Secession, Vienna, 2012 (photo: Wolfgang Thaler)


Peter Eleey

Pacher, Jeanette/Secession (ed.), 'Diese Sonne strahlt immer', Vienna: Secession, Vereinigung bildender KünstlerInnen, 2012 (exh. cat.)

David Claerbout is usually celebrated for undermining the representational authority of the photographic image and the temporal integrity of the moving picture, as well as for the ways in which he plays theatrically with perception. Often in his work, he aestheticises time — marking it to style, slowing or quickening its chronological unfolding, setting depicted time against its astrological or geologic counterparts, and the lived ‘real’ time of his viewers. Almost all of his work contains some  undercurrent of conflict, arising from an artistic approach that Joanna Lowry aptly describes as ‘monitoring the boundaries of the image whilst simultaneously breaching them’.

His work has, in turn, been connected to ‘active’ modes of spectatorship, and their supposed superiority over more traditional kinds of looking. Central to this attribution of active viewing that attends Claerbout’s work are the numerous instances in which the artist endeavours to join the space of the image with the space of the audience. Much of his work is marked by a gaze directed at the viewer, subjectivizing the temporal and virtual registers of film and photography and periodically juxtaposing theatrical effects, such as that deployed in Study for a Portrait (Violetta) (2001). Here, Claerbout installs a fan invisibly in the room near the projection, such that viewers feel a breeze while watching an image of the subject’s hair blowing softly in a similar draft. The rapprochement  between  image and audience is sometimes further effected through the actions of its subjects on screen. The woman who features in Long Goodbye (2007), for example, comes out onto the terrace, and notices the gaze of the camera. A man stares directly into the lens in Untitled (Carl and Julie) (2000); his child looks up from her drawing when viewers enter the gallery, triggered by motion sensors. The seated woman in Rocking Chair (2003) suddenly turns to listen at one point, as if awakened by us. The men of Dancing Couples (2008) all look away from their partners and stare coldly into the camera, illuminated in the harsh light of the flashbulb.

But just as he, in a conflicted gesture, both monitors and breaches the boundaries of the images he creates, Claerbout at times seems ambivalent about his audience. The figure in Man Under Arches (2000), for instance, is one we can only glimpse as he runs away into the shadows when we enter the gal- lery. An entire classroom of children ignores the viewer in Untitled (Single-Channel View) (1998-2000). Pointedly, once the woman in Long Goodbye looks to the camera, it begins to pull back; the entire work is one of retreat in which the cam- era recedes from her as soon as she becomes aware of being watched. She waves melancholically from the terrace at the recoiling viewer.

Light, and the way it features in Claerbout’s work, often signals this ambivalence. The waving woman disappears into dusk, which descends as the camera withdraws; the protagonists in Rocking Chair and Man Under Arches are concealed in shadow. ‘Everybody is conscious of where the sun is, how trees move, of how light behaves,’ the artist notes. ‘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.’ Of such natural phenomena, light is what reinscribes his representations in the world they depict, and in which they are viewed. Light serves a range of functions in Claerbout’s work, acting at times as a theatrical prop, or as an active force imbued with affect; elsewhere it reminds us of the industrial light of the projector. Most often, however, it acts as a temporal index.

The very long duration of a work like Bordeaux Piece (2004) can be seen as an aspiration towards the disinterestedness of deep astrological time; its length, markedly, is keyed to the register of the sun’s passage through the sky. The ac- tion repeats itself over hours, and the lengthening shadows are the primary indicator that the recurring action is a fictionalised loop occurring in real time. As such, the work contains a latent utopic desire to resist time’s natural passage, even as it suggests the futility of such an effort. If time did not pass, after all, then the sun would be always shining, and all shadows would be stilled. (The feel-good platitude ‘the sun is always shining somewhere’ admits the sun’s natural cycle of movement, using it to provide cause for optimism.) This notion of an omnipresent solar condition is suggested by Claerbout’s title for his exhibition at Secession, which draws from text in a 1930’s advertisement — that the artist found in Edward Munch’s archive — promoting an infrared solarium.

