BY Christy Lange in Reviews | 01 APR 09
Featured in
Issue 122

Aernout Mik

carlier | gebauer, Berlin, Germany

BY Christy Lange in Reviews | 01 APR 09

Aernout Mik, Osmosis and Excess, 2005. DVD still.

In the fictional scenarios Aernout Mik choreographs in his videos, security hides insecurity, and structures of authority assemble and collapse. Without blatantly reversing the roles of the controllers and the controlled, Mik jumbles them beyond recognition. Meanwhile, his precise, sculptural installations – at once resembling minimal sculpture and institutional barricades – separate his work from other multi-channel installations that can feel arbitrary in their scope and size. In this show, two screens span opposite corners of the gallery, juxtaposing his most recent work, touch, rise and fall (2008), back-projected on a long, slightly creased screen along the gallery floor, and Osmosis and Excess (2005), shown on a single diagonal screen fused seamlessly to either side of the wall and hovering gracefully a few inches from the floor.

Both works describe ambiguous border zones where power shifts indeterminately from one side to the other. No one is in control, yet procedures are carried out endlessly and to no effect. Osmosis and Excess is staged somewhere between Tijuana and San Diego, where drugs and people are regularly smuggled between countries. In a panorama almost too unreal to be believed, we see thousands of abandoned cars strewn like sweets across grassy hills, nestled in valleys and teetering on the edges of canyons like bits of trash mired in a mudslide. Cows graze, kids congregate and cars collect rust together. In one vignette, Mexican school children destroy a piñata (a paper toy filled with sweets) then scramble to collect the scattered confectionary. The feeling of imminent danger mingled with play is classic Mik. Woven between these scenes are images of men and women in white coats wandering the orderly rows of a vast, florescent-lit pharmacy. At one point, workers in jumpsuits incongruously intrude on the picture, shovelling mud from the flooded floor as the pharmacists clumsily clamour over the dirt, unfazed.

Between these two locales, Mik evinces a suffocating feeling of humans living amongst unfathomable excess, with no way of disposing of it. No matter how far the camera zooms out, we still can’t discern the exact location, nor imagine that such a place could exist. But Mik’s camera lingers too long on this landscape, and the masses of abandoned cars begin to look too picturesque, even digitally manipulated. Instead of the innate confusion between order and disorder, the ambiguity shifts toward the veracity of the video itself – a far less interesting concern.

In touch, rise and fall Mik does what he does best: direct two adjacent cameras that periodically upend our understanding of the narrative and befuddle our loose grasp on what roles people are meant to be playing. The action is confined to an airport terminal where passengers behave like grumpy but obedient cattle as uniformed security personnel sift through their luggage. Mik captures the claustrophobia and anxiety of airport procedures and exaggerates them until they become almost comical: officers place plastic rubbish directly onto the conveyor belt for X-ray, and cashiers in duty-free shops work furiously to disassemble items that have just been purchased. After nearly 45 minutes, we feel trapped in a closed set in which passengers perpetually enter and re-enter security, forever packing and unpacking their items. But touch, rise and fall lacks the suspense of Mik’s previous, less explicit works: the frustration of airport security seems like too easy a target for satire, and the process is too literally translated here.

Despite this, Mik’s incredible attention to detail allows his scenarios to seem at once plausible and strange. In the most striking part of the video, Mik reveals the only specific symbol of real-world authority – U.S. Transport Security Administration badges on the uniforms of the security guards. But the guards themselves are inexplicably playing childish slumber party games, confined to a break-room furnished with folding chairs and a slightly misplaced bunk bed. Dressed in their yellow vests, they build toys out of Styrofoam cups and plastic spoons, give each other back massages and play pat-a-cake. Though the action seems bizarre, there is still something authentic about the cramped staleness of the room and the restlessness of the people in it. And this is what makes Mik’s works stand out amid so many other pseudo-documentary efforts. He somehow evinces a convincing documentary style without relying on a shaky hand-held camera to create it. Though every move is directed, even exaggerated, the action never looks stilted or entirely unconvincing. Before I knew it, I’d endured airport security for nearly an hour.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.