BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 07 JUN 00
Featured in
Issue 53

Lars Mathisen

BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 07 JUN 00

Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now called, capitol of the Indian film industry, has been the scene for a few Western video art productions during the 90s. Bollywood - as the city is accordingly nicknamed - is a unique, national film culture which allows media technology to co-exist with tradition's quaint idioms, and as such it constitutes a resistance in the global media landscape. About 90 percent of films shown in India are Indian produced, and in 1999, 700 titles were certified in India, to which adds an equal number of soaps. With Western eyes Bollywood is mongrel pop culture, an Asian scenario of copycats, local stars and folkloristic cinematic codes. Even though pop culture surely is impure to begin with, even crazes and fads depend on a balance of style, and Bollywood is the very image of this balance's local/global inflection. Try to familiarise yourself with the concept of something the size of Hollywood (surely the biggest idea in Western popular culture) which lives a parallel life in a haze of cinematic vernacular. A kind of Copernican perspective on pop culture, as it were: Bollywood displaces the modern world's centre.

Bollywood film production is an economy that can be accessed through the rear entrance of the ideology of the Western spectacle and negotiated through the filter of multiculturalist aesthetics. Lars Mathisen's elaborate video installation Happiness & Misery (1999) is shot at Sahara Studio in Bombay and stars three local actors in a theatrical setting, where they present a dialogue that is at the same time circular and incoherent. The participants are caught up in an existential loop, and endgame where lack of progress makes narrative logic ricochet. The two men and one woman find themselves on the backdrop of an interior which comes across as an indeterminable mix of European and Indian design, executed by an Indian billboard painter. The set pieces themselves are presented in the exhibition as inactive props, stacked without further ado in the hall you first enter.

When Happiness & Misery was first presented last autumn, the four screens of the installation made up the walls of a space which was doubled by the four different camera angles' conveyance of the billboard interior. The spectator could enter the architecture of narration though a door in one of the screens. However, at Overgaden the screens have been dispersed throughout the exhibition, which allows the work to show new sides of itself. Despite the emphatic narrative predicates of the installation - the dramatic dialogue, the theatrical setting, - the ambition of Happpiness & Misery also lies along the axis of painterly, or mimetic, qualities. The work is conceived as a two-dimensional reality you step into. The camera positions are equidistant from the actors which seems to make them merge with the environment as figure and voice, rather than identifying acting with their mimic. On the same note, a funny detail is the behaviour of the actors ambulating on stage, where they "avoid" the painted objects on the stage set. The screens present a fragmented vision of a space, like a mural in four parts where advance investments have been made on behalf of the beholder's temporality. You feel drawn in. The temporal staggering between the screens (all the speak is synchronised and the movements of the actors are displaced in relation to each other) makes space for the beholder.

This was summed up by the particularly succinct vista of the screen with the door in real space as well as diegetic space, which had been placed across the hallway. Through the door in the screen you could see the white eye of the video beamer, and in front of the screen - right next to where you would enter - a pillar. Illusion was simultaneously mocked and maintained, and architectural space was invested into the ambivalent contract the installation prescribed between itself and the beholder.

Happiness & Misery carries out a tightrope walk between effects of alienation and of empathy. For example, the canvases aren't merely representatives of collapsed narrative space: Their peculiar mix of exotic aura and matter-of-fact renditions of space rather suggests that everybody has got a place they call home. The dialogue is a Hirsch Perlman - meets - Sartre - style collision between philosophical treaties and everyday linguistic feed-back mechanisms, and it mainly functions as a slow backdrop hum, closer to small talk banality than to existential bombast and bleakness, which is somehow in tune with the work's Bollywood atmosphere.

It is the subtle visual orchestration of over-layered spaces that makes the reciprocality in Happiness & Misery work out successfully. What you think is alienating turn out to convey intimacy; and what comes across as deep, narrative space is possibly just another layer in the constructed environment. A broadly cultural as well as personal, existential predicament, as it were.

Lars Bang Larsen is a writer, curator and director of artistic research at Art Hub Copenhagen, Denmark.