A variety of therapeutic and agricultural  applications  followed the invention of the incandescent light bulb in the 1870s, most notably the development of lights that pro- vide various spectra similar to that created by sun — incandescents, fluorescents, high-intensity discharge lamps, sodium and metal halides, and more recently, LEDs, which offer relief to those whose moods are affected by seasonal shifts in daylight. Claerbout connects the development of modern electric lighting not sim- ply to practical considerations but to the emotional ends suggested by contemporary light therapies. The sun, after all, is associated medically and allegorically with happi- ness, and he views the sunniness of Munch’s advertisement as a promise of affective utopia, almost like an applied atmospheric prototype for what contemporary psychopharmacology seeks chemically. (It makes sense that this utopically-inflected conception of light was found in the archive of a northern painter.) As with other modern novelties that initially helped to mitigate inconveniences of nature — temperature control, mood and attention-altering medications — we have gradually come to find that the technologically-assisted condition sometimes feels more natural. Air conditioning feels better than a breeze; the low-level euphoria of antidepressants feels right, if over-corrected; the glow of electric light allows the night to be optional.

Over the past decade, as Claerbout has repeatedly used natural light to index time, numerous works — The Stack (2002), Reflecting Sunset (2003), White House (2006) and Long Goodbye — have depicted the progression of time through the movement of the sun against the image. Often appear- ing shining directly into the camera lens, the recorded picture of the sun coincides with the ‘real time’ light of the projector bulb. These pieces recall the theatrical construction of his series Mist Over a Landscape (2002-03), a photographic work that aligns a spotlight in the gallery with the position of the rising sun in the picture of a foggy dawn that hangs before it. The sun lurks both literally and allegorically elsewhere in Claerbout’s oeuvre, including

in the orbiting spatiality of his Sec- tions of a Happy Moment (2007-08) works, which turn around a single frozen moment from an impossible variety of viewpoints, seeming to mimic the structure of heliocentric cosmological space. A related piece, The Quiet Shore (2011), is set on the low-tide coast of Brittany, France, where the tides are among the world’s strongest, and thereby the earth’s movement in relation to the moon is most evident.

These works allow us to look somewhat differently at Claerbout’s interest the ontologies of filmic im- ages, for they emphasise not simply the temporality of such pictures and their boundaries with the space of the audience, but their corporeality. The image of this blinding bright- ness, for example, feels similar to the ‘hot spots’ that a projector can create from certain viewing positions, in which the image becomes overwhelmed by the direct reflec- tion of the light from the projector bulb. This is the projected image at its most literally self-reflective, and it is tempting to understand Claerbout’s use of the directly filmed solar image as an equation of fictions that reveal each other: the illusion of the sun’s movement — we are the ones moving, of course — and the artificial light of the projector.

In this self-reflexive relationship between image and apparatus, he engages (though less traumatically) with aspects of what Mary Lucier pursued in her Dawn Burn experiments of the 1970s, for which she filmed directly into the sun, permanently scarring the tube in her video camera and recording the light’s blackened violence on the image the camera produced.

The design of the exhibition at Secession intensifies the physical presence of Claerbout’s projections by a employing a mirrored floor. Much as Reflecting Sunset casts the sun directly in our eyes (albeit in double reflection–first in the windows of the Stazione Maritima in Naples, and then in the projected film), the added reflection in the floor of the Secession installation reverses the effect, inscribing all of the exhibited works more fully into the unique architecture of its building. This incorporation of the filmic image into its environment is alluded to by the long wet patch of sand in the large projection of The Quiet Shore, which appears as a silvery reflective filmic surface. Referring to the tidal shoreline and its reflection in the image, Claerbout explains that he is ‘interested in relations between the material character of a picture, and the sea pictured. The setting itself loses its certitude.’

