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Aernout Mik, ‘Scapegoats’, 2006, video still, digital video

I don’t know too much about Aernout Mik—just that he’s Dutch, is in his mid-40s, and has been making video installations for about a decade—and maybe I like it that way. Because for all its stylistic particularity, there’s a sense of anonymity about his work that makes it more powerful than it would otherwise be. It is as if it had been produced by the times—by history—rather than according to the artistic volition of a single individual. I’m reminded, in a way, of Alighiero Boetti’s disavowal of any true authorship of his embroidered map of the world with each country’s terrain filled in by its flag instead of a solid colour: ‘I did nothing for this work, chose nothing myself, in the sense that the world is shaped as it is—I did not draw it; the flags are what they are—I did not design them. In short, I created absolutely nothing.’

Of course, the seeming authorlessness of Mik’s work (or of Boetti’s) is a carefully cultivated illusion. And his work is never non-fiction. If there’s one thing Mik is not, it’s a documentarian, although his works often evoke documentary conventions in a highly stylised way, and one of his recent works, with the self-explanatory title Raw Footage, 2006, has been pieced together from found material. If anything, Mik can be considered a contemporary counterpart of an 18th or 19th century history painter —a role that calls above all for a certain kind of formal skill in handling complex compositions involving a multitude of figures, on a grand scale. And that’s certainly what I found in Mik’s current touring exhibition, Shifting Shifting, which I saw at the Camden Arts Centre in London and which is on view at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh this summer, even as he prepares to occupy the Dutch Pavilion at this summer’s Venice Biennale.

Aernout Mik, 'Training Ground', 2006, video still, digital video 
Aernout Mik, ‘Training Ground’, 2006, video still, digital video

But if traditional history painting paradoxically called for the sort of dramatic impact that is proper to linear narrative in a medium that is above all still and non- linear, Mik turns this desideratum on its head by lending a temporal medium, the moving image, a static or at least directionless quality that does away with any trace of drama—and with it, any privileged moment of catharsis or transcendence. For example, the earliest of the works here is ‘Vacuum Room’, 2005, a six-channel installation showing what appears to be political meeting or judicial hearing that has been disrupted by a group of protesters—or maybe just some sort of guerrilla theatre troupe. Whoever they are, the confrontation between the officials stationed at their tables around three sides of the room and the interlopers who’ve occupied the room’s centre (echoing the viewers’ position at the centre of an installation that surrounds them on three sides) remains a stalemate; thus the work’s disquieting abrogation of the narrative impulse within the moving image. There is much movement in this silent, somehow oneiric work, but no apparent change. No wonder the critic Sven Lütticken, commenting in Artforum about a previous showing (at BAK in Utrecht) of one of the other works here, the single-screen installation ‘Scapegoats’, 2006, complained that ‘the piece might have worked better as a completely static tableau’—that is, as a history painting.

In any case, a dreamlike sense of deadlock animated by unpredictable bouts of nervous energy, similar to that of ‘Vacuum Room’, can be seen in Mik’s more recent works, ‘Scapegooats’, and the two-channel installation, ‘Training Ground’, 2006. The first depicts what appears to be a training exercise for military police, being taught to monitor a group of prisoners in a nondescript outdoor space; the one thing that makes it clear this is not for real is that the sentinels’ ‘rifles’ are wooden fakes. ‘Scapegoats’ is set in a sports stadium being used as a camp—whether for prisoners or refugees is never entirely clear. The random multitude who’ve been herded in there are patrolled by an equally ragtag militia that includes a boy who seems barely as big as the automatic rifle he carries.

All these scenes are familiar in a nonspecific way: Chechnya, the former Yugoslavia, New Orleans—these could be any of the places around the world in which paramilitary action has become a humanitarian disaster for an uncomprehending population or in which a humanitarian disaster has become a military exercise. The tragedy of these situations often lies in their ambiguity: who is the victim, who is the aggressor, who is the defender of others or of oneself? The real battle may be over the right to define and assign these roles. Curiously, Mik once collaborated with the architect Ton Venhoeven to design the entry hall for a new police building in Ground’, 2006, video still, digital video Amsterdam. Asked about it in an interview, he explained his interest in the project this way: ‘A police station is a place with a prescribed function, where a distinct social drama holds sway because it’s where two sections of the population meet: victims or people needing help and the police force. It’s the setting for a more or less established drama.’ And further, ‘because it houses widely differing elements, the space has a certain dynamism yet at the same time there is a sort of claustrophobia…. That’s the absurdity of the situation.’

Aernout Mik, 'Scapegoats', 2006, video still, digital video 
Aernout Mik, ‘Scapegoats’, 2006, video still, digital video

Of course, Mik might just as well have been speaking about one of his own video installations. The absurdity he speaks of is revealed, not only in the overall sense of deadlock that obtains, but in the multitude of details one cannot help but notice, yet can never explain—the rubber gloves a soldier suddenly dons for no apparent reason, the unnerving tics that suddenly take over another man’s body, and so on. In these clamped-down, controlled situations, something is always just on the edge of out-of-control—and one never knows whether it will be the would-be controllers or the controlled who lose it.

As the motif of the preparatory exercise in ‘Training Ground’ makes explicit, Mik is not only inserting evocations of newsworthy contemporary realities into his art; he is also taking note of the structured artifice that exists everywhere within those realities—and thereby questioning the seemingly self-evident distinction between art and life. For him, the exhibition situation itself exemplifies the false neutrality constructed in order to ‘house widely differing elements’, as he said of the police station, and has a similar ‘dynamism’ and ‘claustrophobia’.

As if to prove the interchangeability of reality and fiction, ‘Raw Footage’ discovers the same sense of stasis amidst pointless activity in film shot during the Yugoslav war—and the same sort of theatricality without drama. Who, here, is a ‘real’ soldier and who is simply acting like one? Who is a ‘real’ civilian and who is just pretending? It may not matter, and yet makes the distinction between life and death.What one would like to avoid at all costs is becoming an unwitting actor in an Aernout Mik video. But it’s more likely to be happening than we think.

Barry Schwabsky is London reviews editor of MAP