Tel Aviv Museum, 2011 (photo Elad Sarig)
Lynn Cooke Conversation
Kunstverein Hannover / A Prior Catalogue 2002
I've been thinking a lot about 'Villa Corthout' (2001), David, your five part installation which you outlined to me while on a visit to Brussels some time ago, even before it was finished, and which I now glimpse via the tape and documentation you forwarded. Perhaps my interest is partly piqued by the need to imagine what the experience of viewing it is like since it is the only major piece of yours that I haven't actually seen. I speculate, too, on whether and if so how it conforms to previous concerns, where it diverges from them, and where it breaks new ground. But other aspects also greatly interest me.
A boy and girl are relaxing by a pool in a vast park-like garden. They seem sufficiently distant physically from one another to preclude close engagement: self-absorption prevails over dialogue. He is strumming a guitar; she leans against the railing of the pool's stairs. Sound and image were recorded simultaneously. The scene was shot from five positions. The finished work consists of five projections shown in five separate rooms. Each clip, of some twenty-five minutes, was recorded from a different angle and a different distance, as if the circling camera, viewing from shifting angles and varying degrees of removal, never focused on either protagonist specifically, remaining more attentive to mood and scene as a unified entity. Ambient sounds change accordingly.
I'm very intrigued by the way the spectator's route through the rooms in which the piece is shown creates a trajectory, mapping a passage in time and space which overlays that created compositely in the work. How close or, alternatively, how different, can these be? Can more than one screen be seen at a time, say, from the threshold between two adjacent rooms? Do changes in axis accompany changes in focus? In the fluid, intermittent but continuous circulation required to view the work, an interplay must be enacted between presence and absence which is analogous to, but different from, that between the simultaneous presence and absence inherent in film as a medium. The simultaneous pastness and presence integral to the film image — a record of something that once existed at a certain historical moment yet, animated, given motion if not quite life, by the act of projection — is further underscored by the live sound. The paradox of this dual state is consistently heightened in your works by the borderline existence they often maintain between being either static or moving images. On several occasions, for example in 'Boom/Arbre/Tree', you have deftly but almost imperceptibly animated a found photograph. Here, conversely, the cinematic mise-en-scene is almost immobilized: the boy is viewed at such a remove that action is registered more through sound passing in real time that action is registered than by means of a visual recording of those fleeting moments.
Heightened listening is counterpointed with the vagueness of visual information: the scene is too remote for detailed appraisal. The requirement of an active spectator moving from gallery to gallery and, perhaps, back again, proposes a more active agency on her part than is evidenced by the recorded protagonists. This inversion of the traditional relationship between spectator and image presupposed in mainstream cinematic experience seems 'critical to 'Villa Courthout'. By renegotiating this conventional relationship you allow film to operate here not solely as a window onto another world, one into which the passive spectator seated in a blackened box that is the auditorium can escape, losing herself imaginatively into another world. In your installation film enters the actual space inhabited by the viewer, activating a spatio-temporal experience in completely unconventional ways, and thereby restoring a certain autonomy to the visitor, who can determine for herself the length of time she engages with the reproductive image.
Divested of plot and narrative, 'Villa Corthout' also blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction, between an observed situation and an invented one. The etiolated stillness makes the work seem staged, contrived for the camera, as do the multiple discrete angles. Yet when experienced part by part, room by room, the sense of each episode will be quite contrary, more 'natural' than artificial. Only cumulatively, and retrospectively, does the careful calibration become fully evident. The fractional shifts in vantage point and in motion, the softness of focus, the limpidity of the situation coupled with its divorce in time and space, seem to invite a deferential consensus as to what has been seen, which, for all its poetic limpidity, might nevertheless be described as familiar and commonplace rather than singular or exceptional. Viewers are required to complete the hazy gestalt, to decipher spatial ambiguities, to infer presences and comprehend various elisions, ellipses and approximations, consequently muting and defusing any erotic charge that might be over-manipulative of their responses. Such unalloyed tranquility breeds backward looking. Is pastness always linked to nostalgia, loss, melancholy? This tone, this affect, seems to run through much of your work, David. Does it have to do with the nature of film as a medium? Or with film's history? Or with the demise of film as a major art form as it's been known through the twentieth century? Or with the relation of film to history? Does it encompass all camera based art-forms? The key exception in your oeuvre, for me, is 'Cat and bird in peace', 1996. Exceptionally, this work is presented on a monitor. And, while not in itself autobiographical, it does come uniquely out of your personal circumstances, in that the protagonists are your pets. The extraordinary tension generated over the course of the long duration of the work, the intense apprehension that is built up, seems rooted in the subject - that is, in the situation of the two animals - rather than in the materials and means of making. In this way, too, 'Cat and bird' differs from your other works, for the camera here is permitted to be no more than a transparent witness.
