Tel Aviv Museum, Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, 2014. Installation view: Elad Sarig
David Claerbout, Bordeaux Piece, 2004
Van Assche, Christine (ed.), 'The Shape of Time', Zürich: JRP Ringier/Centre Pompidou/MIT List Center of Visual Arts/De Pont Foundation/Kunstmuseum St. Gallen/Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2008 (exh.cat.)
In Bordeaux Piece, Claerbout leaves the relative familiarity of the flat frontality of his two-dimensional film projections behind. For the first time, he seeks to open—besides the temporal ambivalence of an image and the complex structure of a space—new possibilities of the cinema and of the image as well. In his multifaceted engagement of the experience of imagery, he again combines techniques of observation from photography, independent film, digital media, and architecture, adding dramatic elements of narrative cinema for the first time.
For this work, a single scene was shot 70 times at different times of day; cut to form a chronological sequence, the resulting film develops in parallel with a complete rotation of the sun. Professional actors play the parts. The camerawork, dialogue, directing, sound, and editing follow the rules of conventional cinema. Although the dialogue seems vacuous and empty and the protagonists’ characters remain superficial, the viewer recognizes a relationship drama involving two male rivals and a young woman.
There is a particular irony to the fact that Claerbout chose precisely an “amnestic” contemporary architecture in order to create an experience of the phenomenon of porous time. The architecture chosen as setting affords no space to the past. It is without a doubt a recent construction, inhabited not long ago, and only rather random actions are performed in sequence. The normality of everyday life has not yet infiltrated the setting. It is a place with little past and, at first glance, one without history. In order to document this tangible “now,” Claerbout has developed a simple and efficient procedure: a dialogue scene based on a love triangle is repeated almost identically until one diurnal cycle is complete. The scene’s setting is a precisely delimited and theatrical stage: a villa on the river Gironde near Bordeaux. When the cycle has been completed, neither the protagonists nor the architecture and nature in the background have changed perceptibly.
There is therefore neither climax nor resolution in Bordeaux Piece; nothing seems to change. This impression would seem to be corroborated by careful observation of the film projection at different times. Aside the fact that public museums prohibit staying around the clock, it is not technology or the presentation in the museum or the capacity of human memory, which permit one to record changes in the details. The spectator would have to assume, then, that the film represents a 24-hour cycle composed of short scenes edited, following Claerbout’s conception, on the editing table. Even the most determined viewers are unable to verify that there is indeed no progression in the film’s dramatic development.
The action in Bordeaux Piece is dramatic, compressed, nervous. The first reading of the short relationship drama is affirmative; all further repetitions undermine the conventions and techniques of narrative cinema. Real, physical time only gradually comes to the fore, appearing to be an almost physically palpable and irrefutable unit: real time becomes a subject that can be experienced. This impression is intensified by a separation of sound and image. The trivial dialogue, in synchronicity with the image, is only available through headphones, while the sounds of the rural environment are projected into the museum space from speakers.
Two different yet interlaced spaces thus emerge: the outside world of the background, its time unfolding visibly and in an imperturbable cycle, and the interior world of action, of the discourse and the tangible. The central question is which of these effects, these spaces, is emphasized—the perception of a slow unfolding of the physical time, marked by the sun’s inexorable motion and recorded by the film, or the witnessing of a relationship drama that takes place in an elegant villa featuring a gorgeous view of the countryside.
Including dialogue, action, and montage, this film is Claerbout’s first venture into the territory of conventional film. The result is simultaneously a treatise of architecture and film. In both media, abstract categories of time and space meet and conflict. Claerbout’s medium, however, is the moving picture, that is, the subtle engagement of moving and static pictures. To this end, he employs new digital technology in order to intensify the primary characteristics of film and image. The slow progress of time is perceptible in the shifting nuances of daylight; it sustains a panoramic observation, becoming the film’s structural principle. In contrast with his earlier works, the viewer’s perspective is neither frontal nor static; the scene is not seemingly motionless but, for Claerbout’s standards, remarkably lively. The viewer observes three protagonists in a constructed situation; hence the initial impression that the work aimed primarily at a short video clip about enchanting architecture.1
Besides the logistic and technological constraints imposed by the conditions of presentation, a third constraint created by the constant repetition of the short dialogue is especially conspicuous: an immaterial effect is at play here that can be retraced to subjective human limitations—to the human inability to precisely remember gradual changes over the dramatic course of a day. By presenting a puzzle of seemingly identical repetitions, Claerbout seeks to overburden human memory. The act of comparing quickly reveals that keen observation and the faculty of memory can neither survey the full extent of this film in its entirety and continuity, nor reconstruct the action. Perception is dominated by a sequence of short and similar mnemonic fragments without aim or end. It is the short-term memory of an incessantly repeating present that cannot be condensed into historical memory.
