New York

Frank Gillette

In his early work, Frank Gillette set out pyramidal banks of monitors playing didactic videotapes that were intended to bespeak natural orders and systems. Since I’ve always suspected that massed monitors reiterate the hierarchies of Minimal sculpture at the expense of the images presented, I could see Gillette’s early work only as pseudoscientific bombast that wished it was sculpture.

Gillette hasn’t junked the sculptural format in his new installation, but he no longer insists on it. He has set out four front-facing monitors, three lined up in front and one some ten feet behind. Although the monitors are still on pedestals, the primary purpose of the installation is to show black-and-white videotapes at different distances, and not to emulate steel and glass sculpture.

The three monitors in front show Real Time/Raw Tape, rough unedited footage changed at various times throughout the run of the show. The imagery indeed implies real time in the sense of surveillance; it is as if the images were being transmitted direct from a remote camera outside the gallery. The left and right monitors show closeups of corners in the city, small grimy nooks formed by two buildings and the street. Gillette cuts rapidly from one corner to another, and occasionally zooms out to establish the urban context. The central monitor shows static closeups of what looks like garbage rotting in vacant lots.

The rough footage on all three monitors is in marked contrast to the basically filmlike imagery on the fourth. It is graphic—crisp and harsh in comparison to the atmospheric and fully produced tapes shown on the fourth monitor in back: Sunflowers and the Birds of Southern Madagascar, Vineyard and the Birds of Western Madagascar, and Olive Grove and the Birds of Eastern Madagascar. These three tapes of varying lengths begin with a graded test patch, then typed titles in the style of academic treatises. They don’t have to do specifically with either harvestable fields, which happen to be in Tuscany, or with Madagascarian birdsong, but rather with the disjunction between sound and scene in the tapes themselves. Gillette tapes the tender petals of sunflowers nodding in the fields, the ripening grapes, the gnarled trunks of olive trees. He reveals the beauty of the Tuscan landscape that captivated the expatriate American painters of Henry James’s generation. But Gillette does not aim for travelogue; he skirts the temptation of mood-making in the olive groves by taping them at several different times of the day in one short tape.

Quick cuts, blurry pans, abrupt zooms out from a closeup so that one can see the whole field—what is the order, I mean, what determines this camera movement? It would seem to be bird-watching, a kind of animal scanning. Each tape starts silently, and the bird song sound track comes up after a few moments. Then looking at the tapes becomes like a koala-in-the-tree problem: koalas are shy bears who die in captivity unless they are kept in eucalyptus groves, and then zoo-goers can’t see them through the foliage. I looked for birds in Gillette’s tapes but couldn’t find them, not because, like koalas in eucalyptus trees, they were invisible to the questing camera, but because they were not there. The absurdity of looking at sparse Tuscan fields and listening to a dense junglelike mat of Madagascarian birdsong undercuts Gillette’s filmic style. It cannot be scanning for birds, yet it looks like nothing else.

The disjunction of audio ’and visual, I would guess, derives from Jean-Luc Godard’s Brechtian non-coincidence of action and mood music in films like Weekend (1967). It has been continued in the work of many filmmakers as just such an indication of the act of artifice, or, as in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia (1971), to discourse on the nature of memory in time. Gillette uses the disjunction between bird sounds and field scenes in his tapes to undercut a sense of place, to gainsay locale. Do two locales, one denoted by sound and the other by scene, when combined connote a third place?

Still and all the fourth monitor playing tapes of far-off places is but a detail in the whole of Gillette’s installation. There is a larger disjunction between that monitor and the three in front that gives the piece a poignant cast. My eyes are in the city, and Gillette’s urban images are sharp, harsh and static. The tape of country sights and sounds, where I am not, is farther away from me than the other three, and the images are softer and more vibrant.

Alan Moore