BY Amanda Coulson in Features | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

Melvin Moti

Dreams, songbirds and slimming; the imaginative and temporal possibilities of reduction

BY Amanda Coulson in Features | 12 MAR 09

You could say that the Dutch artist Mevin Moti works in film and video, but the visual elements of his work are so downplayed that this description is too simplistic. Rather, he encourages his viewers to listen, to observe less passively, to hunt for clues or to embark on a kind of mental journey. Often accompanied by a single human voice, his films induce a hypnotic effect – but it is one that makes you re-focus and become more alert, as though you were trying to consciously watch your own dreams.

Moti’s installation at the 5th Berlin Biennial in 2008 featured a number of elements, each entitled E.S.P., including a grainy black and white photograph of a boxer delivering a knock-out blow titled E.S.P. (K.O. Mortel) (2007); a scientifically-engineered durable soap bubble under glass; and a dark, lingering film of a bubble bursting in excruciating slow-motion, accompanied by narrated excerpts from John William Dunne’s book An Experiment with Time (1927). Both beautiful and enchanting, the work nonetheless provides very little further information to the viewer. But the tension of a split-second being extended over 18 minutes of film, the bubble’s precariousness, and the curious inclusion of the hefty fighter frozen in a decisive moment, leave you with a palpable sense of time having expanded, of not knowing what happened when.

On further inquiry, the piece’s complex network of associations is revealed: the boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson, tried to cancel a fight in May 1947 after dreaming that he would kill his opponent. The fight was postponed, but his premonition came true a month later when he delivered the mortal blow depicted. This episode connects to Dunne’s theory that time is only linear in our minds – a concept that he first formulated in 1902 when he had a precognitive dream that foretold a natural disaster and lead him to theorize that if we dreamed fast enough, we could visit the future. An addendum to the work, the poster E.S.P. (2007), portrays several drawings of finches, a species which, according to scientist Daniel Margoliash, rehearses its songs while asleep. Margoliash claims that all songbird species do not know the difference between conscious and subconscious states, as their dreams are an exact repetition of their daily lives.

Melvin Motti, E.S.P. (In the Face of Forever, We're Just Getting Started), 2007-8, Soap bubble, glass, 30 x 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art.

While many of Moti’s works focus on a particular historical moment, an anecdote or a scientific fact involving intensive research, he claims not to be a storyteller: ‘I don’t want to bore the viewer with information or make them passive by fetishizing the research,’ he states in a telephone conversation from New York, where he has recently taken up an International Studio and Curatorial Program residency. His practice focuses rather on the act of reduction, on stripping away the facts to create an environment in which the immaterial element of the art work becomes the medium.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the pieces on display in his recent show at the Zollamt at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, the first of which is a simple text piece accompanied by a vintage LIFE magazine cover, depicting a young and impish-looking Mia Farrow. The title, Miamalism (2008), seems to play on his predilection for minimalist works, but actually refers to a passage from the text, which describes Roman Polanski’s directorial method for producing horror in his 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby by depicting leading actress Farrow’s physical wasting away. ‘Disturbance’, Moti notes, ‘is not implied by excess but by reduction.’

Moti sees this stripping away of surface information not as an act of destruction but of creation, stating: ‘In regard to art and visuality, if you reject everything, creativity is still there. Even with nothing in front of you, you apply formal rules to what is happening.’ This is a process he explores in The Prisoner’s Cinema (2008), named after the term used for visions of coloured lights and abstract patterns reportedly seen by prisoners or pilots after long stretches of visual deprivation. Moti’s protracted, mesmerizing film explores this phenomenon with the projection of subtly changing light filtered through a stained-glass window, while a scientist’s voice narrates the visions she experienced after many hours in a darkened room.

The ultimate conceptual piece, though, according to the artist, is not his own but the one he re-creates in the film No Show (2004) – a tour of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, given by a guide to a group of soldiers during the Second World War. The projected image of an empty room and a photo hanging nearby hint at what they saw: empty walls and frames with no paintings (they had been removed for security purposes). The entire tour was an act of memory and imagination on the part of the guide and his visitors – a conceptual performance so outrageous that Moti believes it was ‘made for the future, a future that we are not even ready for’. With his new home of New York stripped down to its barest bones, with Wall Street a ghost town and the art market wasting away, perhaps it is nonetheless a future to which Moti perfectly corresponds.

Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.