The viewer’s expectations, oriented toward dialogue and action, remain unsatisfied. With time it becomes clear that the narration will never condense into a story, a plot, but will instead repeat over and over. The architecture and the natural scenery thus become the film’s center and subject, while the dialogue scenes, reminiscent of video clips, appear to be a red herring intended to bring the progress of time in architecture and scenery into the picture.
It is characteristic of Claerbout’s films that they leave expectations unsatisfied, offering no logical structure or resolution. The inertia of his films, which are frontal, silent, and seem to feature little action, counteracts the conventions of cinematic perception. Since his first work, Cat and Bird in Peace (1996), he has been toying with expectations, invoking them but leaving them unsatisfied. Two animals, natural enemies, regard each other peacefully instead of fighting. The initial tension gradually resolves, giving rise to a humorous natural idyll. He constructs this pattern in other works by introducing tiny movements on the surface of the seemingly static filmic image. Only an attentive observer will notice the slow developments in details such as animated natural objects, leaves, clouds, light.
The image is both medium and subject matter. It presupposes heightened attention on the viewer’s part. The perception of slow development in an inconspicuous detail hones the viewer’s sensitivity for the incessant temporal mechanic that regulates the filmic as well as any other image. Claerbout’s works move between distance and proximity, rendering the borders between a past that has been concluded and the actuality of the presence of the image permeable, even dissolving them.
Both the slowness of such development, and the repetitions, stand in polar opposition to any traditional narrative technique that guides the viewer or reader through a dramatic sequence. Nonetheless, it cannot be said that Claerbout uses the film medium as absolutely and without manipulation as structuralism did. He employs manipulation and montage, but only very subtly. Claerbout makes use of two fundamental cinematic conventions: like most artists of his generation who work with moving images and film, he avoids the conventional montage techniques of narrative cinema. He works instead with simple contrasts between moving and static elements. Simple as these techniques are, they constitute the preconditions of the cinema—standstill and repetition.
In an essay on the films of Guy Debord, Giorgio Agamben discusses Deleuze’s concept of the cinema:
There are two transcendental conditions of montage, repetition and standstill [ … ] the second transcendental condition of montage is the standstill. It is the power to interrupt, the ‘revolutionary interruption’ of which Benjamin spoke [ … ] One might take up Valéry’s definition and say of the cinema, at least of a certain cinema, that it is an extended hesitation between the image and the meaning. At issue here is not a standstill in the sense of a chronological pause; it is, rather, a force of standstill that works on the image itself, that removes it from the narrative power in order to expose it as such.2
Claerbout’s way of integrating the photographed unmoving element can be interpreted as a “revolutionary interruption.” The animation of the surface renders temporal borders permeable, sensitizing the viewer’s observation to a divergence between image and meaning. The repetition of what seem to be identical elements furtively inserts duration into perception:
Repetition is not the return of the identical, the same returning as such. The force and the grace of repetition, the novelty it adds, is the return to possibility of that which has been. Repetition restores the possibility of that which has been, makes it possible once more. To repeat something is to make it possible once more. That is where the proximity between repetition and memory resides. For neither can memory give us that which has been as such. That would be hell. Memory restores to the past its possibility. It is the significance of this theological experience that Benjamin recognized in memory, whence he said that remembrance realizes what is unrealized, and unrealizes what has been realized. Memory, as it were, is the organ of the modalization of the real, that which can transform the real into the possible and the possible into the real.3
In repetition, then, memory is primary; meaning here is not affected by the singularity of the contingent events of drama. The relationship between the real and the possible is determined by repetition, which is never quite identical: cinema as a “zone of undecidability between truth and falsehood.”4
In other words, Claerbout stakes his project not only on cultural memory, on sensitivities or viewers’ perspectives, but on the re-examination of existing or previously known images and places featuring animated natural phenomena. The events he smuggles into what appear to be unchanging image spaces can be read as a reaction or as a need among artists of his generation to emphasize and clarify the unique relation in which film and photography stand to time, using new digital technologies.
