'I'm something quite different, a quite different thing, a wordless thing in an empty space, a hard shut dry cold black place, where nothing stirs, nothing speaks, and that I listen, and that I seek, like a caged beast born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage, in a word like a beast.' 1
There are numerous reasons why Samuel Beckett remains influential for many artists working today, from Bruce Nauman to Stan Douglas. One is that Beckett grasped and exploited the power of repetition. Especially for artists using film and video, loops and repetition are increasingly common devices. In Nauman's case they seem to offer one more way to intensify the pain: an innocuous question becomes odd when reiterated a number of times, then irritating and finally unbearable. The dumb joke becomes torture - thousands of tiny drops of water, each quite harmless by itself, together become a form of execution. Repetitive techniques have their uses in other fields, such as meditation and prayer, where certain types of monotonous iteration can be soothing and even soporific. Lullabies and hypnotism also follow this principle.
Marijke van Warmerdam is perhaps the prime example of an artist working with benign and strangely tranquillising forms of repetition. Some of her works really can lull you into a trance. Take Blonde (1996) for instance: a woman blow-dries her long hair, creating a harmonious dance of locks that constantly repeats in a short loop. Or Shower (1995), which depicts the upper part of a naked young man taking a shower; the water pours down upon his head eternally. What these film loops offer is a mental state rather than a series of events. They convey a meditative, almost somnambulist, form of pleasure: nothing really happens, yet it's hard to stop watching.
The first work by van Warmerdam I remember seeing was the installation Untitled (1994): a large number of helium balloons attached to Pepsi and Seven Up cans standing on the floor. I didn't find them specially convincing the first time, but encountering them again at the Konsthall in Malmö, where a large retrospective of her work is on display this winter, I get a new sense of how these balloons, all decorated with inscriptions such as 'Happy Birthday' and 'I Love You', relate to her other works. Each single balloon is a rather vapid statement, but together they create an entire room of weightlessness - a state of repetitious hovering.
Like the film loops, repetition is the recurring theme of van Warmerdam's sculptural works and installations. In Halfpipe (1992), she invited a group of skateboarders into the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, where they skated on a wooden ramp for three days, turning the art space into a noisy stage for infinite athletic repetition and variation. Similarly, a new piece in Malmö, Bera is the Ball (1998), invites the viewers to participate in a game of bowling. The activity is all the more pleasurable since the balls, all marked Bera (the name of the present director of the institution), roll down the inclined alley and hit the pins, all marked Sune (the name of the former director). There is nothing wrong with this playful device - mechanical repetition staged through the involvement of the viewer - but I don't think people would have particularly cared for any of van Warmerdam's sculptural works had it not been for the film loops.
Many contemporary artists appear obsessed with the history and technology of film; in fact, the fetishisation of the projector - treated as a precious relic from a long-gone era - is already a somewhat tedious characteristic of large group shows. What seems unique to van Warmerdam's film installations, however, is her complete neglect of narrative. She does not create stories, nor deconstruct narrative structures. What she seems to be searching for is something very different and perhaps even more fundamental: the eternally flowing present - always new, always the same. In Airplanes (1994), large jets arrive and take off in infinite number (or is it always the same one?). Their massive bellies look like huge whales swimming in the ocean. In Handstand (1994), a girl appears over and over again and does a handstand against a white brick wall. In Jump (1994) a gymnast makes a series of somersaults: three in a row followed by a short break, one more, and then two more. It's an endless series. His feet hit the floor, producing a piercing sound. Again, it's very hard to stop watching.
Does the mesmerising effect of these repetitions have something to do with the flowing temporality of children's games or rhymes that just continue eternally with no end in sight? In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud discusses a game played by a one and a half year-old. He is a good boy who lets his parents sleep, obeys orders not to touch certain things and above all never cries when his mother leaves him. He plays at making a wooden reel disappear and reappear, at the same time uttering an expressive 'gone/there' ('fort/da'). The discussion of this game - through which Freud introduces the repetition compulsion and the death drive - belong to the most debated aspects of psychoanalysis: is the game a way for the child to make the absence of the mother bearable, and, thus, in accordance with the pleasure principle? Or is the repeated disappearance of the wooden reel a continuous repetition of the most painful of events, the disappearance of the mother? Freud finally opts for the latter, thus declaring repetition to be a principle of death. There is a drive in man to return to an inanimate state. One way this drive makes itself felt is through continuous repetition of seemingly irrelevant details.
For some artists repetition appears to signify exactly this: death. Nauman is a case in point, and so is Andy Warhol's 'Disaster' series. But in van Warmerdam's work the atmosphere is quite different: there is no pain, no violence, just a hypnotic trance. In the recent film projection Skytypers (1997) five aeroplanes draw white lines across the blue sky. They return again and again, repeating not pain but complete freedom. A loop just as inconclusive as her other loops, yet still a glimpse of Nirvana.
And here opposites meet. Death wish, transcendence, repetition, compulsion. Repeat again: 'and that I listen, and that I seek, like a caged beast born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage, in a word like a beast.' 2
1. Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable, in Three Novels, pub. Grove Press, New York, 1965
2. Op. cit.