BY Tom Morton in Features | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

On The Waterfront

Tom Morton looks at the work of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

BY Tom Morton in Features | 10 OCT 03

Every summer when I was a child, my mother would drive me to a holiday home in Wales; a Swiss-style A-frame pitched above a river and a sloping, sheep-sprigged field.

The journey was a long one (six or so hours across the bulging flank of Britain), and I spent a lot of time looking out of the window, half an ear tuned to whatever local station seeped from the car radio. Now and then I'd spot a sign by the roadside welcoming me to a new county and, despite the sameness of the motorway landscape (with its tarmac and rhomboid sidings), I'd experience a small, Rubicon-crossing thrill. A few minutes later I'd hear a fresh local radio station - riding the same frequency - fizz into life, and I'd become preoccupied by the discrepancy between the county's sonic and physical borders. For a short while at least I'd travelled through a contradictory zone, somewhere where, say, Radio Bedfordshire played in Hertfordshire, where locality and local news reports, a place and its representation, didn't tessellate - not quite. In the four-wheeled aerial of my mother's car, I imagined Britain as a tight cluster of islands, lapped by radio waves.

Such slight dislocations - of landscape from narrative, of narrative from time - characterize the recent films of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. In Riyo (1999), Central (2001) and Plages (2001), a loose trilogy of works shown earlier this year at the ICA, London, she explores three water-fringed locations: a riverfront, a ferry terminal and a beach. Riyo is comprised of a single ten-minute shot of the River Kamo in Kyoto. In the blue-tinged early evening the camera floats from left to right, against the flow of the water. Balconied restaurants line the riverside, strung with pearly lanterns. Behind them, cranes nag at the clouds. Couples - evenly spaced - sit beside the bank, commas in the dense text of the city. We pass a dark row of apartments, their dead lights like a lull in some half-intended seduction. A phone rings off-camera (a succession of grasshopper chirrups) and a teenage boy answers. There's a girl on the line, but he's not sure who she is: 'It's Riyo.' 'Rio?' 'Riyo.' 'Yo Riyo! Now I remember.' Riyo is calling from out of town, and as the pair's conversation - like the riverfront - unfolds, we discover that they first met on holiday, and hear in their coy, circling exchanges the rumour of romance, as tender and fleeting as the youthful affair in Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood (1987).

A typical at-home adolescent, the boy spends a lot of time speaking about places he's visited or would like to visit, his fantasies of 'eating noodles in Hokkaido!' But if Riyo is about his brushes with the wider world, it's also about how he views it through his own window, his own meaning-frame. In Gonzalez-Foerster's film the boy's home town, Kyoto, becomes a kind of stage set, somewhere that - painted and repainted by twilight's fairyland miasma - stands for every faraway place he invokes: Shirakawa, Yokahama, even the misheard 'Rio'. This mishearing is important, the hinge that links the film's physical and emotional landscapes. Riyo, being a girl, is as exotic to the boy as her Brazilian namesake. Nervously he flirts with her, trying out feelings, tasting them as though they were morsels of unfamiliar foreign food. He holidays in her otherness, ticking boxes - She laughed at my jokes? Check. She told me I was cute? Check, check - confirming that love lives up to the pictures in the book. At the speed of a low-slung tourist barge the camera chugs along the river. Running out of things to say, the pair makes vague plans to meet up. Something, however, tells me this'll never happen. Riyo's parting shot is of a cheap firecracker, spluttering lamely on the river's lip. As with holidays or teenage love, the real thrill of pyrotechnics is in their anticipation.

