New York

Marco Brambilla

When I meet someone at the airport, especially for an international flight, I like to get there early to watch the influx of people at the arrival gate. The intermundial character of air travel, its uncanny evocations of birth and death and limbo, make for a lot of psychic drama, and it’s all so clearly legible, flickering on the faces of travelers: relief, exhaustion, anxiety, bewilderment, joy. Watch enough people emerge into the airport’s cold netherworld and strange things start to happen: Everyone begins to look both identical and like people you know, at once interchangeable and unique. Once, waiting for my mother to come in from Italy at JFK, I found myself thinking: Couldn’t any of these people be my mother?

Perhaps I got there a bit too early that time. In any case, I was delighted to find that the centerpiece of Marco Brambilla’s recent show, a video installation entitled Approach (all works 1999), is a love song to this kind of airport voyeurism. A nine-minute loop shown on four DVD monitors, it presents slow-motion footage of one traveler after another, their heads and shoulders appearing first on the far right monitor then moving across the other three in sequence, only to be replaced by another traveler on the far right monitor. (In fact, the same loop plays on all four screens, with a two-second delay between them, creating this sense of movement.)

Culled from fourteen hours of footage taken surreptitiously via telephoto lens at JFK, Approach has the virtue of frontal simplicity, allowing viewers to gawk their fill and wonder at the familiar strangeness of the arrivals bouncing dreamily into view. It’s a kind of non-narrative cinema verité. Thus, Approach seems, on the one hand, bolstered by the noble conviction that ordinary people are plenty fascinating, especially when there’s the peculiarly unifying context of the arrival gate’s placelessness. On the other hand (and this is perhaps because of the high production values as well as a tendency on Brambilla’s part to include the more glamorous of the anonymous), Approach has the feel of a fashion video playing in Bloomingdale’s. But the installation’s ominous sound track, a blend of Ligeti and ambient sound recorded at Charles de Gaulle and JFK, nurtures an atmosphere at once vertiginous and chilly, tipping the balance in favor of the Dantean over the chic.

The other two pieces in the gallery’s small space were less ambitious, but both focused on the theme of airports and sustained the otherworldly tone set by Approach. Mounted on the wall, Getaway, a plastic tray of the airplane-dining sort, only better designed, had a built-in screen that played a two-and-a-half-minute loop of slow-motion footage of a plane’s descent to the skid-marked runway, as seen from the cockpit. Terminal was a large bleak Cibachrome photograph of an airport, taken from the air.

Brambilla, a Hollywood director (Demolition Man [1993], Excess Baggage [1997]), has also worked with Ridley Scott, whose preoccupation with surveillance and dystopia is certainly in evidence here. However, Brambilla’s subject matter, the airport, presented as a site of eerie metaphysical negotiation, brings to mind above all Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). But where Marker grafts a sense of romantic destiny onto the vast loneliness and erotics of airports, Brambilla just serves us loneliness straight.

Thad Ziolkowski