The Kunstbau – an imposing, vast dark-room in the depths of a former underground railway shaft – certainly ranks among the more peculiar art venues. And in David Claerbout’s exhibition for this annexe for contemporary art at the Lenbachhaus, it really does feel as if one is waiting for the last train – for a sound, a rush of air, any sign of life.
But nothing happens. Or at least not much. The viewer gazes expectantly at a silent image beamed into the darkness by a powerful projector. It shows an architectural mess of motorways piled up into some kind of nightmare intersection in an urban no man’s land. For over half an hour the camera angle remains the same; nothing stirs either on or beneath the slip roads and flyovers. The only clue that this image is not a still is the progress of the rising sun, the barely noticeable shifting of light and shadow. While The Stack (2002) portrays the moving image as a virtually endless photographic moment, Claerbout’s ‘Nightscape Light-Boxes’ (2002–3) follow a diametrically opposed logic. The light-box transparencies are dominated by a pitch-black expanse, with a faint light revealing nothing more than a grassy verge and the edge of a road at the lower edge of the image. The length of the moment, which in this case really is a photographic still, is extended by the viewer’s searching gaze – nearly endless here too, since one waits in vain to discover any potential clues.
On the basis of these two pieces, the primary stimulus-reaction pattern addressed by Claerbout’s work seems obvious enough: on the one hand, as David Green writes in the catalogue, ‘the possibility of a photograph that unfolds in time (but is not a film)’, and on the other ‘a film that is stilled in time (but is not a photograph)’. But as Green also underlines, this interpretation, playing the two media off against each other in terms of their supposed specificity, does not go far enough. First, because what may be referred to as the essential characteristics of a medium can often only be defined by comparison with other media, and second, because it fails to take into account the assumptions and preconceptions we bring to each medium, whether in terms of technical aspects, pictorial conventions or a conditioned gaze.
For Claerbout, then, leading us astray is never an end in itself. Instead, he ensnares us in constellations where we are obliged constantly to readjust and correct our attentiveness. This applies to the grey areas of film and photography, but also in cases where the artist’s work confounds a more conventional understanding of film. The plot of his Bordeaux Piece (2004) can be summed up as a story of love and betrayal, involving a father, a son and the son’s girlfriend. Almost without emotion the film’s slow-cut sequences float together with their protagonists through the transparent bungalow architecture of Rem Koolhaas. Although the whole thing is over in 11 minutes, the film’s stated length is eight hours: this is because the screening features not a loop of the same film playing over and over but a series of 45 versions of the same story shot at different times of day. Thanks to this extravagant device, the plot itself appears increasingly trivial, while a parallel narrative time frame gradually comes to the fore, experienced by the viewer over the entire duration of the film.
The extent to which Claerbout’s work plays with the viewer’s sense of time and space is demonstrated once more in American Car (2002–4), an installation consisting of two film sequences projected onto screens that face one another. We see two men – they could be badly paid plain-clothes policemen – sitting in a stationary car; the engine is running and rain pelts down against the roof and windows, while the two men stare to the left through the driver’s door to where the second projection screen hangs. What they appear to be watching there is the same car, on a dirt track somewhere out in the moors, and in spite of the distance one seems to recognize the two figures, staring back at the camera. The two film images are 40 metres apart. Thus –although they correspond exactly to the perspective of shot and reverse shot – they do not merge into a single scene. On the long journey from one picture to the other, the rain has stopped falling; one begins to wonder whether it really is the same car, whether they are the same men and whether the two camera angles merely prolong the waiting of the men indefinitely – at least until they have drained the viewer’s attentiveness of every last possible expectation.