It has sometimes been easiest to read Claerbout’s work within the traditions of photographic theory or those of experimental narrative — his interest in the internal logic of images, both still and moving. But his literal focus on sunlight in these works allows us to consider him more broadly in the context of the ‘expanded cinema’ of the 1970s and the attention that certain art- ists paid to the technology of the camera and projector, as well as the physical manifestation of the moving picture. Even as he imbues both light and time with degrees of emotional affect (recalling Lucier, he speaks of ‘violent light’ in regards to the darkness of his Venice Lightboxes from 2000, and references nostalgia repeatedly), Claerbout’s conflations of the light and time of cinema and photography with their natural corollaries situates his work within the dispassionate conceptual and structuralist histories of the late 1960s and 70s. The long takes of Michael Snow, James Benning, and Anthony McCall come to mind — especially McCall’s 24-hour overnight installation Long Film for Ambient Light (1975), which involved no film or projector — as do Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies of 1973, which were paintings on paper meant to register the slow passage of time in the aging of their materi- als over many years.

A similar engagement with monolithic time is found slightly earlier in the work of Douglas Huebler, Robert Barry and On Kawara. Peter Osborne argues that the objective dispassion of time in their work in fact throws the temporalised position of the viewer into relief, ‘produc[ing] its own quicken- ing out of the deadness of merely existing.’ In certain pieces, Huebler and Barry adopted an affect of cold objectivity borrowed from photo- journalism, further deadening their work by documenting invisible subjects and events like the release of gases and the presence of radiation (Barry), or a certain distance travelled (Huebler). A related form of indifference was produced through the representation of overwhelming quantities of material. Barry’s eponymous publication  One  Billion Dots (1968), for example, and Huebler’s project to photograph everyone alive, approximated the sublime scale of geologic processes; On Kawara’s ongoing Today (1966-) series of paintings of each day’s date even more closely represents the dispassion of natural time and our inscription within it. By confronting their audiences with these forms of monolithic indifference, Barry, Huebler and Kawara — such as Snow, Benning and Conrad — activate their audiences, producing pleasurable effects similar to those created by natural history museums or planetariums, where we encoun- ter indicies of deep time. For ‘the feeling of time,’ Osborne notes, ‘is the feeing of life.’

One effect of Huebler’s and Barry’s strategies was to draw at- tention to the representational limitations of photography specifically by using the medium to docu- ment subjects that fall outside of its capabilities (that we nevertheless believe to exist); Conrad achieved something similar with his painted ‘movies’, as did McCall with his an- nexing of natural light in the name of ‘film’. Claerbout, significantly, almost always takes a different approach to his mediums, foreground- ing the ontological boundaries of photography and film by actively intervening into them. He speaks, for example, of wanting to ‘unfreeze’ the photograph, and to ‘[unlock] the flow of time from a fixed situation.’ His interventions are usually pointedly minimal – most pieces have only one central formal conceit – yet remain invariably effective. He and his critics regularly describe his work in terms of its manipulative engagement with the filmic or photographic representations of time; his aestheticising effects and formal détournements expose the temporal conventions of his mediums and, in turn, our experiential expectations of them. Claerbout’s work is, as Raymond Bellour summarises, ‘a matter of thoroughly rethinking the time granted to the image.’

In an inversion of the conceptual paradigm of provocative disinterest that Osborne formulates, the elastic temporal scales of Claerbout’s filmic work sometimes produce an oddly deadening experience when presented together in a single exhibition. Bounced between films that move too slowly (or not at all), for example, and those that respond actively to our presence or seem to push outwards into the spaces within which we view them, we may find our own perceptual and temporal limitations more pronounced in comparison.

In other words, the subject of Claerbout’s work is most clearly the time of the image, rather than the time of its viewers. Exposing the image’s variable qualities in representation, he strangely reminds his audience of their own imprisonment in the medium of his work. He unlocks the flow of time  from a fixed situation, paradoxically relegating his audience to drift in its stream.

Yet his expansively elegant manipulations and the disenchanting effects they sometimes produce are not unpleasurable. The sun may always be shining, but as so many of Claerbout’s works demonstrate, darkness is its own kind of liberation. And so, too, is the immutability of time’s natural progress that shrouds us in it. That we may palpably feel the indifferent pressing of time before Claerbout’s work is not a strike against it. As Eve surely realised, the banishment from utopia is also an escape from its oppressions. What her figure turns away from in his Weimar photograph of Rodin’s sculpture at the Bauhaus, finally, is the dream of an achronic utopia frozen beneath an enduringly present sun overhead, and art’s false promise that we can evade the finality of its descent.

David Claerbout ©2021