Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, 2018 

David Claerbout

James Clegg

Giblin, Tessa; Clegg, James, ‘David Claerbout’, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, 2018, ill. (exh. cat.)

The strangeness of the photographic image is so familiar that it appears like a set of truisms, always resting on a paradox: a photographic image is a moment that no longer exists; a time that is frozen; a space without depth. We even take the peculiar latency of the photographic process for granted. Press the button of an analogue camera and – *click* – the result is completely invisible. In utero, it remains suspended until the protracted process of development retrieves it as something for the eye, by which point the embodied desire to make that particular image has passed, leaving it to travel henceforth without a body at all. With the advent of digital technology this strangeness has mutated, transitioning from images that are about nostalgia, realism and freezing the past to images that are about immediacy, connectivity and presence. David Claerbout’s experiments with image-making provide the ideal opportunity to experience these changes, bringing their specific contours into relief.

‘Long Goodbye’, 2007, begins with darkness. The transition from no image to image is announced by an ambiguous white shape moving in from the bottom right. When a woman’s face appears we begin to perceive the prosaic action of someone carrying a  tray of drinks. The slow retreat of the camera introduces more of her background, but only when she looks towards us do we see the shadows beating across the walls, tracing hours in a few moments. Claerbout’s work in this case consists of choreographing different temporalities together (the fine tuning of which took 8 months). That such an explicit temporal dissonance can be rendered coherent, in this case through the comparative movement of elements, reflects a specific facet of the digital epistemology. No longer governed by the logic of an apparent reality – the indexical trace of light – digital images now negotiate with us about how a reality should behave.

Studies of how digital images change our conceptual make-up, such as Ron Burnett’s 2005 book How Images Think, have gone hand- in-hand with theoretical developments that have sought to open out various disciplines to the agency of both human and non-human entities. As Burnett stressed, images must be considered as part of this broader, complex ecological system. 1 Social media now defines a particular field of activity within this ecology. It feeds from digital photography’s expendability, its free production and proliferation, to facilitate a frenzied constancy. Its user-supplied content is charged with a new kind of performativity, interrelated with changes in public behaviour and expression. News media have naturally had to adapt to this changing field of interactions, the BBC stating: ‘video cameras could always be found at events where it was known in advance that something interesting was likely to happen. But the rise of the phone camera changed the possible arena of subjects.’ 2

‘The Quiet Shore’, 2011, corresponds to these changes. It consists of a succession of shots, or updates, of people on a beach.It depicts an event that appears incidental rather than premeditated. Yet, Claerbout’s work is distinguished by its quietly uncanny and unsettling quality. We often infer non-visual clues from images – temperature, sounds – but as ‘The Quiet Shore’ unfolds it disrupts this relationship. The mysterious capture of a single moment from a multiplicity of angles leads us to wonder about the absent bodies on this beach, the bodies of the cameras. The evocations of the water and sand and light and skin start to appear against a context of disembodiment. Caught between the conditions governing reality in a world of social media and the more autonomous purpose of Claerbout’s artwork, our suspicion of these spuriously innocent images takes on a critical dimension. As part of the assemblage that makes sense of images, the displacement or loss we might feel belongs just as much to changes in ourselves as to changes in images per se.

In all Claerbout’s works we are steered away from narrative time and even certain logics of causal action. ‘Cat and Bird in Peace’, 1996, is a wonderfully concise early expression of this drive. We simply witness a cat and bird defying the predator and prey instincts we might expect. Claerbout shows us something present, the animals at peace, rather than taking us elsewhere through a significant action. In 1997, Graham Harman wrote an essay that stressed the ways in which we cannot help but be interpenetrated by objects, which he defined as the perceptual entities that stand out against the background of pure materiality. A face, for example, is more than simply a summation of the chemical and biological histories that compose it:

The object is an imperative, radiating over us like a black sun, holding us in its orbit, demanding our attention, insisting that we reorganize our lives along its shifting axes. The object is a force, and thus our valuation of it is a gift of force, and nothing like a recognition at all. The phrase “how beautiful you are!” does not communicate information, but bows to your beauty or at least pretends to bow, expressing either your own seductive force or my own deceit. 3

Our perception imposes itself over and above material realities. ‘Cat and Bird in Peace’, made a year before Harman’s essay, plays with a comparable concept. In such proximity, the cat and the bird no doubt sense each other’s force, yet, whatever their mutual cognizance is, it does not contain the antagonism we expect.

In a sense we might say that the antagonism is the predominant object we perceive, but Claerbout presents it to us by not showing it at all. The reality of ‘Cat and Bird in Peace’ is the animals’ nonchalance. Claerbout points us to a kind of latent reality, one that usually remains hidden behind the imperatives radiating over us, always there and yet obscure(ing) like Harman’s metaphorical black sun.