In several ways, then, I see 'Villa Corthout' bringing a number of your abiding concerns to a kind of climax, as, conversely, it seems to open new avenues. This extended speculation may be somewhat off-base, David, given that I'm introjecting rather than analyzing reactions to the work in situ. I'm interested to learn what you make of my hypotheses.
It is true that the compilation — showing a succession of video fragments — is very different from the experience of the work when it is properly installed in five separate rooms. There the visitor can observe no more than one image at a time but the sound is more random. Despite the fact that you haven't seen the piece installed, I am astonished by your writing on the work. Let's hope that what I can add is of use to you.
It's difficult for me to talk about the narrative of 'Villa Corthout', in part because it is fragmented over five video projections in five separate rooms. What may also be misleading is the fact that the individual video sequences remind me of my earlier work in a formal way. (In the last paragraph of your first letter you say that 'Villa Corthout' "brings a number of abiding concerns to a kind of climax, as, conversely, it seems to open new avenues...") I realise that, indeed, the frozenness present in the earlier pieces does tell a different story here. 'Villa Corthout' was recorded in real-time video rather than taking as its point of departure a film still or a photograph, as was the case in several previous works.
For me, 'Villa Corthout' is in many ways a balancing act. It requires a very precise installation of image and, most importantly, of sound. Ideally, it is presented as a single work in a solo exhibition. It's difficult to install in a group exhibition because the focus of the beholder changes: the already fragile assemblage of the work falls into pieces when confronted with other works. The aspect of 'being enclosed in itself' is very important for this piece, so there should not be other proposals or horizons in the space. In the path that the spectotor will walk I carefully avoided developing a plot. Because of their changing closeness and distance from the subject, the images become absorbing, and a voyeuristic gaze does not begin to develop.
'Villa Corthout' is the largest installation I have made up until now. In contrast to its monumental scale, its gestures are very minimal, as if it deliberately does not want to set up a dialogue or a narrative. It is the opposite of the completion of some event. It seems as if all the elements for a plot have been suspended or amputated; it exists before a plot might start to develop.
I believe the narrative lies not within the changes of camera position alone, but within the sounds that accompany the image and fill the space. On first impression the added soundtrack seems to support the image, as it usually does in films. But, for me, it is precisely within the minimal distinctions among the soundtracks that a narrative is developed. There is one sequence that I would further separate from the other four sequences: the view taken from the forest. It is the farthest away from the girl and the boy. And because it is filmed from inside the woods the soundtrack, like the sunshine through the leaves on the soil, includes vivid recordings of birds, wind, and crickets. For me, this sequence functions like a non-verbal story about separation, about being far away from the scene.
A key concern — one you pointed to in your letter — is to try to make the mechanically reproduced image relate to the beholder without recourse to an anecdote. It's a concern that I constantly try to realize, while maintaining a 'natural' distance between the mechanically reproduced subject and the beholder. In 'Villa Corthout' the beholder finds himself wandering through the rooms, witnessing a bucolic quietness which is really artificial but still sufficiently present to be suggestive. The film he is watching is, in the first instance, quieter than he is himself, partly because he has to move his body through rooms with projections which themselves remain quiet. Since these sequences allow only time to evolve, not the story, I hoped that the spectator would get a sensation like: 'And now, what about me?'