It was Roland Barthes’ associative claim that every photographic exposure points to the inalterable finality of the past—to death. Claerbout, it seems, seeks to refute this claim. His kinetic interventions deconstruct the conclusiveness of time, suggesting that the now and the then continue to exist. The irrevocable interrelation between the “photographic still” and time dissolves into ambiguities and becomes the site of a variety of expectations. This “duration,” which arises from a development of the photographic still using new technology, also opens up new perspectives on the medium film.
The film’s narrative continuity is ruptured by seemingly identical repetition, influencing the viewer’s psychological attachment to the protagonists. Attitudes of expectation quickly disintegrate with a few confrontations with comparable elements. The viewer’s attention decreases or shifts as he focuses on one moving detail. Memory remains present and current, transfixed by tense concentration. The focus is on zones of change within the image. Instead of immersing himself in the narration, the observer seeks to trace the artist’s visual kinetics. The tension arises from the mutual influence that physical time, the time of the medium, and dramatic time exert upon each other.
Many of Claerbout’s works delineate the various possibilities offered by photography, film, and digital media of visualizing the abstraction of time. Like other artists of his generation, he makes little use of the options of high-tech digital animation, limiting himself to fundamental techniques of montage and animation that seem to reach back to the origins of photography and film.
Claerbout uses animation not for purposes of entertainment but as a “punctum” (Barthes), as a significant detail through which the past is rendered present. As soon as you stop the film, you begin to find time to add to the image. You start to reflect differently on film, on cinema. You are led toward the photogram—which is itself a step further in the direction of the photograph. In the frozen film (or photogram), the presence of the photograph bursts forth, while other means exploited by the mise-en-sc ne to work against time tend to vanish [ … ] In this, the photograph enjoys a privilege over all other effects that make the spectator of cinema, this hurried spectator, a pensive one as well.5
The reflective viewer seeks out the unity of space and time in a photograph or film recording. He observes how this unity is reorganized not as a new composition of signs intended to create an imaginary space but as an interplay of temporal processes connected to each other in a variety of ways. Summarizing the perspectives that artists’ video and film installations create by recycling technology, the film theorist Laura Mulvey writes:
There are three points of departure. First, spectatorship. Radical changes in the material, physical ways in which the cinema is consumed necessarily demand that theories of spectatorship should be reconfigured. Second, the indexical sign. The fact that the digital can mimic, as well as doctor, analogue images give a new significance to the indexical sign. And finally narrative.
Theoretical analysis that assumes that narrative is essentially linear, dependent on cause and effect and on closure, shifts with nonlinear viewing. All these inflections depend, above all, on the viewer’s new command over viewing technology and, most of all, the freedom given by the technology over the pace and order of a film. As narrative coherence fragments, as the indexical moment suddenly finds visibility in the slowed or stilled image, so spectatorship finds new forms.6
It is unnecessary to emphasize that architecture, more than other media, gives tangible and lasting concretization to precisely defined units of space and time. According to an old piece of wisdom, a building by its very definition stands in polar opposition to the transient and changeful events of time. In the shifts between spaces, between inside and outside, seemingly abstract differences of time and space can achieve almost tactile presence. This would seem to explain Claerbout’s great interest in architectural shots.
Sentences such as “Do you love my hair, do you love my face, do you love my breasts,” indicate that the plot of a specific film has been adopted. The dialogue is a liberal adaptation from Jean-Luc Godard’s cult film Le Mépris (1963). Yet the fact that Claerbout has chosen the casual exchange between a filmmaker, a screenwriter, an actress, and a producer from Godard’s cult classic as a point of departure for his first narrative work should not be understood as a mere conceptual game. Godard is the godfather of self-reflective filmmaking, embodying the attack of auteur cinema on the industrialization of film championed by Hollywood. Le Mépris is seen as Godard’s first autochthonous and idiosyncratic film; here, the various components of a film, such as opening and closing credits, sound, image, sequence, etc. are for the first time deployed as separate and deconstructed elements. To this day, Claerbout has not used deconstruction the way Godard did. Nor do his works approach the typical Godardian visual experience, characterized by ruptures and shocks. Visual experience in Claerbout does not assume that the viewer’s attention is fleeting; rather, his ideal viewer is the reflecting observer Laura Mulvey and Raymond Bellour refer to.