‘The Pure Necessity’, 2016, expands this exploration. In this work, the energetic, charismatic characters of the 1967 film The Jungle Book are rendered naturalistically. As such, much of their time is spent conserving energy. Some of them occasionally idle through the forest, smelling its air and listening to its sounds. The young ones naturally play and tussle each other. For Claerbout, the context of the original film is important to its broader interpretation:

In 1967 The Jungle Book appeared… in a time of proliferation of movie theatres and television after the second world war… a place where people came to sit down together, without relating directly to one another. Cinema and television were a manner of not thinking or talking about recent barbarities. After all, many had also witnessed the First World War as a “war to end all wars”… Now that we watch content on tablets – alone – we can understand cinema and television as a place for being together, even if that means just sitting side by side in silence. 4

‘The Pure Necessity’ acts as a metaphor for social atomisation. In doing so it highlights a peculiar tension that emerges between a media landscape that emphasises the immediacy of relational networks whilst at the same time arresting aspects of social contact. Claerbout’s work offers a pointed reminder that increased social connectivity does not result in increased or externalised actions. Claerbout himself spent time observing animals in captivity whilst formulating ‘The Pure Necessity’, a work therefore rooted in the notion of other creatures that are ensnared by assemblages defined by the desire of spectatorship.

The slow and meditative development of ‘The Pure Necessity’ is a precondition of all Claerbout’s works. As he once said, ‘Only when I have lost their attention, can the viewer set their mind on something else than that of movie- goer. That is when my pictures begin.’5 This helps us appreciate how Claerbout constructs a criticality, his works delivered to someone who has become disengaged enough to see the full strangeness of images – who, we might suggest, notices in the margins that underlying, latent, material reality.

This critical strategy is explicit in ‘Travel’, 1996–2013, motivated by a piece of therapeutic music intended to relax and eventually induce sleep in its listener. Claerbout connected such remedial music to a kind of stubborn mentality. A listener, perhaps, who finds it hard to let go, always trying to lock onto a solid reality. As a camera-less piece constructed with computer generated imagery ‘Travel’ is at times convincing and at times gives away clues as to its virtual make-up through the minutia of the environment it depicts. For Claerbout, camera-less work indicates a shift towards realities based on remembered experiences, rather than in direct association with the world. ‘Travel’ takes us through a European wood, to an Amazonian jungle, before emerging from an impossibly small thicket in the middle of agrarian land. It therefore shatters our private suspicions by revealing its trick; the sumptuous forest terrain visited and the journey undertaken could never really fit inside that desultory grove.

‘I always intended my work to be seen as if it was technologically flawed… ,’ Claerbout once commented, ‘[and] I achieve this by transferring the field of action from the work to the spectator. The work itself doesn’t change much – it is the spectator’s own biological time that does most of the work.’ 6 The ending of ‘Travel’ pronounces the closure of the viewer’s relationship with the intensive ‘reality checking’ of the earlier part of the film, emphasising that the work exists at the point of transmission and reception. New media scholar Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen led a series of articles for the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture by asserting that, ‘The demand [in our society] for affective, relational situations created in the gaps between actual and virtual sites has gradually proliferated.’ 7 Since the 1960s, she argues, we have moved from a world governed by the ‘sign’ (‘based on the letter’) to the ‘signal’ (‘based on the electronic signal and the digital code’). 8

As predicted by Marshall McLuhan, images are now happening and inextricably linked to their medium. They are no longer structured in such a way as to have the stability of a linguistic form. Instead, they have presence and affectivity.

‘Radio Piece (Hong Kong)’, 2015, demonstrates how central these qualities are in determining the meaning of a work. It opens in a beautiful, peaceful ornamental garden, evocative of China or Japan. The soundtrack of bird noise affirms this reading. As the camera then pans out we retreat into the shōji threshold of a building or structure. This maintains our sense of being at least in proximity to this ‘Oriental’ garden space. Then there is a thump and we hear footsteps. A further pulling back and we hear the scuffing of a microphone and simultaneously begin to see the torn edges of the image of the garden, now revealed to be a poster on the functionalist concrete wall of an apartment building. Ambient music enters the space as well, perhaps in the process of being composed by the two figures we begin to perceive in the room – the first we see wearing headphones, talking and listening. As he takes off the headphones the ambient music stops, implying that we are hearing what he is hearing. We then see a binaural microphone on the table suggesting that perhaps our audible experience might be captured live in the room, though that is not reconciled with the change the headphones made. Then we pan impossibly out of the window and when the second figure takes off his headphones all falls silent. We are left to contemplate the harsh external countenance of the apartment. The first character peers from the window and seems to look at us as we zoom further back, getting a sense of the scale of this cramped, rundown dwelling. The sound then cuts in and out again as if we might still be somehow attached to the content of the room. We pull back further to see the full stacked- shoe-box effect of the hulking, prefabricated building.