Exhibiting a piece is always a bit like stretching out your hand and saying: 'please, take this'. I'm interested in suggesting a kind of awareness generated by an image observed actively. The personnage(s) in the image absorb(s) the visitor's gaze, a little like a painting does. It is hanging there. It exists within its frame and does not point to any new development of a plot outside that frame, as does film through the use of consecutive shots: film always looks forward. This is an awareness that I would like to render tactile.
One method involves the use of commonplace phenomena like wind, sun and trees to unfreeze specific images that belong in a virtual photographic world. I find myself applying elements which have little anecdotal history, such as the sun, onto elements with a concrete history or past, thus affecting this environment profoundly, and doing so without a film scenario. Items like wind or sun seem opposed to the idea of the virtual, of abstraction from reality. Everybody is conscious of where the sun is, of how trees move, of how light behaves. Since we carry in ourselves a natural awareness of these phenomena they become, for me, a valuable argument against the presentiment of a photograph becoming totally virtual, totally abstracted from reality.
About backward looking: film has, almost by definition, something to do with progress. The camera registers one frame after the other, its goal is the synchronisation of still frames to evoke the illusion of motion as seen by the human eye, in the blink of an eye. Beneath even that footage which appears most calm lies the nervosity of film itself. Photography, on the other hand, offers a certain peace — through the possibility that all parts of the image may be examined, and the knowledge that one can always dispose of it. Whereas film is atmospheric, photography may be compared to a skin that can be touched. So, watching a film that promises the 'certainty of disposal' and where even slow motion is left out of consideration breeds backward looking. What should be done with the 'solid looking' aspects of both film and photography in a computer-based environment? And, what becomes of the image as it is processed by one and the same electronic signal from its encoding to its output as a video- or data-projection? As the flattening through digital media continues, the basic concepts of photography and film remain valid. In the flattened zone between them I try to do my work.
In my opinion, this tendency to condense 'time' into a single entity from which it could extend in any direction — a vision of the world moving forward and backward simultaneously — provokes a physical questioning and reaction. Simply put, it offers something to hang on to when all else seems nothing more than a continuous process of development. In that sense it could breed backward looking.
I filmed 'Cat and bird in peace' in 1996. It was the second video-piece I made; the first was 'Boom/Arbre/Tree' (1996). Initially, I had planned a scene by the seaside with a small family of seagulls walking near the shore and some predator resting on the beach, right in between them. As I finally used my pets and filmed them live in my house, the more modest set was a little easier for me to control. Some ideas which I worked out later were already present in 'Cat and bird'. (The five years between then and now look like a long time to me, but some concerns haven't changed.) I wanted the tension that is inevitably built up by the nature of the animals to be simultaneously taken down. I wanted to suggest that the actors in this play were aware of themselves as actors, while at the same time everybody could see that they weren't. They really only observed one another. After 'Cat and bird' I never again used the 'real' in this way — except, perhaps, in 'Vietnam, 1967, near Duc Pho' (2001) but, then again, that's different.
Thanks very much for your letter, David, I am grateful for such a considered response. It provokes many questions, central among them is the issue of time in its manifold guises and forms. In your work there is a constant contrast between duration (lived time) and chronological time (as in an historical moment now past), though rarely is the contrast starkly or simply posed as a binary opposition. By animating a still image or by using a recording of real-time footage that is different from the lived time of the observer watching the piece, two temporal modalities run in tandem. Further complicating this is a distinction between what might be termed an extended present — a continuous suspended 'presentness' — and the continuous present stretching forward in time, that is our normal sense of being 'in the present'. One example of the former is conveyed by an animated image ofa natural phenomenon, such as a tree blowing in the wind, another would be the movement of sunlight across a surface, both of which in indicating duration seem to refer to a cyclical rather than a linear mode. Such motion conveys no anecdotal event, carries no narrative, and is not connected to the development of a plot. By contrast, in most conventional film, and implicit in only a few of your works, notably 'Cat and bird', intimations ofa sequence of events or actions over time — or the anticipation of such — can be used to construct a putative narrative.
