A masterpiece at ART/37/ BASEL: David Claerbout's "White House"

Jean-Christophe Ammann


UBS art banking news 4/2006


David Claerbout's video film "White House" has a total running time of 13 hours, 27 minutes, and 53 seconds; but it is broken down into sequences of ten minutes in which the same series of actions is continually repeated. What changes is the play of light and shade, the wandering light of the sun, somewhere in the wintry south, individual gestures, movements, expressions on faces. Changes that, in all, are minimal.

Two young men are having an argument. One is black, the other looks as though he could be from the Caribbean. Headphones are provided for the audience, but the argument is inaudible. Instead, there is a commentary in French made up of justi-fications and longings. Things which pass through the men's thoughts, though they are held prisoner within themselves. The black man is vaunting his cleanliness. He cleans once a week, he says, and sees to his clothes. The other man imagines lying on his back and dreamily contemplating the passage of the clouds.

The first scene shows an upright picture. In the foreground is a marvelous tree, while in the distance stands a single-storey white building with a broad, columned facade. The blurred figures of the two men can be seen moving about. The colored man's battered face appears directly before the camera: the black man has hit him. The colored guy doesn't understand what the world is coming to. He speaks, and shakes his head; then a smile of resigned desper-ation spreads across his face. The sound of a shot can be heard through the headphones, and the colored man's head moves out of the picture. The black man can be seen gesticulating aggressively with his pistol. He's trying to fire again, but the magazine is empty. Contemptuously, he flings the useless weapon towards his injured counterpart; and the latter, grasp-ing his bleeding leg and with his face contorted in pain, lumbers uncomprehendingly out of shot.

What follows cannot be seen, but can only be heard in the headphones. The colored man goes to his car and tries in vain tostart the engine. The horn begins to sound furiously. There follows an extended take in which the black man is seen crouching and leaning against a column. He stands up andmoves out of the picture. The cam-era lingers on the magnificent yet totally dilapidated house. Muffled blows can be heard in the headphones, and now the black man is seen dragging his victim back into shot by his arms. He lifts him onto the colonnade, pulls his jacket over his face, and spits on him. The beaten man is breathing evenly, but his hands are vis-ibly tense. The black man fetches a large lump of rock, kneels down over the prone body, looks around, draws back his arms, pauses, then brings the rock crashing down on his victim's head. A dark blood-stain spreads across the other's jacket. The black man smashes the rock into his vic-tim's face three more times, with all his strength. Then he stands up, goes to the car, drops onto the seat, brings out a cas-sette recorder, checks the tape, presses the buttons and listens briefly to the music, lost in thought, then throws the machine away, gets up, slams the door and goes across the field to the tree where the film started. He disappears into its shadow. The music is by Jules Massenet. It can now be heard in the headphones. The further away the black man gets, the more dra-matic and intense is the voice of the male opera singer; and it persists long after the black man has disappeared from view. The film can also be viewed without headphones, as it is internally consistent. Its subject matter is archetypical, for ultimately it harks back to the biblical act of fratricide: the Old Testament murder of Abel by Cain. And because this entirely senseless act is repeated endlessly across the millennia, David Claerbout has repeated the scene for over 13 hours, in a way that is always similar and yet subtly different. The title "White House" inevitably recalls the White House in Washington, and the political implication is clear. Yet the film is not about America-bashing. The archetypical component is far too strong for that: Hutu versus Tutsi, Serb versus Moslem, Israeli versus Palestinian, Sunni versus Shiite...

I know of no artist who conveys an anthro-pological truth with such force in the space of ten minutes. One leaves the room with an oppressive feeling that the "White House" lurks within all of us, part of our ollective biography from which we as individuals cannot escape.

The great French polemologist Gaston Bouthoul once made a comment, the gist of which was that there will always be wars. What matters is to change the con-ditions so that they don't happen. During a discussion with visitors to ART BASEL, the question of skin color arose. For David Claerbout, location was the decisive factor. As he put it, "First le decor, then the story." I could imagine the loca-tion being Louisiana, in the U.S. (hence the choice of French). The topic of fratri-cide does not allow for black and white, because the White House is the house of white rulers! Black and black implies a settling of scores. Black and colored tells a story of oppression, of rival ethnic groups who are close together and yet worlds apart.

In my view, "White House" should be shown in every school.





David Claerbout ©2021