Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Germany
When trying to concisely sum up the artistic points of the last decade, the latest Sarah Morris show makes it clear that her architectural, mimetic grid images could already be called icons of the 1990s. In a certain way, Morris‘ approach is immune to the accusation of using the same principle over and over to the point of exhaustion. Her work is not simply about the dandified effect of new, technologically produced graphics or poppy replicas of modern objects. Instead, it develops a model of art’s relationship to surface phenomena generated by the “new urbanism.”
In the films Midtown (New York), Las Vegas, and now Capital (Washington), Morris concentrates on how American metropolises turn their outward appearances into self-referential cosmoses. Like the other two films, Capital also has an absolutely reciprocal relationship to a series of pictures. The digital patterns of these pictures distil the film sequences and intensify their rhythm, density, and color values. The Midtown series consists of slightly cropped, quiet patterns of box surfaces, Las Vegas of confusing crystalline vectors, and in Capital, one enters mysterious, three-dimensional spaces.
As a synonym for Washington, D.C., the film Capital hides a cluster of compact motifs – wilful architectural installations, technocratic voids, the old, cumbersome political apparatus and its reverse: conspiracy and media spectacle. In the midst of it all is the myth of the individuality of the statesman, the political pragmatism of the Clinton era.
We see a composition of clips both specific and general from the last months of Clinton’s regency: images of the Pentagon, press conferences in the White House, presidential convoys, all intercut at a terse, flowing pace with everyday shots of urban professionals jogging on Capitol Hill, waiting for the subway, or racing through city tunnels in their cars. Morris’ dense composition is not just visualizing the panorama of urban dwellers’ daily routine of half-conscious perception. It also allegorically weaves together the ‘real’ with the visual history of art and cinema. Morris does indeed neutralize every trait of revelatory explanation in her films; but precisely in this latest work, it seems to appear again just below the surface – this atmosphere of conspiratorial political events, which, despite its structural quality, gives Capital a touch of cinematic drama.
The simultaneously terse and trancelike, repetitive structure of the electronic soundtrack, composed by Liam Gillick, supports this tug of war between neutralization and suggestion. Since the film was shown in an open space as part of the exhibition of the sixteen Capital paintings, the sound possessed the space and hence the perception of the pictures, made them parts of a whole. They were elegantly hung, in an allusion to the coolness and sensation of late modern abstract painting. They lead through three-dimensional interior spaces with sharp corners, wall mirroring, and disorienting perspectives. If we were able to overcome the anachronistic static of the painting and turn the next corner, a figure might appear, forming itself as if from a dream sequence made of the residue of our daily lives, or the film sequences of Capital. This figure could be helpful or threatening, like the strange capriciousness in the digital world of the science fiction film Tron (1982). But the images don’t really permit that kind of unbridled illusion. Despite the perfectly smooth surfaces, one is confronted with their painterly material quality. Due to the excessive use of glowing, shiny colors and the hard edges directly abutting each other, the painterly quality always comes to the fore, ahead of the motif. You might think that Morris is fixated upon an anachronism, because she is once again presenting a historically evident concept of the autonomy of painting. But Morris’ leitmotiv, the “grid” – this all-hallowed modernist pattern, according to Rosalind Krauss’ analysis – has always had an ambivalent structure. For one, there is an inwardly focused state, an introjection of that which separates the image from its surroundings – that is, abstraction, which once again opens up a window for the symbolic or the illusionary. For another, there is a centrifugal state, which the image uses to force us to recognize a world beyond the frame, since the image itself is only the fragment of a continuum.
Morris integrates, almost too perfectly, the most recent history of the “grid,” because as a digital, modern graphic archetype it has long had a life of its own – though once again, an almost dusty one – beyond painting. Yet there is no threat of asphyxiation, since there is always the superfluous shine of the grid pictures; and the investigative quality of the films, which distil the hitherto-undiscovered detail from the familiar.