The question of the nature and role of the past is generally deferred rather than directly foregrounded in these works. Sometimes it is rendered inconsequential, so that, with the moving tree for example, what occurred previously is essentially similar to what is occurring now. Past and present overlap, and are even seamlessly collapsed into each other: the past is embodied or latent in the present. But in the original print, in the still photograph which is the basis of the work, a point in time was fixed at the moment when the image was recorded: there the past is ineluctably separated from the present. This conventional segregation is undermined in your animations. In other works, however, there are elements or motifs that allude to a specific historical past, to a former era: this is indicated by means of architecture, for instance, but is virtually impossible with an isolated natural specimen such as a tree or an animal. The inclusion of such imagery raises a different set of questions that, for me, revolve around the notion of nostalgia. In many of your works, there is a pervasive undertone of loss, whether ofa lost idyll, or of forfeited idealism, or faded hopes, or unrequited yearning. A pathos subtly infiltrates the experience of confronting these works. Key examples of this include works with images of childhood, school groups and a kindergarten scene, a rural pastoral, and those pieces that include reference to International Style modernist architecture, as found in the villa, the kindergarten, the domestic portico and the skyscraper facade, all of which evoke an age (whether the 19205 or 196os is not crucial) buoyed by an optimistic utopian fervor for social change that was manifest very vividly in its architectural expressions, both civic and residential. In a quite different form it enters your website project also, 'Present' (2000), (at http://www.diacenter.org/claerbout).
Countering this pervasive aura of nostalgia, which is always necessarily a backward looking movement, is the stilling — by suspending and stretching time, or by rendering it cyclical — that produces what I have experienced as a sense of extended presentness, a durational movement outside the normal temporal flow. Focused engagement momentarily halts or suspends time, as when one's gaze is captured by the young girl who turns and seems to seek out the gaze of the spectator, or by the stealthy stalking around the protagonists that occurs as the viewer moves from one screen to another in 'Villa Corthout', or by the sense of becoming hypnotically transfixed that 'Cat and bird' engenders. This state of heightened yet inevitably brief immersion verges on the epiphanic, or ecstatic: albeit ephemeral it invokes a sensation akin to jouissance. (In 'Cat and bird' and, possibly, the Vietnam piece a feeling of imminent horror or terror is momentarily warded off and converted into its opposite — a marveling fascination with the image — by the act of stilling duration and freezing motion, however momentarily.)
David, do you see your work as pivoting around these twin poles of loss and reclamation/reparation/resurrection? If so, does it result inevitably from a deployment of these media film and video — which are inherently time-based? Or, does it arise from your particular approach to these media?
Thank you for providing me each time with so many elements to think about.
Yes, I see my work as pivoting around loss and reclamation. Maybe I can illustrate this by explaining how I came to my work. At the time that I finished studying at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, in 1996, I had mainly been working with paint and silkscreen, and I was collecting a lot of documentation as a source material. When I looked back over my work it felt as though the object, or the fetishism of the art object, was taking over from what really interested me - looking at photography. As a consequence I spent the next year in an archive, with a camera, like a thief. I reproduced medical photography. The objectivation of people for medical purposes provoked in me — initially in a very naive way- their subjective counterpart. So I started to consider photography as an orphaned piece of reality, although not complety detached from its history. My behaviour became that of a nurse: it would bring these images back to life and let them float in an environment that would not treat them as passé, documented and classified. Moreover, I felt invited to change a cynical gaze into an embracing gaze.
Supposing that photography is never quite detached from where it originates — in reality, in history — means that it does not completely lose its political and social power, its capacity for speech. However, the 'capturing' or framing of a photograph makes it vulnerable to the gaze, which wants to direct it and manipulate it. The camera amputates a piece of reality: it frames in order to dominate this elusive reality. Since we believe that photography remains part of reality in some way, reality gets directed, or steered by a gaze. That leaves us the choice of direction.