Claerbout’s decision to employ relatively rapid cuts instead of seemingly unmoving imagery, and to integrate dialogue and narrative structure as well, was read by some authors as a commentary on “film-like” architectural designs by Rem Koolhaas.7 Koolhaas uses montage and dramatic lines of rupture in building sequences and stacks of functions and spaces in his buildings. Associations between Godard and Koolhaas have been proposed a number of times, based on the unconventionality of their work and the conceptual deconstruction involved in the realization of their media. The intersection and separation of elements that are traditionally held in logical conjunction perhaps form a level of interpretation Claerbout seeks to enter by introducing Le Mépris into Koolhaas’s architecture.
The intrigue Claerbout takes from Godard represents much more than a self-reflective exercise about the medium of film and cinema because of the specific choice of architecture, an architecture that appears not as a mere setting or motif but as the protagonists’ antagonist. The surrounding natural scenery makes a distinct appearance; the camera is often directed at it. The architecture gives stability to the viewer’s perspective, offering a clearly delineated space that marks the difference between the mobility of natural phenomena and the immobility of a designed and measured construction. Claerbout often works with the contrast between the ephemeral and the durable, defining his images as both spaces and events. Conspicuous modernist buildings with their typical spatial effects have been used frequently, for example by Michelangelo Antonioni, in order to register a different spatiality. Through his references to Godard, Claerbout comments on the architectonic qualities of Koolhaas’ work and on the way in which they are lived and thought. He does so in a series of metaphors.
The last scenes of Godard’s Le Mépris were shot at another monument of modernist architecture: at Casa Malaparte, which was designed by Adalberto Libera and built on the Italian island of Capri for the Italian writer and patron of the arts, Curzio Malaparte.
Claerbout places a number of conspicuous similarities and countermoves at the center of his work: between Koolhaas and Godard, between the Bordeaux villa and the Casa Malaparte, between Malaparte the patron and the French publishers who commissioned the villa in Bordeaux. Godard’s film, too, offers a neat film-historical commentary on the Casa Malaparte. Claerbout does something similar with Koolhaas’s building; simultaneously, this interpretation and the cross-references recall the memory of Godard and the Casa Malaparte. His film thus becomes a cinematographic cultural memorial, an allegory.
The film addresses similarities as well as differences between the two residences. Both buildings are situated in an overwhelmingly beautiful scenery. Both go back to the villa typology established by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Houses, to a certain conception of the fusion of residential living and nature. They dominate their surroundings and are at the same time perfectly integrated into them. Both residences offer breathtaking views and consist of spaces that give room to a sheltered private life protected from nature and the outside world. Both are buildings whose organization says something about a new understanding of the family. The legendary roof deck atop the Casa Malaparte, with its curved wind protection wall, reduces the inhabitants to hedonistic beholders within the sublime, placed at the center of a geological spectacle of mountain formations and the waves of the Mediterranean. There is an echo of this in the “living-room terrace” of Koolhaas’ glass building. Thanks to its situation on a hilltop, it offers a panoramic view of the old center of the city of Bordeaux and of the stately environment of the Gironde. The upper part of the house, a rectangular block composed of large glass walls with sliding doors and a terrace, floats above the artificial hill, effecting a complete disappearance of the border between scenery and living room. As in the Casa Malaparte, a sense arises that one stands simultaneously in the scenery and in the living space. At these sites, indoors and outdoors are no longer thought of as contrasting—an observation both films present with lavish shots of the natural scenery.
At the Casa Malaparte, the living quarters are located beneath the terrace. All residential functions and the villa’s comforts are there. Enclosure, domesticity, and the privacy of separate rooms into which the residents can withdraw from the sublime outside world are all heightened by the details of walls, floors, and ceilings. In contrast with the outside, they are made of polished rather than raw stone, and include windows. The logic of living at Casa Malaparte is inverted by Koolhaas’ building. The residential rooms float atop the terrace, in a closed volume into which light enters through precisely-placed round cut-outs, and within which the private rooms have been modeled into modernist caves. Godard’s film includes hardly a shot of these individual rooms. Claerbout, in his turn, conspicuously avoids this much-discussed part of the house, not even bringing it in front of the camera. At Casa Malaparte, the family’s common rooms, such as the kitchen and the living rooms, are located next to this part of the house. Family life here meets the ideal of domestic shelter translated into decorative elements such as a fireplace, furniture, and wood paneling. The sense of security is disrupted only by two monumental picture windows that offer views of the rocks and the sea. In Koolhaas’ house, these spaces are located on the ground floor, beneath the terrace. The space of quotidian shared family life is thus clearly separated from the private rooms and the spaces designated for public receptions.
