BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 12 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 165

Into the Void

In the run-up to a major solo exhibition at Chicago’s Renaissance Society, Michael Bracewell considers the work of Mathias Poledna

BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 12 AUG 14

Dense jungle; it looks hot, humid and uncomfortable.

A young rock band rehearses; the music has a scratchy and slightly dissonant edge.

In a recording studio, a man sings.

Three young people dance in loose formation to an effortlessly suave reggae track. Casually but conservatively dressed, they move in an impassive, intent and slightly awkward manner that brings to mind the celebrated sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), in which two young men and a young woman attempt a dance routine in a cafe.

A Village by the Sea, 2011, installation view at Raven Row, London. All images courtesy the artist, Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna, Galerie Buchholz, Cologne, and Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

Such are the subjects and ‘action’ of four short films made between 2001 and 2006 by the Austrian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Mathias Poledna. Shown under strictly controlled gallery conditions (the space cleared, with nothing to distract from the work itself) these films-as-art works have a beguiling pace, seeming at once static, circular and repetitive. Their visual texture is sumptuous and intensely ‘present’. As such, their visual aura appears extremely intimate, at times claustrophobically so, seeming to place the viewer in close proximity, physically and empathetically, to the ‘characters’ and situations.

It might feel as though these films somehow entrap the viewer, compressing and thus intensifying the act of looking – drawing you deeper into the sustained open-endedness of whatever narrative they may or may not contain. For nothing much happens in these short films, but does so in an oddly significant manner. You don’t know whether the characters are actors. They don’t appear to be acting. But then they wouldn’t.

It is a strange experience, to feel you are drifting within such a confined space – in this case, the constraints of a short-film format that seems more concerned, directorially, with depth than breadth. But then there is something more, which separates these films’ intentions from that of the pure documentary form that they so nearly resemble. For whatever the motive (or indeed the subject) might be – their mood neatly balanced between intensity and emptiness – it becomes stridently conspicuous by its absence.

A Village by the Sea, 2011, film still

 Likewise, there are no clues as to what the ‘broader picture’ might be; the films become interruptions of time as much as interventions into it, and they draw you into the whirlpool of their seemingly limitless non-narrative structure and somehow-significant banality. You throw interpretations at them; the interpretations slide off. They could ‘mean’ everything or nothing, or everything and nothing. After a while, you might think of them as discreet but worrying black holes in the firmament of visual culture. In one sense, it seems that Poledna is employing an almost dandified mode of operation, in which high style, glamour, fastidious self-awareness and artistic refinement are put into the service of themselves. This approach can also be seen in Poledna’s non-film work, such as his collaboration in 2009 with Christopher Williams at Bonner Kunstverein, in which the artists used sections of wall as subject, object, concept and medium within the gallery space. All seems pared down to simply (or not so simply) reveal itself and solely itself. The ‘withholding’ of information becomes the existential core, it appears, of Poledna’s art. He is likewise reluctant to give hints or indications about the nature of forthcoming works, wishing to maintain as pristine the moment at which a new work is experienced by the viewer – unsullied by assumption, or ready-formed expectations.

Built upon such enigmatic yet strangely emphatic foundations, since 2010 Poledna’s work has appeared to shift in scale if not in sensibility – away from seemingly documentary or crypto-documentary forms and towards far greater technical challenges and theatricality of vision. The first film to mark this change, A Village by the Sea (2011), resembled nothing less than a fully realized musical number from a Hollywood film made in the 1930s or ’40s.

In a generically elegant city apartment in the art deco style, a man and woman in evening dress sing an infectiously sentimental and luxuriously romantic song – a translation and new recording of Charles Trenet’s hit ‘Que reste-t-il de nos amours?’ (What Remains of Our Love?, 1942) – to the swell and ebb of a full orchestral score. As with all such numbers, their duet has a beginning, middle and end; and the performance is dramatic and choreographed, as though given on a stage. The actors conclude by gazing upwards and outwards towards the viewer, lost in the world of their love, yet sharing the depth of their romance.

Imitation of Life, 2013, 35mm film still

Poledna followed this excursion into a neo-Hollywood fantasy of la vie de luxe, in all its heightened romance, with Imitation of Life (2013): a 35mm film installation that presents itself as a fragment of a Disney-style animated film, again from Hollywood’s 1930s and ’40s Golden Age. At its start, a little bird circles down from a blue sky into a sun-dappled wood. There, a donkey dressed in a us Navy sailor suit is sleeping on a log in the middle of a gently flowing river. Alighting on a twig, the little bird asks, ‘How did you get here?’ In response, the donkey sailor rouses himself, looks around in some surprise, and then floats gracefully downstream while singing ‘I’ve Got A Feeling You’re Fooling’ from the Hollywood musical Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935). Skipping nimbly from log to riverbank, he then performs a dance routine in a forest clearing (with a backing chorus supplied by lustily singing woodland birds) before casually going on his way. Returning briefly at the last moment, the donkey concludes the number with a final showbiz flourish – gesturing with upturned palms towards the viewer, as though once again making a gift of his Hollywood fantasy world to the viewer.

