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You Like to Watch, Don’t You.


Project Arts Centre, Dublin

14 August – 10 October 2015

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“Each is never less than watchable”

*Aidan Dunne. The Irish Times. 29.9.2015*

I like the new Aidan Dunne in The Irish Times. There’s just enough room in his visual arts Round Up for the right amount of dismissiveness. That said, when Dunne wrote “Each is never less than watchable” in his review of David Claerbout’s four projected works at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, and qualified the provocative statement with the meh “in that they are visually lush and inviting”, I was left disappointed and wanting.

Sure, Claerbout’s works at Project are lush and inviting, but there’s a lot more going on here than just lush and inviting. Their watchability is down to the fact that people like to watch other people watching, and doing, or just being. It’s a basic human and evolutionary behaviour. Our first key into the world as infants is to watch and mimic how our parents react to us and the world around them. We smile, love, empathise and learn through the body language of others.

The peculiar thing about body language is, it’s not a great liar. It tells on us when we are happy. It tells on us when we are sad. It advertises in vicious physiognomy when we are angry. It does its best work when we are trying to hide when we are happy or sad or angry. Body language is our most primal tell. Roland Barthes had something quite good to say about the telltale language of the body in a book that I return to time and again, A Lover’s Discourse: “what I hide by my language, my body utters”. 

Claerbout’s video installation at Project got me thinking about such things. Things to do with getting to know people, and getting to know yourself through other people. And how behaviours and identities pool outwards from others. And how roles, such as friend or lover, are formed in that personal space of gesturing and posturing and jostling between people – a space that the Belgian artist’s camera hones in on with uncommon patience in his atomization of the world around him.

Claerbout’s four works at Project invite us into a world composed of a French beach at low tide, a North-African slum, an eighteenth-century French farmhouse, and a computer-animated forest of nondescript provenance. I first walked in on the slum and farmhouse, including a spectator who was already fidgeting in the gallery.

Titled The Long Goodbye (2007), a smiling, middle-aged woman slowly emerges in three-quarter profile from the dark. All bosom at first; then, all flowing shawl and dress, she carries a tray with tea for two. She pours the tea, fluidly. She looks directly at the spectator (you) and waves goodbye to the retreating camera amidst swarming shadows that fade the terraced-farmhouse idyll to black. An episode that would take a minute in real-time takes twelve in Claerbout-time.

Adjacent, The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment is made up of 600 grey-scale photographs that play out over thirty-seven minutes. Set within the tumbledown houses of the Casbah of Algiers, an overpopulated and rundown quarter in the heart of the city, a flock of seagulls and collection of young and elderly men come together on an improvised football pitch in a flurry of body language and feathers. This is all orchestrated by a central protagonist who simply feeds a seagull which triggers the marvelous orgy of cause and effect.

Something artificial is playing out in The Algiers’ Sections, like CGI when it has to deal with portraying humans in steep perspective. But I fell in love with it all the same. The seagulls, hanging there like the silly, symmetrical dove in Piero Della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ (1450s), are a thing of beauty. 

There is something bigger playing out in The Long Goodbye - beyond the spacial enclaves of the artist’s temporal visions – to do with the unnatural condition of being human. The fluid movements of the woman traversing the terrace against the trees and their shadows as they fidget unnaturally under Claerbout’s pacing is unsettling.

Between these two works there is a lot of bleeding perspectives, both tipping the crest of your shoulder for attention. The Long Goodbye is prolonged as it comes and goes three times during the playing time of The Algiers’ Sections. The electric-guitar instrumental from the latter nudges all perspectives into emotive unison.

The funny thing is, if you threw a Coca Cola bottle into the Casbah mix you would come close to one of those World Cup ads which equate the beautiful game with a beautiful world, especially if it’s the Third World. There’s something to be said, however, about Claerbout’s ability to transform cliché – while embracing it – into something momentous, something one-off. 

An intermission in my viewing followed, which led to introducing myself to the fidgeting stranger in the gallery while I was double checking the screening times of the remaining two works. 

The stranger, who I came to know as Dick from Canada, was visibly inspired by Claerbout’s work, which made him cathartic and chatty. This led to him to reflect on how he once owned his own Leica camera, the same camera Henri Cartier Bresson used as a young photographer in the 1930s. He told me how he sold his Leica in the ’60s, something he regrets to this day. He talked about the anonymity embraced by Cartier Bresson in the act of capturing the moment. He opined, willfully, on the contemporary condition of image-making: its proliferation and excess, its barefacedness, its bullshit. 

Returning later to the Project (without Dick) to watch the remaining two works was a game of hit and miss. Once again, in the same vein as The Long Goodbye, we are witnesses to a blind spot in perception in The Quite Shore(2011). But unlike The Algiers’ Sections there is no visual anchor in The Quite Shore, just a durational exercise in looking at people looking. 

A squatting boy makes a big splash in the retreating or advancing tide, while a community of onlookers form a flat plane of eyes expanding outward like concentric circles that reach all the way back to the civilised coast. We and the players in the piece are strays, eyes wandering the daguerreotype landscape of shore and sea, soft and silver, for something more, a twist in the tale, a full stop, anything. The Quite Shore is like one of those dreams that you feel you are consciously directing, until the dream grows tense and its identity folds in on itself.

The Quite Shore’s partner projection at Project, Travel (1996-2013), is an animated film in which the camera leads us past a park bench and into a forest to arrive in a digital ferngully of trickling streams and drippy leaves. 

In my experience of Claerbout’s body of work at Project Travel took the role of closing credits. What is made clear in this particular work is Claerbout is an artist who doesn’t make things easy for himself, exemplified in the music selection here. Like the abstract painter who embraces one obstacle after another to avoid conscious image-making, Claerbout chooses generic  relaxation music as the audio accompaniment for Travel: Lars Von Trier gives us operatic Wagner, Claerbout 1980s synthesizer. It shouldn’t work, and it probably doesn’t as an individual artwork, but as part of the whole at Project, yes.

In their determined stillness and artificial fluidity, David Claerbout’s subjects are caught in a space where roles and relationships are taking form (like me and Dick). Along with what is usually described as Claerbout’s shaping of Time, the artist uses duration to breath familiarity (in us) with his subjects. [James Merrigan]

Through October 10.

In memory of Jason Oakley, an editor and friend who I always tried to impress with words, something he said I would grow out of. RIP.