So, for me, it was important to edit pre-existing, lost footage. It felt like a purification to affect existing footage and not to produce, which means that one bears full responsibility. I simply became aware that the work that I wanted to make was in part already existing: it just had to be altered, or affected, in a particular way. It was important to stop 'producing objects of art' and to let the associations about a picture or a situation run freely. Basically, I never invent situations: I always alter them. Out of this method grew what may seem a random way of approaching a subject. I have to admit that I enjoyed that. It gave me the opportunity to de-focalise the motif from constraining thoughts among which irony is primary. From there I started to imagine countering elements in a found image by means of a kind of auto-animation: defocalising the initial content, creating a doubt within a photo that aspires to forwardness, clarity. Then it became clear for me that I could attack optimistic captions. I felt that the direct use of irony had been disappointing because it dismissed the initial content of the image: I wanted the initial content to be remembered. The urge to address my spectator by using theatrical elements, like 'real' duration and life-size projection as opposed to a still framework, grew; more subtle techniques for evoking irony beame possible. In this way a sense of loss could run in tandem with presence.
For me, this involves a continuous battle against abstraction — not by using the body which, via shock or pain, is sometimes considered the last bastion against abstraction, but by using the medium that par excellence eliminates the body: film. There is a void created at the moment when film comes to a halt, when it stops speaking to us. When the one-directional language of film is suspended then the spectator himself must seek a new position. At that moment the body comes in again. I am trying to use the scattered debris left from this break in communication between the film and the spectator as a starting point for a new interrogation, an interogation of either the spectator or the narration of the image. This approach involves making the spectator feel initially that it takes 'too much' time to wait: why should we wait for film when film is supposed to address itself to us?
In trying to answer your question about my approach to film, Lynne, I would say that part of my approach is to use the premises of film, photography and time in order to do away with their individual monopolies. I hope you will forgive me for the fact that my letter is not a clear answer. Even though I feel invited to write more, I think that, for the time being, it's not necessary to complicate things further.
Thank you, David, your comments about your point of departure in archival photography were very revealing and helpful: the idea of 'nursing' an image back to life is very telling. You suggest that an ambivalent relationship connects the photograph and 'reality': they are literally tied in that a photograph is made indexically and so we are convinced, on most occasions at least, that the camera dispassionately recorded what actually happened. Yet, at the same time, the photograph is subject to the gaze of both the maker and the viewer who, each in her different way, tries to dominate it, interpret it, frame it, and contextualize it. As you say, the photograph therefore never quite loses its power to speak politically or socially, or perhaps even ethically.
Most of the time your works don't press this point, or test its edges. On the contrary, it seems to me, they leave the option, the capacity, for social or political statement dormant, subsumed to other issues: you characterize this as "de-focalizing the initial content, creating a doubt within a photo that aspires to forwardness, clarity". However, there's one recent work that has always seemed to me anomalous in the context of your oeuvre, precisely because it so strongly involves both a specific historical moment and a highly loaded subject, the Vietnam war.
In 'Vietnam, -1967, near Duc Pho' (2001), you made great efforts to reconstruct a famous photograph of a fighter plane exploding in the sky over mountainous jungle landscape. You went to considerable lengths to travel to the actual site in order to reconstruct the photograph, and then you produced it on a really monumental scale; so big that it seems to be defiantly large. There's an implicit aggression towards any viewer who might want to consume it too easily, too unproblematically. It's a very loaded, charged work in multiple ways, not least because it unsettles the spectator, making the act of beholding self-conscious and uncomfortable, even ethical. Do you find, as I do, that it relates to the former function of history painting, with the difference that the victims, those who suffer, are even more anonymous than before? I'm thinking, I suppose, of the sense of challenge and moral responsibility encoded in such works by Goya's 'The Third of May', Manet's The Death of Maximilian', and Gericault's 'Raft of the Medusa', all incidents of carnage and destruction. Documentary photography, newsreel footage and now television — notably, CNN with its instant recording and endless replays — serves some of these roles, though as we've seen with the much replayed footage from, first, September 11 in New York City and, subsequently, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the initial shock generated by a particularly compelling image or film or videoclip soon becomes numbingly familiar, vacated of affect and, almost, of import. 'Your' Vietnam photograph long predates these events, but is perhaps made more urgent, more provocative, by the parallels with this recent footage, constantly replayed, sampled, recontextualized and otherwise manipulated.
