BY Shonagh Adelman in Reviews | 03 MAR 00
Featured in
Issue 51

Marco Brambilla

BY Shonagh Adelman in Reviews | 03 MAR 00

Marco Brambilla's Approach (1999) imported the institutional anonymity of New York's John F. Kennedy Airport arrivals terminal into an entirely different arena of institutional anonymity. Four video monitors suspended in a row showed a nine-minute digital video loop of passengers who had just been cleared through US customs. Excerpted from footage taken over a 14 hour period, Brambilla spliced together a series of close-up portraits of passengers acclimatising to gravitational and atmospheric changes. A two-second delay between monitors created a time lag that gave an impression of kinetic motion across the gallery, while ambient acoustics and a conspicuous absence of naturalistic sound created a meditative, alienating mood.

Like the experience of looking at a stranger's family photo album, Approach conjures a sense of intimacy through identification. The camera's scrutiny of various expressions turned the spartan interior of the airport terminal into a microcosm of atomistic experiences. The JFK terminal, a hotbed of quotidian narratives, became the setting for an archetypically lonely crowd. Brambilla's installation renders a collective profile that combines opposites: familiar and strange, generic and unique, social and solitary.

The anonymous landscape of the airport casts a monochromatic hue over its passengers, but in spite of the fact that they are strangers, they seem familiar. Clothing and accessories, hairstyles, facial expressions and gestures all convey a range of social codes that situate them within a specific geo-historical context; however, the close cropping, ambient sound and precisely choreographed intervals effectively displace them. As they traverse the gallery, they allegorically travel through a late-20th century Western odyssey. In light of the recent glut of millennial hype (followed by a speedy denouement), our awareness of the passage of time and of our status as passengers through it, at least momentarily, is amplified.

The transitional nature of airports, characterised by endless waiting, incessant intercom announcements, uniforms, rolling luggage and impersonal interactions, becomes a powerful leveller, a neutral ballast wherein anonymity gives license to candour. Each unwitting passenger scans the premises, looking for a familiar face, and each sequence ends with a moment of recognition. These abbreviated search and find narratives are distilled into a kind of action-flick trailer. Immediately recognisable as a ubiquitous psychological and physiological condition - post air travel - we identify not only with the specific situation but more fundamentally with the general quest for interpersonal contact. Ultimately, the destination of Approach is familiar ground. As we watch the elusive advance of passengers across the gallery, we, as spectators, similarly make our way through the gallery space with our own destinations and our own (manufactured but unique) brands of baggage.

Though placed innocuously in a corner of the gallery, the chintzy soundtrack to Getaway (1999) persistently intercepted the electronic ambience of Approach. A film loop shot from the nose of an aircraft, Getaway depicts a descent towards a sparse landing strip. The small monitor is mounted inside a white plastic flight tray, and the high-pitched, transistor frequency of a popular jazz riff from the 60s emanate from its decorative array of holes. The aircraft's gradual descent and deceleration drags out interminably, mimicking the protracted feeling we have when landing after a long flight (an impression achieved, in part, by the progressive deceleration of the original footage). But as the viewer anticipates touching ground, the plane gradually begins to rise. The monotonous image of airstrip lines converging symmetrically on the horizon, combined with the upbeat lilt of the music and the Modernist design of the plastic tray/frame create a retro-futurist time warp. Seduced by the optimism of 60s futuristic Americana, expectations of solid ground are provoked and then thwarted.

This cyclical attempt and failure to land in the same spot enacts an idée fixe of eternal return. Like the trajectory of Approach, a poignant moment is separated from an implied narrative and replayed over and over again. Although in Approach the protagonists may have found (at least temporarily) their Holy Grail, Getaway never delivers its implied promise. However, even interpretation is extended and deferred in Brambilla's work which, in the end, reads like a Rorschach test - interpretation is dependant on the viewer's ability to perceive contradictory images in tandem. Getaway's recurrent failure to land is also a continual fulfilment of its promise.