One characteristic of Godard’s film is the mise-en-scène of the staircase that leads to the roof. This is the image that is typical of and most frequently repeated in Le Mépris. In various scenes, Godard shows the dramatic and theatrical act of walking up this staircase, using the view from the terrace into the surroundings to create a sublime stage, fusing the interior and outside worlds. In Claerbout, this essential element is the centrally located elevator that connects all floors. It is not merely a motif but a structural element. In one take that moves downward through the house, the camera moves smoothly from the area of the terrace and the living room to the family’s rooms below. The mechanism that makes this possible is only hinted at and thematically integrated, but not explicitly on view in the film. For the building’s client and resident, who was confined to a wheelchair after an accident, the architect invented an ingenious elevator platform. It offered him the ability to move freely and independently throughout the house. The moving elevator is simultaneously the building’s center and its principle. It organizes the villa’s family relationships and functions.8 Just like the monumental staircase at Casa Malaparte, the elevator’s movements lead to shifting vantage points. Both interior and exterior spaces unfold in a continuous theatrical sequence of images. The view from the elevator transmutes everything into imagery. It was perhaps the elevator’s heavily cinematographic character that compelled Claerbout to leave the seeming immobility of the observer’s standpoint and, in contrast with earlier works, to vary the camera position.
The elevator that offered relative freedom to the client confined to a wheelchair resonates with the history of the Casa Malaparte. While the building on Capri was under construction, Malaparte fell into disfavor with Benito Mussolini’s regime. The domicile, intended to be a conscious return to the ideals of classical Rome, became a temporary asylum on the island.9
Through all these elements, both Godard and Claerbout focus on conceptions of time, different in each case, that are philosophical rather than symbolic in nature. In Godard, the conceptual play of filmmaking is underscored by the highly symbolic character of Fritz Lang and his problematic relationship with Hollywood. Godard contrasts his fiction with that of Lang’s epic movie about the Odysseus myth. The narrative time of film here encounters the epic time of literature, and the latter in turn encounters the archaic time of myth, in order to arrive at the philosophical concept of natural time. One scene captures this perfectly: the actors are on the roof, invoking the mythological time of Odysseus. The camera turns toward the motion of the sea’s waves and the static monumentality of the rocks. Godard thus metaphorically superimposes mineral and organic time, epic and cultural time, and the time of the medium. In Claerbout, too, the vantage incessantly moves between action, architecture, and panoramic shots of the vegetation and the cyclical movement of sunlight. Even more than confronting the artificial and the natural, the paradisiacal and the secular, Claerbout thus focuses on a comparison of different conceptions of time. Architecture, action, and nature each represent individual horizons of experience that, through repetition, frame new possibilities of the image.
With this work, Claerbout has dared to undertake speculative references to two monstres sacrés in their own disciplines. Using this hypothetical and conceptual instrument, he has succeeded in delineating, in his own melancholy way, a whole series of new interpretations of these masterworks of film and architecture.
1 The owner of the house invited David Claerbout to realize a work during a residency at the family’s villa.
2 Giorgio Agamben, “Le Cin ma de Guy Debord,” Image et mémoire, Editions Ho beke, Paris 1998, p. 69–70.
3 Ibid. p. 76
4 Raymond Bellour, “The Pensive Spectator,” Wide Angle
9, no. 1, 1987; quoted in Laura Mulvey, “Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualising Time and Its Passing,” in Saving the Image: Art after Film, CCA Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2003, p. 85.
5 Mulvey, “Stillness in the Moving Image,” p. 80.
7 Lieven van den Abeele, in De Standaard, Groot-Bijgaarden, September 10, 2004, p. 27.
8 Beatriz Colomina, “A machine was its heart. A house in Floirac,” Domus, Milan, no. 811, January 1999, p. 57 ff.
9 Marida Talamona, Casa Malaparte, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1992.