In keeping with the fact that Poledna’s film works are meticulously installed and screened, any other material (in the case of Imitation of Life, for instance, some of the animation drawing) is kept at a supporting distance. In terms of readily available further information, the viewer receives only a list of the film credits – and may gauge from its length that Poledna’s two most recent works are hugely labour-intensive: the skills of a vast number of technicians, artists, specialist artisans and musicians have been utilized to realize the finished work. Indeed, in making these recent films, Poledna has put together the kind of massive teams that were needed to make a movie nearly 80 years ago – and, in doing so, has created a precise simulacrum of the visual sensibility and tempo of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

But where does all of this lead? Or does it need to ‘lead’ anywhere? According to the tastes of the viewer, Poledna’s films might appear engrossing, charming, vacuous, mysterious, meaningless, intellectually provocative, conceptually poised, banal-but-pretty or quintessentially ‘cool’ in their determined inscrutability – or all of the above. Without doubt, there is a pronounced tension between their enigmatic simplicity in terms of subject, chosen genre and action, and the apparent sophistication of their production and installation as art works.

Version, 2004, 35mm film still

And then, and then … As the questions begin to mount up, contorting attempts at interpretation into meandering speculation and interrogative dead ends, one realizes that the open-endedness and ambiguity of Poledna’s films, so clinically screened yet so visually luscious, possess an ability to draw the viewer into their gravitational field. And this might firstly raise a further response with regard to the role of pop- or mass-cultural realism within them.

As a good part of documentary film, Hollywood’s Golden Age and popular culture in general all share the function of entertaining and enthralling the viewer, might Poledna’s art merely transplant the mechanics and sensibility of these media – without further comment, vitally – into the strictest of museum and gallery contexts? This done, a conceptual switch is flipped, and the work is simultaneously empowered by the glamour and energy of pop and mass culture, and conceptually opened to any number of interpretations, none of which can be answered or verified.

In the April 1975 issue of Harper’s Magazine, in a brief history of modern art titled ‘The Painted Word’, the ever-contrary cultural analyst and general scene-watcher Tom Wolfe addressed precisely this position in relation to pop art: ‘In short … the culturati were enjoying the realism! – Plain old bourgeois mass-culture high-school goober-squeezing whitehead-hunting can-I-pop-it-for-you-Billy realism! They looked at a Roy Lichtenstein blow-up of a love-comic panel showing a young blonde couple with their lips parted in the moment before a profound, tongue-probing, post-teen American soul-kiss … and – the hell with the sign systems – they just loved the dopey-campy picture of these two vapid blonde sex buds having their love-comic romance bigger than life, six feet by eight feet, in fact, up on the walls in an art gallery …’

Version, 2004, 35mm film still

In one sense, Poledna’s films correspond precisely to the processes of cultural double-tracking that Wolfe described nearly 40 years ago: repositioning the vivacious figuration of mass culture as ‘art’. However, Poledna, one imagines, is totally aware of the conceptual, artistic and cultural dialogue that has been going on between mass culture and contemporary art for over half a century. In which case, if his art comprises recontextualizing mass-cultural forms, be they archaic, contemporary or factual, within a museum or gallery context, then our post-postmodern questioning of such a move is part of the concept.

So, what is left? Ethnography? Anthropology? Or is it mischief-making of the ‘I’ve got a feeling you’re fooling’ kind? These options seem unlikely. Rather, in Poledna’s technically demanding yet seemingly arcane interventions into the image flow and discourse of contemporary art, one might ultimately be reminded of a form of conceptualism, philosophical in basis, which attempts to engage with paradox as a means of enquiry.

Seeming to both create and occupy a discursive void, Poledna’s films might resemble, in their use and manipulation of cinematic language, Gordon Matta-Clark’s ‘interruptive spaces’ within architecture: becoming formal and aesthetic investigations into a cultural vocabulary. By cutting a hole in a building or buying inaccessible and unusable land, as Matta-Clark did, we might reconsider architecture, land use or sculpture. I’m not totally sure, but it feels as though Poledna’s Hollywood dance routines or jungle greenery or existential donkey likewise create gaps for contemplation and re-thinking – existential infotainment. Is that enough? And what about the dopey-campy? The hell with the sign systems indeed...

Mathia Poledna lives in Los Angeles, USA. In 2013, he had a solo exhibition at Secession, Vienna, and represented Austria at the 55th Venice Biennale, Italy. He will present new work in a solo show at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, USA, from 7 Decemeber 2014. 

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.