Joël Bartholoméo's video installation, Desire (From the Latin Desirare 'regret the absence of') (1999), makes me think of Raging Bull (1980). Not because it includes an image of someone boxing, but because it isn't really about boxing at all. In Raging Bull, fighting is a metaphor for punishment and violent self-destruction. The atavistic brutality transforms the ring into a church, a place where Jake La Motta, whose fighting also expresses obsessive jealousy and sexual insecurity, reaches out for penance and absolution.
Desire also uses boxing as a way to explore visceral fears, drives and desire. It depicts the artist's flirtatious encounter with a Swedish art student he met on a teaching stint, a young redheaded painter who also likes to box. 'I wanted some contact with this girl... I asked her to punch me' he explains. In the three clips of the resulting piece, a smiling young woman mimics the movements of a boxer. In contrast to his previous narrative works, in which a dramatic, even violent, moment results from some humdrum daily reality, this piece is a luminous, multi-dimensional and multi-sensory experience.
Four projections flicker simultaneously on the walls, drowning the gallery in a warm, reddish glow which suggests blood, heat, seduction and passion (the girl's hair is dyed red, she is dressed in red, and behind her hangs a red, abstract painting). These sequences, which depict her giving and receiving punches, create an impression of richness, fluidity and languor, which is underlined by the slow, imprecise, motion of the camera. As she gracefully bounces up and down in slow motion, boxing becomes a way of flirting and moving together in a kind of charged erotic dance. Along with the choppy, rhythmic motion of the camera, the girl's spinning movements, and her thrusting punches, pants and gasps have a techno beat that reflects a palpitating, animal sexuality.
This evocative work represents a rupture with Bartholoméo's earlier more boring, yet somehow rivetting works. For nearly a decade, he made brief videos about his everyday life - moments spent alone, or with his wife and their young twins. Unscripted and unrehearsed, the sequences look like generic home movies and yet are also reminiscent of films by Andy Warhol or Eric Rohmer. But rather than the jarring motion, lack of focus and sudden blurring typical of amateur home-movies, the movement in Bartholoméo's films consist of long takes that often leave the 'actors' out of the frame.
Desire has a much more tenuous connection to real violence than his little narrative films. Like them, this installation was funny and troubling, touching on the nuances of relationships, notions of giving and receiving pain, sadism and masochism, anxiety and longing. In the end, Bartholoméo's object of desire appears to be inaccessible, like a virtual dream or a fantasy. The work, which at first seemed amusing, became oppressive; the jerky, epileptic moments disturbing. It is a bloodless violence, and, as in his previous works, Bartholoméo holds back enough to make the experience intriguing and frustrating.