BY Eugenia Bell in Reviews | 01 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 142

David Claerbout

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

BY Eugenia Bell in Reviews | 01 OCT 11

David Claerbout, The American Room, 2009-10, DVD still. 

There may be no better description of the sensation of passing time in front of a video installation than in the opening pages of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010), in which a man watches Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gordon’s 1993 work slows down the Hitchcock film to two frames per second and, as the title suggests, plays over a period of 24 hours. ‘In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head,’ DeLillo writes, ‘there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much […] no point in lingering in a secluded room in which whatever was happening took forever to happen.’ I have, more often than I care to admit, had this very reaction watching video in galleries.

In a not-so-secluded, but unforgiving room on the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, three of David Claerbout’s videos formed a claustrophobic horseshoe of exuberance and brutality. Sections of a Happy Moment (2007) and the well-known Kindergarten Antonio Sant’Elia 1932 (1998) are both shaped from photographs of children at play, presenting an early technique that still serves Claerbout well, and has become his stock-in-trade, in a manner. In the latter, an otherwise still, black and white image of a playground is digitally manipulated so that the trees in the foreground gently sway in an imperceptible breeze. His animation of still images results in a narrative of slightly disorientating stasis, giving substance to an eerie hovering timelessness.

Claerbout trained as a painter – he has even stated that he wants his works to behave like canvases. His interest in photo­graphy and video originated in a collecting habit, and thus began his foray into video by ‘animating photographs’, eventually evolving his practice to employ the vocabulary of film. In 1996 he made his first moving-image work, Cat and Bird in Peace – which is about all there is to say. For ten minutes, a caged cat and a canary (apparently the artist’s pets) barely consider each other. Soundless, utterly without suspense, almost without irony, it’s hard to believe that this exercise (even when not considered juvenalia) could lead to one of the most technically sophisticated and composed bodies of video work being made today. Claerbout’s sheer technical sophistication and intellectual curiosity results in static moving pictures that manage to cunningly express the passage of time despite their relative motionlessness (or repetition).

In a more subtle manipulation of time and the temporal characteristics of cinema and photography than the Douglas Gordon work portrayed in Point Omega, White House (2005) is a 13-hour-plus video, comprising 73 separately filmed versions of the same violent confrontation of inscrutable source. Two black men challenge, parry, spar – the clear underdog eventually beaten viciously with a rock to the head. If the promise of 13 hours’ worth of this doesn’t scare the viewer off, and one has the foresight to sit through more than two or three ‘takes’, the unchanging story, set against the backdrop of a pillared, Belgian colonial-era structure, starts to faintly unfold over the course of a day, the quality of the crisp, white winter light affecting the focus and tenor of the scene, altering even the essence of the architecture it is set against. (Claerbout’s 2004 The Bordeaux Piece was similar in approach, but filmed in a softer summer light.) The two-channel audio– the tightly aggressive dialogue (spoken in Walloon) through headphones and the atmospheric soundtrack through speakers – only adds to the odd, unsettling temper. Claerbout’s painstaking process was best exhibited in a new video shown here, The American Room (2009–10). The piece revolves around a recital, perpetually about to begin, in what appears to be an American ambassador’s chambers. There is oak panelling, a rapt audience, ‘men in black’ with headsets, and a formally attired singer at the head of the room. The sensation is that of a slowly panning camera, revolving around the room, intensely focusing on the faces of spectators and performer alike. It was interesting to learn, well after viewing the piece, that the characters were in fact filmed against a blue screen and imposed onto the scene, imbuing the experience with an almost 3D effect. But disappointingly, for all its technical wizardry, The American Room provides no immediate gratification. My companion and I spent the entire duration talking only of how it was done.

Claerbout has said that he doesn’t want viewers to be locked into the idea of his works strictly as film, or in the context of the filmic language, lest they be frustrated. ‘The duration is different in my work,’ he has said, and each of the works on show here is a good example on the scale of where the frustration, or wonder, can originate. He continues, ‘Giving it time is a condition of getting anything out of the work.’ This correspondent, then, may need some more time in The American Room.

Eugenia Bell is design editor of frieze