PRINT October 2006


ALTHOUGH KEREN CYTTER’S WORK is shown in galleries and uses video, it would be a mistake to automatically categorize her oeuvre as video art; if anything, her most significant contribution to the medium might come from the way she cuts against its grain. The Israeli-born, Berlin-based artist has made some forty works since 2001, but they take a good many of their stylistic features from television, and Cytter herself refers to them as “films.” “I think in the beginning I called them films,” Cytter told me in an e-mail, “because I saw them as movies.” By this I believe she means they are focused on narrative, on situations, on conjuring a fictional world—and even on entertaining, despite the fractured, oblique nature of her stories. Her medium, then, might be called cinema rather than video: She’s an auteur as much as an artist.

An exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich last year featured fourteen of Cytter’s works, most of which were made during her time at de Ateliers in Amsterdam, between 2002 and 2004; but only her earliest videos, made while she was still living in Israel, have anything studenty about them. Cytter has the spontaneity and inventiveness of a natural, and despite a relentless experimentalism, her works are instantly recognizable as hers. The stories are fictional and their presentation full of blatant artifice, but they are always anchored in a sort of kitchen-sink realism—a particularly apt term, for the kitchen is the typical setting of Cytter’s films: Preparing meals and eating them are primarily what brings her characters together. The settings are cheap apartments, sparely and haphazardly decorated—a table might be just a board on sawhorses; the characters are young people dressed with almost uniform nondescriptness (T-shirts, jeans, shapeless sweatclothes); and their discussions and conflicts are over commonplace situations of longing and jealousy. It is a milieu, perhaps much like Cytter’s own, of transient and uprooted young people just out of school. The verisimilitude and banality of the setting, however, are contrasted by dialogue and plot—although not much happens aside from people talking, whether in conversation or soliloquy—that strike one as completely and deliberately false, artificial, and generic. As Cytter told Alessandro Rabottini, the curator of her exhibition this past spring at Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo, Italy, “None of the stories I’ve written is truly original.” Despite the deliberately conventional nature of the works’ setups, they consistently feel authentic, natural, and surprising—in short, realistic. It’s not that stylized elements are balanced with realistic ones and so on, but rather that what is authentic is a particular manner of being false, what is natural is a particular manner of being artificial, what is surprising is a particular manner of being generic.

The films are full of Brechtian distancing effects. In Family, 2002, some of the female characters are played by male actors and vice versa (although they might also be dubbed, à la Gillian Wearing, with a voice of the correct sex), and children are played by adults. The Victim, 2006—which won the Baloise Prize at Art Basel’s Art Statements in June—is filled with lines like, “It was early that day but late in the script,” while the narrator in Atmosphere, 2005, asks herself, “Is it a documentary or a memory?” But these moments in which the text turns back on itself do not provoke in the audience a critical and ironic disidentification, as in Brecht’s works. On the contrary, it is precisely in the stilted and clichéd nature of the characters’ exchanges and reflections that we can identify with them. In an interview with Cytter published in the catalogue for her exhibition this past summer at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, the artist and writer Avi Pitchon observed that “the cliché asks the big question of how to artistically express feelings, but also points more specifically to the rules, norms, and conventions of expression—both in art and in real life.” If a clichéd speech or act is a kind of behavioral readymade, then the stylization of the work simultaneously expresses both the piece’s formalism and its realism. For example, the dialogue in Family is filled, as perhaps the title subject would demand, with a comically crude Freudianism—as in the following exchange between a boy, his mother, and his older sister: “I hate Father.” “Why, baby?” “Don’t you get it? He is sexually attracted to you and wants to kill Father.” Rather than suggesting that beneath the banalities of the dinner table lurk irrepressible feelings of perversity, these statements communicate the banality of the perverse. The Oedipus complex has become a literary and dramatic convention worth playing with for the incongruities it can generate.

In many of Cytter’s works the actors speak in a monotone, whether it’s some quotidian banter or an emotional outburst. (And often characters interrupt their most intimate confessions with trivialities—“He fucked me twice in the ass at midnight. Some pepper?” is a not-atypical line from Atmosphere.) One is reminded of Deleuze’s description of the detached tone of voice effected by the actors in Robert Bresson’s films, “where the character speaks as if he were listening to his own words reported by someone else.” But this is not to indicate that the characters are detached or unfeeling. The flatness of the recitation in Cytter’s works, along with the fact that each actor speaks his or her lines with his or her own particular accent—German, Israeli, Indian, American, or whatever—and with suitably nonidiomatic phrasing, allows for the overwrought emotion of the lines to come through purely, without interpretation, in an ecstasy of expressionlessness, and at the same time for the formal literalism of the situation of performance to emerge as an object of interest in its own right. As Cytter stated in her conversation with Pitchon, “The more films I make, the less natural it feels in the pragmatic sense,” resulting in the “inability to ignore the fact that you have people acting to the camera.” Cytter uses her nonprofessional actors to overcome the very distancing effects they inevitably produce: She displays them as “real people” and as performers of a script simultaneously.

This mix of formal reflexivity and realism, both funny and strange, is most thoroughly realized in Dreamtalk, 2005. The story, such as it is, concerns the chain of desire linking three people, a couple and their male friend: The friend pines for his buddy’s girlfriend, but she longs solely for her boyfriend, who in turn can think only of a reality TV character who is herself faced with a choice between two men—“the winner” and “the loser.” The film is structured something like an episode of a soap opera or a situation comedy, and different levels of reality and fiction constantly intersect, at least at the discursive level. The dialogue shifts between straightforward recitation and a sort of rhythmic chanting, and the characters’ voices continue with their thoughts even when they are not speaking. More clearly than in any of Cytter’s other works, emotion comes across as a score the characters must follow just as the actors follow their script. The conclusion is a fugue of overlapping and conflicting voices, a stretto, in which the emotional crosscurrents threaten to collapse all the artifices of distance. Inexpressiveness and formal neutrality become a direct way to an almost hysterical intensity.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.