Marie José Burki

Ateliers d’Artistes

Most of the previous video works I’d seen by Marie José Burki were about suspense, stasis, waiting: for instance, the monumentally scaled projections of Exposure: Dawn, 1997, which turned the gallery walls into windows through which one saw prostitutes in the red-light districts of Antwerp and Brussels waiting for their clients. Neither discursive nor narrative, the projections approached, instead, the stillness of mural painting, though in sharp tension with a sense of boredom and expectation that could only be evoked by the fact that these were, after all, moving images, if minimally so.

In contrast, Burki’s new video installation, To pass round the cakes, 1999, plays with traditional cinematic codes, reworking the familiar set piece around a dinner table, which one has seen in myriad films. The tension between stasis and movement remains essential to the work’s force, but here it is expressed differently. The scene is tightly restrictedsince the characters are sitting, their movements are limitedand yet editing and camera work can be used to give the viewer a sense of energetic, almost unlimited movement. The flexible format of video installation allows for further elaboration: The three screens, set at oblique angles to one another, show the same scene in different ways, at different moments.

In each version, Burki’s camera circles warily, even desperately around the table, with almost drunken movements toward and away from itas though the camera itself were famished for the food and drink being consumed but unable to break through to it. And yet there seems to be way too much on the table for this little group of nine to consumemeat, fish, fowl, vegetables, dessert, wine, whiskey, water. On the central screen, the camera mostly stays in close, and while the voices are muffled on its sound track, the clack and clatter of silverware and other such “incidental” sounds ring crystal clear. On the two flanking screens, the dialogue, which takes place in the slightly unidiomatic English of Europeans using it as a lingua franca, often sounds less like conversation than a sequence of monologues. Theatrically portentous observations drop stillborn into skeptical silence. All the while, perhaps because of the scale of a projection that allows a face or hand to become the size of one’s own body, one becomes aware of the subtle violence of gesture with which consumption is taking place: all the tearing and cutting, grabbing and stuffing. It’s a kind of orgy of orality, words coming out as fast as food goes in, yet all without apparent delectation.

For all the agitation conveyed by the nervously pacing camera, and for that matter by one’s own movement back and forth from screen to screen, the result was still a kind of stasis after all, not so different from the frantic hopping about of the caged birds in Burki’s earlier work Intérieur II-V, 1995, or even the absurdly circular sequence of gestures made by the man looking for something he misplaced in a pocket in A Dog in My Mind, 1997. The difference is that, this time, the frame of the image is no longer the prison house of the movement that occurs within it. Instead, the roving frame is itself trapped within a larger one that remains invisible, though inexorably felt. I left the installation feeling bloated and a bit foggy, as though I’d been the one who’d overindulged in all that food and drink. What digestif would help? I suppose the relief I was longing for was an existential one. Burki’s comfortless vision suggests there’s none on offer.

Barry Schwabsky