The latest outcome of what Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan call their ‘drifting studio practice’ was not included in their exhibition ‘The Revolt of the Giants’. Instead, Episode of the Sea (2011/13) was screened just once before the show closed. In an exhibition that considered – alongside subjects like currents of migration and cultural heritage – the lumbering movement of raw materials across the globe, it felt apt that the film didn’t make it into the final selection.
Van Brummelen and De Haan’s work is deliberately anachronistic, thanks to their continued use of methods that have largely been superseded by digital formats. In subi dura a rubidus (2010), they look back at even older media: a film tracks across Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen’s drawings – made while travelling with Charles V’s army, as court painter to the Habsburgs – of the 1574 conquest of Tunis. Vermeijen’s image is back to front and flipped horizontally, for it was a cartoon for tapestries realized once the images had been brought back to Brussels – tapestries that Van Brummelen and De Haan also filmed and projected adjacently, scrolling backwards. Thus the two 16mm projections become palindromic, like the title, which in Latin means ‘endure rough treatment from uncultured brutes’. The visual clarity of the finished tapestry suggests a certainty that few embedded war artists possess now, perhaps because as categorically as Vermeijen was commissioned to depict the detail of battle, today’s artists are censored from doing so. Thus subi dura a rubidus prompts questions about the role of the observer: not only the artist as observer, but the audience too; for acts of recording and even viewing entail the selection and construction of a narrative.
Van Brummelen and De Haan expanded upon this theme in a three-part cycle titled ‘Revolt of the Giants’ (2008–12). Part one is the centrepiece: Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland I: Revolt of the Giants – reconstructed from reproductions (2008/09) is a 47-minute 35mm film in which the camera appears to travel steadily along the frieze of the Pergamon Altar housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. The account of this epic battle between gods and monsters is interrupted by occasional lacunae: the artists were not allowed to film the frieze on location, so they pieced it together from more than 100 print reproductions. As the dynamic images of the relief floated silently past, the immense projector, the kind that would usually be enclosed in a separate room, made enough noise to dominate the exhibition, causing the medium to overshadow the message. It nearly drowned it out in part two: Revolt of the Giants – recited by prospective Germans (2008), a black and white film in which students of German at the Goethe Institut in Istanbul read art-historical descriptions of the frieze with some difficulty. The altar was built in what is modern-day Turkey; these students want to trace the same transit route, and are studying to pass the proficiency test required to work in Germany.
The third element of the cycle, Wit Dazzled Epigonos (2012), wasn’t shown in full. Only eight of its 18 prints were presented, collages based on Von Brummelen and De Haan’s reconstruction of the friezes with copious information about where the images were published and found. Their resources include numerous libraries, street markets and the museum’s own gift shop. In this piece, the artists address the question of their own merchandise candidly by creating an element of the work cycle that can be easily digested by the art market. In the context of the final, and oldest, work in the exhibition, this reflection about end-product had more significance than the usual artistic by-products of exhibitions.
Monument of Sugar – how to use artistic means to elude trade barriers (2007) is a silent film that tells the story of the artists’ attempt to find surplus European sugar in Nigeria and bring it back to its own continent in the guise of an art work, a monument formed from many blocks of sugar. (Needless to say, it didn’t work.) This is interspersed with shots of sugar harvesting, processing and distribution, starting in Europe and moving to Africa. It’s a tale of the absurdities that result from economic protectionism, the random nature of natural resources, differing working conditions, global trade and competition – the fact, for example, that Nigeria’s sugar farming has been made economically unviable by the strength of its petrol market. And, like the prints, one sugar block installed on the wall of the screening room related the huge ideas raised in the film back to stuff one could grasp.
Van Brummelen and De Haan consistently reconnect global movements to individual objects or subjects such as these – financial behemoths, weighty bureaucracies and dominant cultures notwithstanding. Their ‘drifting studio practice’ spurns sweeping virtual statements in favour of direct involvement with their subjects that acknowledges complexity. And the results, though intentionally open-ended, are inescapably related to the stuff that constitutes our reality.