows that his last exhibition was in 2008), instead carving out a niche with site-specific, spectacular projection works: after-dark-only, semi-public temporary pieces that are showy but manage to skirt the usual groan-inducing compromises of most public art.

In SONG 1, a 360-degree video projection mapped to the cylindrical architecture of Washington DC's Hirshhorn Museum, Aitken deploys his A-game bag of tricks, perhaps best described as lyrical film noir. It's narratively abstract but formally precise, all montage and motifs, multi-screen and nonlinear, and populated by affectless, oddball characters inhabiting the dusk-til-dawn boulevards of 'Lost' Angeles: an artificially lit, cinematic inner-edge megapolis suffused with the same listless melancholy and magical realism that admirers of David Lynch and Edward Hopper might be familiar with. Viewed as a kind of zoetrope-in-reverse, SONG 1 is a structural and phenomenal loop-- inverting its association with other panoramic/panoptic presentations that enclose viewers around a perceptual center, instead projecting the imagery along the outer circumference of the museum's facade. 

The audience is encouraged, thus, to perambulate around the building's horizon-line, with no fixed or privileged field of view; although the museum's landscaping makes a completely unhindered line of sight impossible, Aitken courageously sacrifices clarity by projecting straight through the trees onto the building, inadvertently evoking a liminal, haunted-forest effect that echoes with the polyphonous strains of the film's soundtrack. Aitken has a keen eye for the seductive artificiality of filmic space and time, flipping instinctually between the floating frames of traditionally composed narrative sequences--the projection as cinema--and kaleidoscopic, patterned abstractions of urban chiaroscuro--visual effects as architectural ornament.

The main character of SONG 1 is actually, as the title suggests, a song: the iconic standard 'I Only Have Eyes For You'--specifically the popular version recorded by 1950s doo-wop group The Flamingos as a touchstone, reworked by various musical artists and actors. This cast is directed to enact various lyrical and choreographed tableaus, in solo and counterpoint: singing over a car radio during a pensive late-night drive; a staccato duet (or duel?) in front of a shifting neon collage; and, in the film's most amusing segment, a Stomp-like percussive routine beat out by the beleaguered-looking inhabitants of an all-night diner. Mostly, though, 'Eyes..' serves as an increasingly fragmented fugue-like soundtrack guiding this eclectic ensemble of characters who, one imagines, mentally casts the small dramas of their somnambulist urban lives as something cinematic, cooly romantic, and sublime. Of course, we all have these 'soundtracks to our lives' running in the back of our minds, and our own reveries can, at times, seem like a lens-flared, soft-focus TV-movie montage. Having said that, SONG 1 periodically borders on twee, with the slick calculated affect of a car commercial or too-quirky indie film; but in this case, it might be all right to qualify Aitken's commercialized image/sound vocabulary as a type of appropriated material, rather than a lexicon of received ideas. Or frankly, maybe it's both; if the goal of commercial entertainment is to deliver closed, cathartic story arcs which dispel ambiguity, then SONG 1's lack of dramatic structure and traditional denouement--edited percussively rather than expositionally-- overrides some of the skepticism generated by the work's unarguable 'entertainment value'.  

In short, SONG 1 was a crowd-pleaser--including, perhaps especially for the crowd that is unfamiliar with the term "expanded cinema"--and one which, like the semi-lucid audiovisual drift of Marclay's 'The Clock', evokes nostalgia while eliding its attendant mawkishness.

For photos, production stills, and some interesting essays that accompanied the show, check out the museum's artist page here.