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Ursula Mayer, ‘The lunch in Fur’, 2008, video still

With the explicit intention of moving EASTinternational’s focus ‘further East’, the pairing of Warsaw gallerists Raster and Art & Language as this year’s selectors exposes an noteworthy incongruity within the direction of the biennial. Broadly speaking, one might expect geography, politics and history to be fecund sites for this curatorial team, yet works that directly invoke such themes fare less well than those which instead focus on the surreal, imaginary, or unconscious language of the private individual.

Even under this premise, the quality of the biennial is puzzlingly varied. While works such as David Jaques’ semifictional ‘Por Convención Ferrer’, 2008, and Barbara Walker’s series of stop-and-search drawings suffer from bouts of political heavy-handedness, others works appear adrift in relation to placement. The flaws in this biennial grouping is not easily explicable; the inclusion of weaker works neither appear to be a compromise to further the selector’s larger curatorial vision (which is not noticeably articulated), nor an attempt to showcase a number of individual works based purely on the strength of their inner logic. An evident torpor sprawls between the gallery spaces, and work rarely steps beyond tentative or neatly demarcated aspirations. But perhaps for this very reason, there are a few works conspicuous for their refreshing ambition and confidence.

Andrea Bttner, 'Little Works', 2007, video still
Andrea Büttner, ‘Little Works’, 2007, video still

One such work by Laure Prouvost’s, the startlingly accomplished video ‘OWT’, 2009, attempts to present itself at once. Combining interview footage of Michael Connor with video clips, a wonky transcription, and instructional text titles, this expeditious work provides much-needed velocity and wit to EAST. Although Prouvost relishes slippages in meaning (Walter Benjamin’s seminal text is transcribed as ‘he is into mechanics’, while Ian Breakwell is misheard as ‘she broke it well’), she is not simply out for easy laughs, but rather succeeds in atomising narrative elements and images into unstable or irrational configurations.

Ursula Mayer’s hallucinatory 16mm film ‘The Lunch In Fur’, 2008, presents a different register, imagining a fictional meeting between Dora Maar, Josephine Baker and Meret Oppenheim. Suggesting an equivalence or sympathetic magic between these figures, their professions, and the objects that surround them, Mayer’s deliberation is both poetic and surreal.

‘After School Special’, 2009, by Corin Sworn, however, is the most exceptional work in show. Seductive and adroit, this dreamy video appropriates footage from Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, 1979. Sworn redubs American teenagers with adult voices, and exploits gaps in narrative replacing or else imposing an unconscious and abstracted language. Both the historically reflective narrative and the uneasy placement of these full-grown voices cut through the sun-bleached nostalgia of the Kaplan footage, and careers towards a 21st century future laden with dramatic irony of which we now appear to be the inheritors.

Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large