Gonzalez-Foerster has said that 'I think I'm obsessed with a world through which one walks in spirit'. In one of her favourite books, Adolfo Bioy Casares' Morel's Invention (1940), the narrator - a nameless exile - pitches up on a tropical island inhabited by a group of sophisticates, including Faustine, a woman who instantly captures his heart. These people, however, appear indifferent to his presence and, following much metaphysical self-reflection (am I a social outcast? a ghost?), he discovers that they're holographic projections, products of 'Morel's Invention' - a wave-powered immortality machine that 'records' human beings, then endlessly transmits their walking, talking and, Casares hints, thinking images into the real world. The taping process obliterates the body but, filled with loneliness, the narrator turns 'Morel's Invention' on himself, entering the realm of pure representation where he hopes, perhaps against hope, finally to woo Faustine. Like Casares' novel, Gonzalez-Foerster's Central ponders the gap between the viewer and the viewed. A sign, slightly weathered, tells us that we're at the Star Ferry Terminal, Hong Kong. The camera cuts to a boat, then to the waterfront, then to various solitary souls standing on its edge. It's all very melancholy. In a rich, xylophone voice a female narrator, about 25 years old, informs us that 'This is where I'm meeting my brother [...] But right now I have no idea that in a few years he'll stop speaking to me.' This paradox - a Wong Kar-Wei pastiche - starts the piece ticking. Killing time before her sibling turns up (he never does), the narrator describes the harbour: 'this hotel is an aquarium'; 'this guy looks like he's slept outside'; ' this girl [...] looks like the monolith from 2001.' There's a sprightly oddness to her similes, and we get to thinking about how contingent our visual responses are on the places we've visited and the films we've seen, on our fads and personal quirks. She wonders: 'What is it that binds one to another? Which experiences? Which structures?' She wonders whether it will rain.

As the camera flits over the ferries, the narrator waxes philosophical: 'Boats come in and out. People look at each other's backs. Not always face to face. They project themselves on to others. See themselves moving on, see themselves walking. Wonder if they are more like this or that person. Other people are part of ourselves. No complete identity without the presence of all.' This last line, I think, is the key to Gonzalez-Foerster's film. Central is a highly partial portrait of a place, characterized by cuts, camera angles and cinematic references. Nevertheless, it dreams of a new mode of representation, implied in its lingering shots of office windows, of faces waiting for the ferry. Behind every one of these, it whispers, lies a different impression; put them together, and you've got the truth. What happens to the figure of the narrator, though, if this fantasy is fulfilled? Neither an image in the film nor the film's couch-slumped viewer, she is instead (like Casares' protagonist) a fiction observing another fiction, a phantom made up only of her own perceptions of the harbour: its beautiful light, the toasted façades of its Modernist buildings, the poses of the men practising Tai Chi on its banks. She is pure emotional topography - in Central's dream world she'd either blink out of existence, or become something a lot like God.

The voice-track of the third film in Gonzalez-Foerster's trilogy, Plages, features interviews with seven men, all over 50, all of them with stories to tell about Brazil's Copacabana beach. The film begins, in darkness, at 6 a.m. The camera hangs high above the black swell of the sea. Far below, people play chicken with the waves. Panning back, we see the beach teeming with hundreds of people, their white clothes punctuated by yellow parasols and the occasional flickering bonfire. A man's voice pipes through the speakers, his words contradicting the scene below: 'Copacabana at dawn. It's very silent. All is calm. All is quiet. I met someone. An imaginary character, a friend, in some kind of pain.' He sings a song, full of hope and healing. There's a lull, the beach roars, and an art collector talks about Copacabana's landscape gardens, designed by Roberto Burle Marx. Next, a filmmaker recounts his first teenage fumble in a local stairwell: 'I have never again experienced anything so beautiful.' The camera passes over the crowds, focusing sharply in and out in a nod to the Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. Couples trickle towards bars and snack stalls, their hands wedged into each other's back pockets. An architect speaks, explaining a shelved 1960s plan to build 'vertical districts' in Copacabana, vast concrete triple helixes housing 500,000 people, every one of whom would have a 'beautiful view'. The sky fills with sparks, police sirens sound and a pyrotechnician tries to talk over a fireworks display, its explosions like huge, angry suns. Calm returns, and - as if on cue - a journalist states: 'If there is one place that mankind's Utopia exists, Copacabana must be that place.' As the film ends, the last speaker, a fisherman, signals his agreement: 'Copacabana is wonderful. It's a wonderful city. Copacabana doesn't exist.'

Like Riyo and Central, Plages is a picture of a place. Like them, it's overlaid with the invisible cartography of the human mind and heart. Each location in the trilogy, it seems to me, is both full and empty. For every building, there's a building that wasn't built; for every plan, a plan abandoned, for every friend, a stranger; for every sign, an empty sign. Gonzalez-Foerster brings a lot of things to the topographies she films: fine writing, feeling, conceptual sophistication and a grasp of beauty that extends to the bend of an old man's elbow or pink ferry's blowzy, wedding-cake bridge. Most of all, however, she brings the understanding that representation, to really succeed, must represent everything, must wish itself away.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.