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corps étranger
by Sabine Russ

Mona Hatoum "Corps étranger" 1994

This exhibition, with seven video installations by Matthew Barney, Mona Hatoum, Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Odenbach and Bill Viola spanning 1983 to the present, received a great deal of attention during the Basel Art Fair, and for good reason. It is one of those curatorial tours de force which emphasizes each of the works while allowing them to intensely gain from one another. The multilingual title refers both to the foreign and the body--a connection that video art has addressed and challenged from its beginning in the sixties on. The video camera is especially suited for exploring successive body postures, in terms of sequences of movement and interaction. This search for a" body reality"--which has, at times, included self-examination and self-representation with artists training the camera on their own bodies--often involves a disconcerting aspect of foreignness, as the body becomes transformed into something strange and "other."

After all the art referring to the body in the '80s that often took the role of cynically commenting on our isolation and estrangement in a consumer society, the prevailing tone of this exhibition is refreshingly devoid of carping; instead of statements what are made are discoveries. And while in the '90s, the human-computer interface has yielded interactive art and virtual situations in which the body can become soluble in technology, the works here insist that we still own and mentally inhabit our bodies. What is striking is a certain spiritual orientation that--despite all the noise around the fragmented and pathetically objective body of postmodernism--seems connected to religious visions of the unity of body and mind. Several of the artists refer to ritual acts, and within the forms they use one can find allusions to temples, altars and relics.

In Bill Viola's video installations, which sometimes deal with biblical subjects, this connection is obvious. In "The Greeting," 1995, a slow-motion reenactment with live actors of Pontormo's mannerist painting of Maria and Elizabeth, a 45-second shot was extended to a length of 10 minutes. While Viola releases the scene from its religious context by transforming it into a contemporary and everyday image, slow motion lends it a ceremonial character and one is completely captivated by the poetic and eloquent gestural details. First two, then three women greet one another, their dresses billowing; one hears a background noise of rushing wind and scraps of indecipherable conversation; one notices the women's hands and their facial expressions; there is an embrace and the painting miraculously springs into life.

Similar to how Viola overemphasizes bodily motion by slowing it down, Mona Hatoum achieves distressing pictorial effects by an extreme enlargement of bodily matter. In "Corps étranger," 1994, a circular video screen installed into the floor is surrounded by a white cylindrical shell, which one can enter to follow the bizarre journey of a camera traveling through a body, a technique borrowed from medicine. Mucous membranes, hair, pupils, teeth--all are monstrously enlarged and the camera mercilessly plunges through the orifices of the body into moist pulsating tunnels. The voyage outside is accompanied by the sound of breathing, and the one inside by the sound of the heart. The images are fantastic and at the same time repulsive; because this "meat inspection" takes place on the floor one looks down at an anonymous mass (the body) almost as if it were litter or refuse. But then, with lowered eyes, one finds oneself in a kind of devotional position, and the cylinder simultaneously suggests a temple-like structure and a research laboratory.

While Hatoum uses sound to illustrate motion, Viola gives the room in his second installation an acoustical "shape." Entering "Science of the Heart," 1983, one is enveloped by the loud, hollowy pulse of a heart, as if one were in the enlarged inner chambers of one's own body. In the center of this dark space stands a brass bed under a red cone of light; above the head hovers the huge color video image of an uncovered, beating heart. The video as well as the sound are either extremely accelerated or slowed down, so that the heart races hysterically or comes to a near standstill: the results are both dramatic and nerve-racking. One thinks of disease, surgery, and death. Yet when the heart's frequency reaches its highest point, when the image threatens to shatter and the sound turns into a furious drum-beat, the entire room is filled with the utmost vitality.

Viola's drumming heart evokes ritualistic dances around birth or death and suggests a form of ecstasy, along with juxtapositions of sleeping and waking, tension and calm, body and mind. The idea of unity or holism in his work has religious references which, however, are of widely diverse origins (from Buddhism to Islam to Christianity). Viola, in fact, travels around the world studying practices of beliefs. Yet he doesn't use video as some sort of chronicling or documentary medium, but instead invests it with an incantatory power all its own.

Gary Hill's "Dervish," 1995, and Marcel Odenbach's "Mir hat es den Kopf verdreht ('It Made My Head Spin Around')," 1996, both deal with induced ecstatic states, similar to some religious customs. In Odenbach's wonderfully poetic video-sound-collage, two films are simultaneously projected on the wall. One is a head-on shot of children riding on carousels in South Africa; the other, taken by Odenbach riding a carousel in Germany, is reeling and unfocused, and catches vertiginous scraps of sky and earth. Slow motion along with inserted images of dancing dervishes or parts of faces make the pictures seem dreamlike, and a blend of classical music, shouting and drums expresses both confusion and the longing for some sort of magic relief. The juxtaposition of two different techniques is stunning, a mix between curious consideration and direct, uncontrolled experience. Ultimately, the carousel voyage is a lyrical metaphor for becoming unstuck, for not having one's feet on solid ground, while remaining remarkably open to the foreign.

Also, in Gary Hill's "Dervish," one is seized by giddiness, caused by incessant fragmentary and ungraspable images--an airplane, hands, room interiors, rows of books, people making love, etc.--projected onto a concave wall, where they run towards each other in a narrow band, combining and multiplying. The images flicker, dance and disappear as if they were torn away by the accompanying, increasingly unbridled music. The ecstatic state here resembles the enthusiasm and also disorientation that one can feel by being confronted with too much disjointed information, or with floods of images. All of this visual whirl vanishes after six minutes, leaving the viewer alone in a silent room which is sparsely illuminated by a bare light bulb. Even in the information age it is ultimately our own bodies and intellects we are thrown back into, as we attempt to process what was taken in.

Any form of ecstasy always has to do with giving up parts of oneself. Bruce Nauman's "Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime," 1990--a video-sound installation, which in different variations has been widely shown--also takes self-abandonment as its theme, but as a phenomenon of total heteronomy. The abject powerlessness of the mime obeying senseless commands is as ludicrous as it is alarming. Orders barked out of nowhere in an overbearing voice turn nightmarish, as do pervasive images of the mime throughout the room, always showing a total lack of will.

In "Jim Otto Suite," 1991, Matthew Barney celebrates the exact opposite--namely, the absolute control of one's own body by sheer will--demonstrated by the heroes (or anti-heroes) of "OTTOblow" and "AUTOblow" whose absurd physical exercises are shown in two repeating videos played next to one another. Including this well-known work was an inspired choice, for the context of this exhibition intensifies the underlying religious references in Barney's piece. By installing the two monitors high above the entrance in the room, Barney forces the viewer to look up and assume a respectful, even devotional, position. He also draws parallels between the veneration of sport heroes and yesterday's saints. In addition to the representation of weirdly heroic activities, one admires the relics of the heroes (a team shirt, a flattened changing cubicle made out of prosthetic plastic), here presented as credible evidence of incredible feats, roughly akin to saints's bones, bits of clothing, and other items in religious reliquaries.

The individual works are spread out far from one another, so that the viewer has to seek them out--in fact, an alert reimagination of the building's own architecture is a high point of the exhibition. Walking from one installation to the other becomes a voyage of discovery, in which one experiences "body" both as something intimate and private, as well as passable public space.

Sabine Russ

Brooklyn, New York
1996

translated from the German by Sabine Russ and Gregory Volk.

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