The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes

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Installation view from ‘The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes’, Contemporary Art Gallery, June 13 – 29, 2014. Photography by SITE Photography

Exhibition | The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes

June 13 - 29, 2014


The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes
Ed Atkins, Edgardo Aragón, Kim Beom, Rossella Biscotti, Stan Brakhage, Duncan Campbell, Fabiola Carranza, Maryam Jafri, Toril Johannessen, Shahryar Nashat
June 13 – 29, 2014

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a group exhibition of recent film and video that seeks to interrogate notions of uncertainty within the documentary format. Work by ten artists engages with the conventions of source footage, narrative voice and re-enactment, questioning perceptions of such devices, while also reclaiming them in order to redefine their intent and potential. Not all works critique these characteristics, but each examines the consumption of knowledge and truth, using the body as form and performance as a site, to address where meaning may reside.

The belief in the documentary as an authoritative tool has long been scrutinized, alluded to by the exhibition’s title, a direct referencing of a 1971 Stan Brakhage film shot in a Pittsburgh morgue, his title itself an attempt to literally translate the “autopsy” as shown. Brakhage’s film has a visceral intensity, a sense of the tangible that rests in his presentation of an inanimate figure, the dead body, being acted upon.  Even though categorized within the genre of experimental film, it also functions as a candid record.  While in part the filmmaker’s intent was to disrupt readings of his films as mere documents, this work more pointedly plays with presence and absence, the body as both figure and subject. In blurring the ways factual information is conveyed while simultaneously undermining the more usual documentary conventions, Brakhage’s film provides the underpinning for other works in this exhibition.

Bernadette (2008) is a portrait of Irish activist Bernadette Devlin, Duncan Campbell using archival footage from the late 1960s/early 1970s to create an indirect account of her political history. Campbell uses out-takes, the moments between interviews seeming to capture a more off-guard Delvin, the “truth” behind the public persona. However such a strategy only serves to heighten our awareness of the mediation of the camera. A Rock that Learned the Poetry of Jung Jiyong (2010) by Kim Beom similarly creates a portrait of a historic figure, but through an absurdist gesture, that of asking a professor to teach a rock everything he knows about the Korean modernist poet, Jung Jiyong. The original video lasts over twelve hours, the instructor giving detailed lectures, a saturation of information that Kim enacts in the work’s sheer length, refusing to distill Jung’s life into a digestible format. Rossella Biscotti’s film The Prison of Santo Stefano (2013) also offers a portrait of sorts but here of a place. The super 8 film depicts a trip to the prison, the first to be designed specifically to receive people with life sentences. It wanders through graveyards and shows visitors planting flowers as well as documenting the making of several of the artist’s sculptures, and shows rubbings taken from the prison’s stone courtyard, which is another form of recording.

Avalon (2011) by Maryam Jafri initially appears as a straightforward documentary about individuals who unknowingly find themselves making paraphernalia for the fetish industry. Yet among a series of interviews, Jafri inserts a staged performance, a re-enactment of a story told by a dominatrix, thus juxtaposing a fictional world with that of the factory, and performativity with production. Toril Johannessen’s Non-Conservation of Energy (and of Spirits) (2012) is based on a transcript of a conversation where she interviewed the late Danish physicist Niels Bohr about energy and consciousness through a psychic medium. The performative element in both these works raises questions about the investigative nature of documentary, the information accessed and the methods of inquiry. Subject and format are set against each other, their topics remaining elusive. In contrast, Edgardo Aragón’s Efectos de Familia (Family Effects) (2007–09) uses re-enactment to make tangible his family’s violent past. Drug-related incidents are restaged using young male relatives and their friends as actors, the incongruity between what is portrayed and the age of the actors revealing the ongoing impact of the past on the present.

Fabiola Carranza’s Corrida, 1929 (2013) also collapses different time frames by asserting a physical presence on top of footage from a bullfight in Spain. A screening of Corrida, a home-made film by Man Ray shot in 1929, is re-filmed with Carranza tracing the bull and fighter with a flashlight across the surface of the projection. The artist’s gestures can be read as comment on Man Ray’s process, an illustration of his use of the body, light and shadow to make images, and of how we as audience, read film. This reference to the viewer is also seen in Shahryar Nashat’s Factor Green (2011) where a package containing a green object is delivered to a museum under restoration, it is found by an individual who then proceeds to use the form in various ways. At one point it begins to move of its own volition, becoming witness to the workings of the museum itself. A green screen is used in post-production for cinema or television when layering two images together. Here it acts as a poetic surrogate, embodying the potential to represent all that is not seen: the missed histories, misrepresentations and absent visitors.

A Primer for Cadavers (2011) brings us full circle. Ed Atkins’ videos deal with the apparent immateriality of computer generated imagery in relation to its precise representations of the physical world, yet links to Brakhage in poetically addressing corporeal reality. Visually and conceptually the physicality of the body provides a primary focus, whether real or conjured in spirit. The documentary as a form of veracity is called into question, for while the undeniable end for us all is pictured, it remains an attempt to delve into the unknowable, a representation that is at once life-like yet completely dead.

Bernadette (2008) by Duncan Campbell is presented in collaboration with Western Front and Dim Cinema and will screen in the Grand Luxe Hall at Western Front, 303 8 Ave E, Vancouver from June 26 to June 29.

This exhibition is generously supported by Inform Interiors.