A friend recently gave me an essay titled 'Poet and State' by the American writer and poet Stanley Kunitz, in which he says: "The poet knows that revolutions of sensibility are not won at barricades. He also knows that there is no way in which he can escape history, even if he should want to." Not a new idea, certainly, but one that bears repeating at this moment. What I was particularly struck by was this comment that followed shortly after: "If poetry teaches us anything about our feelings, it must be that we can have several feelings about the same thing at the same time. These feelings are not necessarily compatible; and if we try to solidify them into a certainty, they become other feelings."
I bring this up because it helped me realize how productive, rather than simply inconclusive, is the uncertainty and disquiet that I've experienced when looking at and reflecting on 'Vietnam, 1967'. Perhaps this is only say that why I, and perhaps most viewers, constantly return to such works of art is not simply for contemplative retrospection, but as aids, models, and stimulants to further enquiry, imagining, and speculating. With any work of art that employs the camera this qualified response is particularly acute, as evidenced by numerous Magnum images produced over the past half century by celebrated photojournalists which typically elicit ethical and aesthetic responses in an uneasy and disturbing mix. It becomes much more complex when a work of art like 'Vietnam, 1967' appropriates a pre-existing photograph to recreate it in way that makes the intervention — the act of restaging in this case — a constant and unavoidable feature of engaging with that piece. I hope this hasn't strayed too far from our previous discussion, David. It seems to be in the nature of letter writing to follow a more meandering, allusive path than that traced by a rapid-fire live interview.
In order to make 'Vietnam 1967, near Duc Pho' (2001) I went to the place where Hiromichi Mine had been, but as I was not able to place myself in the same position I had to recompose the photograph somewhat. It was important to me to use the same landscape for my reconstruction: otherwise, I would not have been able to have the memory of the landscape and of the thirty years that had passed, even though the landscape has in fact changed enormously.
What I find significantly different between history painting and CNN newsreel footage is that you see a painting, such as Goya's 'Third of May', starting from the end. You first see how the painter has finished it; you see him looking over the completed composition. By contrast, in the newsreel footage the camera chases after events: the composition is focussed on and locked into whatever is considered news. When I first had an idea for a videopiece I sensed that I would have to construct a gestalt, a strong composition, if I wanted my piece to 'survive' as a so-called 'new media' work. I was surprised at the importance of remembering a picture, yet I was never sure exactly what it was that the beholder took back home — this reminds me of your second quotation from Stanley Kunitz. So, perhaps, there is a kind of schematic framework around a piece that does not hold the 'content' together but, rather, determines the way that one remembers it. In the case of the Vietnam piece was important for me that the plane brings to mind the open arms of a sculpture of Christ on the cross. I wanted the plane to hang there like a person, affected by light and time passing over its wings. In this well known photograph the potency of the camera as image-maker is perhaps undermined by an almost unconscious memory of the well- known gesture of the Crucifixion.
In `Vietnam, 1967' it is impossible to neglect the subject of the broken plane in the center of the image. This is what you see at first glance, when you approach the projection. I hope that the beholder may spend some time with this work, because he needs time to feel how the 'panoramic' (peace) in fact takes over. For me, this piece is about the focused gaze (the tragedy of the plane) and the panoramic gaze (which bestows meaning on depth).
The lightboxes comprise two series, first, the nocturnal snowscapes and then, a year later, the Venetian scenes. The term 'lightbox' does not fully apply, however. Though every box contains eight fluorescent tubes that light up the slide, each slide (which measures approximately 15o x 100 cm) is so dark that when the lightbox is installed in a daylit situation, it reveals nothing but a black surface. Only when it is dark, or when the electric light in the room is eliminated, will the weak light concealed inside penetrate through the dark slide to reveal a nocturnal landscape.
The initial idea behind these works was to photograph opaque darkness. I imagined a picture on a cibachrome slide that would be so obscure that when it was fixed into a light box, the electric light would want to escape through the ventilation holes because it couldn't get through the photograph. I was playing with the idea of 'violent' light and with the silence of a completely untouched nocturnal landscape. It takes a beholder several minutes to adapt his or retina to the weak light conditions. The nocturnal circumstances in which these pieces are shown invites the beholder to feel a 'silence' similar to that which he would experience when finding himself alone, outside, in the dark. Recently, I have found something else of importance in this initial idea. Perhaps I'm trying to unfreeze photography by the use of parallels to the objects and events in any specific representation: I 'copy' night in the nocturnal photographs; I 'copy' wind in the trees in historical photographs; I copy the light in the actual landscape in a document of a long-past war; or of a walk in a garden by using five rooms and five projections.
