BY Jörg Scheller in Reviews | 22 MAR 17
Featured in
Issue 186

Cinéma Mon Amour

Aargauer Kunsthaus, Switzerland

BY Jörg Scheller in Reviews | 22 MAR 17

Art and cinema have something of a love-hate relationship. Critics have long accused cinema of being a spectacle for passive viewership while, within liberal Western societies, contemporary art is frequently characterized as progressive, dialogical and critical. Today, however, the two forms are joined as never before: screenings, ‘expanded cinema’, video installations and cinematic black boxes are all routinely found in exhibition contexts. Increasingly, contemporary artists work with cinema’s scale and distribution formats: collaborating with Hollywood actors, as artist Candice Breitz has done, or making mainstream feature films themselves (such as Omer Fast’s Remainder, 2016). Aargauer Kunsthaus explores these links in the exhibition ‘Cinéma mon amour’.

In this show, works by 26 international contemporary artists, spanning two decades, fell into one of two categories: works of film and cinema, and works ‘about’ film and cinema. The second, weaker, category presented several pieces that felt conceptually belaboured in their attempts to reflect upon film and cinema through other media. For example, for her 11-part series ‘set-a-k’ (2006/2016) Daniela Keiser photographed noteworthy film locations: an anxious attempt to bring the moving image to a halt for the sake of a supposedly more thorough reflection. The same concept characterized Fiona Banner’s word experiments (such as Car Chases: French Connection and Bullitt, 1998) for which the artist translated classic film scenes into her own words and, in the vein of works by Art & Language, showed a two-dimensional text work on canvas. The exhibition’s strongest moments came from the other direction: when the artists gave themselves up to the filmic medium, developing their critique and analysis from within – at the point where mimesis and distancing, appropriation and analysis coincide.

Exemplary in this regard is a work by Stan Douglas. The large-scale, six-channel video installation The Secret Agent (2015) is based on Joseph Conrad’s 1907 spy novel of the same name. Douglas elaborately relocates the action from London to Portugal during the 1974 Carnation Revolution, and develops a tortuous plot in which a terrorist attack is lodged against ‘modernity itself – on communication’. Every shot conveys Douglas’s fascination with the filmic medium: we see meticulously selected costumes and music, carefully scripted dialogues and precise colour grading. At the same time, Douglas deconstructs cinematic convention by breaking down the film into several channels as well as giving communication media a role in the plot – much of which is also set in a cinema. In their installation The Paradise Institute (2001), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller present a small, plywood micro-cinema replete with illusion: sitting within, watching the artists’ cliché-laden noir, we hear, via headphones, both the synchronized sound of the film itself and a deceptively real simulation of sounds heard inside a cinema – talking, coughing and laughing. Effacing the viewer’s sense of space and time (via noise-cancelling headphones), Cardiff and Bures Miller take illusionism to the limit – yet here, not as the familiar illusionism of the filmic spectacle, but through elevating the incidental, banal background noises that usually disturb the cinematic illusion. 

In its simplicity and nonchalance, however, Philippe Parreno’s Small Version of Guggenheim Marquee (2008) was the standout piece here. Whereas Douglas and Cardiff and Bures Miller work with the cinematic construction of interior space, Parreno focuses on cinematic thresholds to the outside world. Beneath a scaled-down replica of the marquees often found outside US movie theatres – but deprived of letterings and logos – a physically warm space is created by a number of red bulbs. We experience the work not only visually but in corporeal terms – making us realize that even the body is a screen for projection.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Lead image: Stan Douglas, The Secret Agent, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Victoria Miro, London and David Zwirner, London and New York 

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist, musician and contributing editor of frieze. He is a professor of fine arts and art education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.