Usually I like to read wall texts and handouts in exhibitions. In most cases, they help me to understand the artworks better or reveal important aspects I would otherwise have overlooked. So as soon as I arrived at the show curated by Constanze Ruhm together with Emilien Awada at Kerstin Engholm Galerie under the title PANORAMIS PARAMOUNT PARANORMAL, I did just that – reading the poster hung prominently at the entrance. But I soon began to flounder. The text, about the long-forgotten French film studio Studios de Saint-Maurice that burnt down in 1971, went on and on and on. Not just the text itself, but the number of spiralling stories about the studio and the ghosts of its past.
First I was told about Jean-Luc Godard and his film A Woman is a Woman (1961), for which a replica of a small apartment was built at the studios; then came a passage on role play and casting, the lack of birds at the Residence Le Panoramis development built on the site of the former studio, information on artificial forest sets and films in multi-language versions. Detail followed detail, everything linked in a hypnotic manner. This dizzying effect continued while watching the two films screened in the show (both titled PANORAMIS PARAMOUNT PARANORMAL, Prolog und Trailer zu einem geplanten Langfilm, Prologue and Trailer for a Planned Feature Film, 2014): an actress in a green blouse auditions for the role of a ghost, then a different actress speaks, but wearing the same blouse; an old man shuffles through the residential development’s well-kept garden.
For years now, Ruhm has been working with the uncanny aspects of cinema. These are present not only in dedicated genres like splatter and horror, but throughout cinema as a whole on account of the technical specifics of the medium. The uncanny magic of cinema is based on the ability to reproduce reality using a camera, doing so in such a way that ‘film changes life into itself’, as film theorist André Bazin puts it. But one result of this transformation is to render the reality portrayed (at least partially) immortal. For the thin, semi-transparent membrane of the film always already becomes a purgatory: what is trapped within it continues to flicker and proliferate, even when the camera stops rolling. In Ruhm’s artistic work, these spectres, old film locations and settings have found a home. Whereas in earlier works such as My Never Ending Burial Plot (2010) Ruhm allowed the camera to keep rolling after the filmed scenes of her mostly female characters, this time she cuts straight from the shoot to the ghost audition. Birds also feature in the film, vying for attention. According to the wall text, they represent ‘everything that was left out of the final cut, dropped from the script, eliminated from the story or its portrayal’. There is no shortage of references to Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression, Jacques Lacan’s structures of desire and Jacques Derrida’s ‘hauntology’, his theory of spectres. As metaphors and explicit reflections, they permeate and shroud Ruhm’s films like a tangle of love stories from which there is no non-dramatic escape.
Compared to the referential exuberance of the work and the wall text, the exhibition itself was surprisingly accessible. It functioned like a walk-in film script to be played out in the viewer’s head: large-format stills from the films covered the walls like windows from a modernist apartment block. The short films themselves were shown on small glass tables with plinths made of tree stumps. This could be read both as a metaphor for the cutting room and as a reference to the forest backdrop made of cardboard once found in the studios. Although the films are titled ‘prologue and trailer for a planned feature film’, they work perfectly well on their own as intelligent miniatures. In them, the endless and fluid ambiguity of cinema crystallizes into spheres inside which themes of authorship and authority, struggles of emancipation and feminism, love, death and resurrection shimmer ornately – achieving a level of compression that is in itself uncanny.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell