A young girl, obscured by an exotic plant, plays with an anonymous plastic object. She speaks to herself repeatedly about a ‘thing’, saying ‘a thing that never came back again… everyone was mad about it and sad about it… but nothing ever happened… the thing never came back again… it wasn’t the same thing… that thing, was nice.’ The work is a short video by French filmmaker Michel Auder entitled ‘Talking Head’ 1981/2009. The ‘thing’ the little girl is obsessively talking about is never revealed but its presence is powerfully evoked. Unlike the works displayed in the recent exhibition I curated at Glasgow Sculpture Studios ‘The Objects’, the object is missing from view, yet the video gives prominence to the importance of objects, or ‘things’, and the emotional, nostalgic and economic value that humans often invest in them.
Critic JJ Charlesworth recently wrote about the decrease of actual ‘things’ in contemporary art in his article entitled ‘At what point does nothing become too much of a good thing?’. He said, ‘It’s been bothering me for a while, this growing cultural animosity towards things . It seems to run alongside an equally creepy fascination with the supposedly dwindling experience of materiality, brought on by the expansion of networked, digital image culture.’ He likened this trend to the dematerialisation of the object that arose in the 1960s and ‘70s with the birth of conceptual art. Although Charlesworth is discussing the rise of virtual objects that are created through digital platforms, it is also true that in recent years it has become much more likely that when you walk into a gallery you will see objects mediated through the medium of film, video or photography. While Charlesworth’s text seems to criticise the negotiation of objects through a second media, I would argue that film can provide the objects with as much artistic value, if not more, than when we experience them in reality. The medium of film provides an alternative way of translating, capturing and perceiving them as Auder’s video demonstrates. Indeed, as Susan Sontag wrote, ‘…in the era of information overload, the photograph [film] provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it.’
Amongst the myriad objects, sculptures, pedestals and found imagery in Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer’s expansive collaborative installation for dOCUMENTA (13), The End of Summer, 2012, was a space devoted to works on film. They were all part of Epaminonda’s ongoing series of films entitled Chronicles 2010-ongoing. All shot on Super 8, transferred to DVD, this selection of films depicts collected fragments of various landscapes, trees, objects and animals. One displays a series of static objects set against empty backgrounds of one colour; a series of white rocks placed in a composition against a red background, unmoving, followed by a cut and a new frame revealing the same rocks with a photograph of a bronze head placed behind them. Here the two-dimensional is combined with the three-dimensional, yet both are flattened by the camera. In another cut we see a different rock, followed by a bowl, then a series of vases in changing compositions, then another head—this time white porcelain with a sense of exotic otherness, treated to a series of close ups and position changes. The work goes on like this, displaying a series of found, seemingly forgotten, objects one after another. Later, the frame changes completely and we are shown a landscape—the top of a rocky mountain peeking out from some clouds. Here, caught in a succession of images of inanimate objects, the mountain appears like just another rock placed by the artist for our examination.
The lack of context for the objects chosen, the reasons behind the order in which they are placed and the subsequent juxtapositions, is left open. Film, however, is of course a manipulative medium, creating slippage between reality and a translation of reality: the artist has a level of control over what the viewer sees and what they choose to conceal. Epaminonda’s films promote a flattening of the hierarchy between things. A small rock is treated in the same way as a large mountain. The differences between a picture of an object and an actual object are collapsed. While photography and film can provide only a simulation of reality, here the artist is able to transcend it, offering a place where illusion co-exists with the tangible, and where each thing can be read and examined on a single platform.
French artist Isabelle Cornaro similarly offers a translation of objects on film with her carefully composed arrangements of things captured on camera. She is an artist who interprets, re-represents and reproduces objects in various mediums. Her double-projection ‘Premier reve d’Oskar Fischinger, (Part 1 and Part 2)’, 2008 is filmed on 16mm. In ‘Part 1’ the camera scans a group of disparate objects ranging from ornate perfume bottles, jewellery, white porcelain heads, and glass panes to a camera lens, all set against a black background. The forms and background colour change occasionally, offering the viewer new juxtapositions and perspectives upon them. In ‘Part 2’ the camera shows a number of glass paperweights, each with a different intricate design. The camera zooms in, examining each in detail, creating abstract patterns on the screen. The framing devices and filmic cuts employed by Cornaro distort the scale of the objects and obscure direct readings of them. Cornaro is fascinated with the projection of emotion onto objects; each thing she selects has a familiarity to it. However, by employing such filmic non-linear and temporal sequences, as well as cuts, close-ups and panoramic shots, her films explore representational codes and their effect when they are displaced.
A further example of the transformative potential of film upon objects is witnessed in Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer’s film ‘Flash in the Metropolitan’, 2006. Here, the artists provide the viewer brief glimpses of their chosen objects (ancient artefacts taken from the Near Eastern, African and Oceanic collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Filmed after-hours at the museum, it is shot almost entirely in complete darkness but for an occasional flash of light that illuminates one of the chosen objects. Given only seconds to view these things, the audience becomes captive spending longer looking at the film with the hope of ascertaining the exact subject. The artists have, similarly to Epaminonda and Cramer, removed any traces of narrative or context and in turn question a traditional sense of viewing. Our conventional expectations of museum and gallery displays are thus undermined.
Shahryar Nashat’s video ‘Today’, 2009 offers another view of the museum—one taken behind the scenes at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel, Switzerland where two sculptures by Swiss artist Karl Geiser (1898-1957) are explored in different ways. Geiser was, at one time, one of Switzerland’s most revered artists. The two sculptures chosen from the museum’s permanent collection, however, have never been on public display. The first scene shows large sculptures being moved from one part of the museum’s store to another. The camera focuses in on a tall bronze sculpture and a red screen appears with text akin to a museum label telling us the work is ‘Velofahrer (Cyclist)’, 1928-34. Museum staff handle the sculpture with exemplary care. Treated with value, yet rarely seen outside of the museum store, the video gives the audience an opportunity to consider the sculpture’s status as a renowned work of art, yet one hidden from public view. In another scene shot in the photography studio we see a second bronze statue on a red background. The camera moves and jerks, coming in and out of focus, mimicking the still camera that will eventually take its image. Another catalogue entry comes on screen revealing that the work is ‘Stehender Nackter Knabe (Nude Boy Standing)’,1926. A series of coloured treatments—blue, green, red—wash over the video screen transforming the sculpture’s appearance, revealing to the audience how objects can, and often are, manipulated by filmic or photographic reproductions. The work is a clever demonstration of film’s capability to change the viewer’s perception of objects in two distinct ways.
Reflecting on the mediation of time through a collection of objects is the subject of Fiona Tan’s most recent video, ‘Inventory’, 2013. The work explores the private collection of British architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) who opened up his London home as a museum in the 1820s. The museum remains largely unaltered since that date. Filmed using six different cameras in order to capture every detail, the house appears as a large cabinet of curiosities as every corner, shelf and wall is occupied by a vast array of Roman antiquities. Like much of Tan’s practice, the work explores time, space and memory. Each object in the museum is a fragment of memory from Soane’s life. Similar to the way Auder’s little girl speaks affectionately for her ‘thing’ from memory, Tan’s film attempts to demonstrate a passion and love for the collection and preservation of things. If the museum is itself a time capsule, then here the artist has created, on film, an additional memory of the museum nearly 200 years since its inception. This version thus becomes an object that will exist in itself, for contemplations by a new set of viewers in different spaces and at another time.
While each of these films and videos presents a remove from the physicality of objects and sculptures, they all demonstrate the varied potential of film to alter an accepted reading of objects. The tangible object and its filmic translation work together to provide the viewer an opportunity to gain new perspectives on the familiar and expected. In Susan Sontag’s writings on the subject of filmic reproduction in On Photography, 1973, she argued: ‘Photographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos… All photographs are momento mori . To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’
If film performs a similar action then all the artists discussed here have created a space where the subjects captured will remain in perpetuity. Despite Charlesworth’s protestations that digital imagery devalues the tangible object, these film and videos each demonstrate a celebration and love of the objects they display. In turn they exist as entities in themselves that work both as autonomous things and as extensions of the objects they survey.
Kyla McDonald, Head of Programme at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, curated ‘The Objects’ for GSS, 16 February—6 April 2013