New York

Marie-Jo Lafontaine

Jack Shainman Gallery

Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s work has been criticized for its seeming glorification of power and aggression as expressed through the physicality of the male body. Recent video installations have focused on the spectacles of boxing, bullfighting, and weightlifting. The work shown here, Victoria, 1988, makes reference to the tango; it depicts a mortal battle between two men, fought hand to hand and eye to glistening eye. Not safely didactic or even obviously subversive, Victoria plays on our romantic fascination with the primitive and elemental; it reduces existential conflict to the level of brute strength. This romanticization comes dangerously close to drawing a parallel between physical power and beauty/truth. But behind the work’s stentorian soundtrack, behind the ruggedly handsome, unshaven faces and fierce expressions of the male actors, behind their sweat and force, is a distinctly distanced perspective—that of a woman artist/director, whose decision to construct such an exclusively and exaggeratedly male drama is inescapably framed by the absence of her own representation. Women have no parallel for the Cain and Abel story, and no place in it, except—as the title here implies—as the prize: victory is cast in the feminine gender. But the feminine title also reminds us of the woman behind the scenes—the one who, at an ironic distance, is orchestrating and manipulating these actors, the camera, the set, and the foreboding installation structure. Unlike Leni Riefenstahl, to whom she has been compared, Lafontaine does not use these images as propaganda, but to construct a sort of barometric reading against which we are to test our own fascination with these ideals.

The physical structure of Victoria traps the viewer in a cul-de-sac. Nineteen black wooden towers housing the monitors form a spiral. The layout’s dizzying effect is accentuated by the incremental delay programmed between the images on the screens, which seems to send them in a swirl around the viewer. The camera circles the contestants, further heightening the sense of intense motion. The battle on screen is as much psychological as physical: the camera lingering on close-ups of the men’s faces, long shots of frozen fear, locked stares. Each man seems transfixed by the other; every drop of sweat and every breath is visible. The two actors are physically similar, at times becoming indistinguishable; this creates an erotic blurring of identity that emphasizes the significance of this battle as one in which only one ego can exist in all its fullness. The interaction is alternately violent and ambiguously sexual; at one point, the men pause face to face, one pushing the other up against a wall, and the camera zooms out and away from them as if protecting a moment too private to intrude upon.

The piece sustains our interest over its full 12-minute length. The immediate effect is partly the result of the powerful soundtrack, which includes staccato flamenco rhythms, Wagnerian opera, and sonorous chorales. As a dramatic narrative, the video is both progressive and cyclical; the same image appears at the beginning and at the end—a close-up of the two men facing the camera, breathing heavily, one standing firmly in front of the other. This image at the beginning prefigures the ending, tells us who will win; at the end, after one man has fallen, it implies eternal return, that the loser will always rise, and that the battle will be fought again and again. If this is yet another version of a universal or eternal struggle for selfhood (read: manhood), it is represented in the complicated contemporary context in which such heavy-handed stereotyping is automatically suspect. It is an archetypal struggle that has been appropriated, and reframed from an outsider’s perspective, turning it into a hyperbolized abstraction of itself.

Laurie Palmer