Another important aspect of these works comes from the fact that most of the story that a photograph tells is outside the picture. The picture is framed by four straight borders which clearly indicate that it was once part of a greater whole. This makes us use our eyes like a focusing tool - and the picture may become either a victim or an aggressor, as we discussed before. But when we are on the 'outside' it is the reverse. In the nocturnal landscapes, as in the Venice lightboxes, the boundaries fade, and we are again in the open. The focusing tool is gone.
In your comments on the lightbox series, David, you mention that time is required for the viewer's eyes to adjust to the reduced light conditions and for the images to become visible. In my experience of these and other art works that also need this kind of optical adjustment, such as some of James Turrell's installations, there is no way that the process can be hurried. The mind cannot speed up these changes in the body: they are beyond mental control. I am very interested in what happens as the spectator becomes conscious of the passing of time during this period of adjustment, how in the slowing down of one's apprehension time begins to seem stretched out. The motif emerges is what is a temporal unfolding: it could be said to be 'animated' by, and in, the process of perception. Of course, this form of 'animation' is very different from that whereby you previously treated a photograph, manipulating certain details only, such as the leaves or the sunlight. Although in the lightbox series a sense of animation results from the process of bringing the image into visibility, one's conviction that the motif is resolutely static, removed from the passage of time, is never undermined. Through this counterpointing of duration with the record of a moment that appears to be suspended outside time, a self-conscious awareness of the passage of real time as an integral part of the experience of engaging with a work of art, indeed, as integral to the very act of looking, becomes foregrounded.
In this way these two series of works seem to me to relate closely to key concerns that have long informed your practice, and yet to realize them in completely new forms. Equally significantly, I think, is the fact that this kind of looking, which might be aligned to 'night vision', relies on a multi-sensory response. When negotiating space in the dark, we draw on bodily based knowledge to compensate for the restrictions or limitations in our vision. A kinaesthetic awareness grounded physically in the body and supplemented by hearing enhances optical responses far more than is the case when perceiving under normal conditions of adequate luminosity, Like many of your previous works, these two series also situate the viewer phenomenologically in relation to the work: however, this now takes place within the confines of that static, fixed viewpoint one normally adopts in front of a modestly sized photograph. Looking itself becomes peculiarly charged: attentive, alert, self-reflexive, and almost palpable in the context of such uninflected quiescence.
For me, the familiarity of the motifs is also crucial to the way these series function. This overwhelming sense of familiarity may derive from literally having been to those sites in Venice: more likely, and more importantly it stems from the ubiquitous overexposure that endless reproduction ensures. The two pictures taken in the Belgian countryside operate similarly because they belong very obviously to a recognizable trope. Their version of a slightly passe picturesque conveys more nostalgia than it does mystery, evoking as do all the lightbox works a sense of timelessness, of removal from specifics of an historical moment. The singularity of an individual photograph — an image taken at a particular instant in a singular place — becomes subsumed to the generic, the collective, and the process of looking is accorded priority over any desire on your part to add to the pictorial record of contemporary reality, and any possibility of immersion in the nominal subject on the part of the spectator. Thus although you yourself shot these motifs, these nocturnal vistas become equivalent to the pre-existing or found images you normally prefer as a point of departure.
I'm very conscious that my reading of these two series assimilates them closely into what I see as the metaphysic governing your practice. For me, one striking feature of our dialogue has been the confirmation of what I see as a practice strongly grounded in a substantial, abiding thematics yet fuelled by an ongoing endeavor to deepen and enrich that by means of the most open-ended but rigorously honed exploration possible. I hope this reflection doesn't suggest closure, David: it is not meant to preclude developing our conversation further in the future. Next time, however, I'll let you begin...
This exchange between Lynne Cooke and David Claerbout was conducted by fax and email between October 2001 and February 2002.
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