It must be close to the magic hour because people’s shadows stretch across the pavements. From the camera’s high angle, the effect recalls descriptions of the aftermath of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which left traces, in the form of permanent shadows, of people killed by the blast. In this installation, Ernie Gehr has transformed his three-part film Picture Taking (2010) into a three-channel triptych – the religious connotations of which create a pun on the film’s ‘god’s eye view’ (a perspective that could also be an aerial view onto a bombsite). On the middle screen, a man cranes his neck to take a picture of New York’s iconic Flat Iron Building, but his subject remains out of frame, as if challenging our lofty vantage point. Moments later, we hear a voice emerge from the street noise: ‘What’s going on?’ The obvious answer is the work’s title, but that’s not all. A bird’s-eye view of a city street is, by nature, polyphonic; we’re watching a hive of activity. But the only visible face is that of the picture taker, our angle is too steep to see anything more than the tops of other people’s heads. This elevated view – not only the bomber’s viewpoint, but that of state surveillance, or the digital cartographer – is markedly dehumanizing.
Gehr began making experimental films in the 1960s after chancing upon a Stan Brakhage screening while sheltering from the rain. In the 1970s, he rose to prominence on the New York underground film circuit with his 8mm and 16mm productions. Serene Velocity (1970), a 23-minute stroboscopic shuttling between focal lengths in a basement corridor, highlights the formal properties of film, forging zones of instability between the abstract and the concrete. Gehr has remained prolific, and at the New York Film Festival (NYFF) in 2013 he screened five new digital works, but indicated that they could function equally well as installations. Surprisingly, after all the monographs, retrospectives and awards, this show at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève dedicated to Gehr’s most recent output is his first solo exhibition in an art institution.
The only work here that was also at the NYFF is the last you encounter: Brooklyn Series (2013). Here, Gehr’s films have been digitally stretched into bands of constantly shifting colour, like the view from an impossibly fast train, or one of Gerhard Richter’s strip prints set in motion. The soundtrack, though clearly recorded ‘in the field’, feels more like a piece of avant-garde noise music, with its violent alternation of near-silence and sudden, harsh road-drilling. After viewing this work, I found myself revisiting the other, even newer works, with fresh eyes. The movements and gestures caught on Manhattan’s Canal Street in Up Close (2014) were now stripped of their psychological significance to become elements of a formal choreography, like something by Merce Cunningham. The encroaching fog that engulfs the image of slowly passing ships in Mist I & II (2014) is revealed as a form of image degradation, a loss of bit-rate rendered via analogue means.
Watching these pieces as multi-screen installations instead of sequentially ordered films revealed Gehr’s structural logic – like a certain patch of bright red (from various people’s clothing) that seems to drift from one screen to the next in Picture Taking – that would otherwise have remained obscure. But, most of all, I was left with a feeling of nostalgia for cinema – not just when Gehr uses archival footage. The red banner blowing in the wind and partially obscuring the street view in Crossing the Bowery (2014) is like an old theatre curtain parting before the action. The silvery-blue light of the aquarium in Distant Echoes (2014) makes matinee idols of the fish inside. The action is rendered directly from the trappings of the apparatus. You can take these films out of the cinema, but you can’t take the cinema out of the films.