Where ‘Long Goodbye’ demonstrated a smooth regime that established a reality with radically divergent durations, ‘Radio Piece (Hong Kong)’ redraws the rules of our engagement a number of times. Its meaning – our interpretation – keeps folding in on itself. There are social and political connotations to this given that the apartment is modelled on images of Kowloon Walled City, a notorious, lawless city knocked down in the mid-90s and later replaced by an ornamental park. In a way, ‘Radio Piece (Hong Kong)’ demonstrates the lawlessness of the digital realm. A panning shot conventionally provides a context that augments an initial reading, but here it is a transgressive movement tearing down former inferences. Modernist architecture, interpreted from a British perspective, is representative of a socialist project derailed by a neo-liberal agenda that sought to push people out of their homes in order to make way for gentrification and commercialisation. 9 The deft immateriality of these images points to a similar, dangerous flexibility in the social contracts we hold.

Nevertheless, Claerbout does not lay all this on images in themselves, and in fact the work offers a counter motif of mental freedom, facilitated first by the image of the garden and second by the music-image of the ambient sound.

Claerbout’s work elicits a specific kind of suspicion that demonstrates how the ‘strangeness’ of photographic images operate in the digital realm. He explores the politics of our relationship with images whilst at the same time demonstrating the epistemological opportunities opened up by them as thinking tools. Such tools may be co-opted by capitalist agendas, but they also remain inextricably linked to our capacity to conceive of reality in new and different ways. Freed from the governance of linear time, space and even the indexical mark of light, digital images negotiate new conditions for our relationship to reality. Claerbout simultaneously uses and dislodges the terms of this negotiation, provoking us to consider the forms that lurk around the peripheries of our perception. The part-forms and quasi-forms, the shadows that gather under and before the objects that impose themselves upon us. He uses images in order to open out a field of relationships that exist beyond their usual remit, something of a latent reality. Whilst necessarily remaining invisible, in Claerbout’s hands, the possibility of this reality becomes at least thinkable.


David Claerbout has upcoming exhibitions Kunsthaus Bregenz, Bregenz (July 14, 2018) and Les Abattoirs, Toulouse (September 20, 2018). His solo exhibitions include, Schaulager, Basel; MNAC, Barcelona (2017); Städel Museum, Frankfurt; KINDL, Berlin (2016); Project Arts Centre, Dublin (2015) Marabouparken Konsthall, Sundbybert, Sweden (2015); Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2014); Kunsthalle Mainz, Mainz, Germany (2013); Secession, Vienna, Austria (2012); SFMOMA, San Francisco (2011); WIELS, Brussels, Belgium (2011); De Pont museum of contemporary art, Tilburg, The Netherlands (2009); Pompidou Centre, Paris, France (2007). His work is included in a large number of major public collections across the world.

Born 1969 in Kortrijk, Belgium, he now lives and works in Antwerp and Berlin.


1. Burnett concludes, ‘…  intelligence has become a distributed phenomenon […] At present, so many elements of cultural and social activity are part of increasingly complex networks that it becomes impossible to specify one center of information of knowledge.’ R. Burnett, How Images Think, London, MIT Press, Pp 220 – 221.

2. T. de Castella, ‘Five ways the digital camera changed us’, BBC News Magazine, 28 February 2012, magazine-16483509 (accessed 24 January 2018).

3. G. Harman, ‘Alphonso Lingis on the Imperatives in Things’, Towards Speculative Realism, Winchester, Zero Books, p.20.

4. D. Claerbout, ‘Die reine Notwendigkeit / The Pure Necessity’, 2018, https:// davidclaerbout. com/Die-reine- Notwendigkeit-The- pure-necessity-2016 (accessed 24/01/2018).

5. David Claerbout, interviewed by Aesthetica, 24 March 2016, Aesthetica Magazine, http://www.aesthetica claerbout/ (Accessed 24/01/2018).

6. David Claerbout, interviewed by A. Will Brown, Studio International,12 May 2015, david-claerbout- interview (Accessed 24/01/2018).

7. B.M.S. Thomsen, ‘Signaletic, haptic and real-time material’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol.4, 2012, p.2. 

8. Thomsen, ‘Signaletic, haptic and real-time material’, p.3.

9. Hatherley, Militant Modernism, London, Zero Books.

David Claerbout ©2024