Los Angeles

Aernout Mik

The Project

Somebody once told me goldfish can survive in bowls because their memories are too short to conceive of their own miserable existences. The idea—of fish forever circling, unaware of their limited range—seems analogous to the state (or fate) of the people who populate Aernout Mik’s video work.

In his first solo exhibition in the United States, the Dutch artist presented three video projects. The earliest, Organic Escalator, 2000, consists of a projection in a custom-fabricated, tunnel-like room. What we see is a crowd struggling to make its way up, and down, an escalator, which itself appears motionless; nearby is what looks like a collapsing building. Figures are pressed between foreground and background, calling to mind the odd, cramped spatial relationships found in pre-Renaissance painting, early cinema, and low-budget theater, all of which work against—and benefit from—limitations of means to convey human drama. (Think Giotto filming a high-school play about urban anxiety and malaise.) The set seems both fake and illogical; the escalator looks more like the product of handicraft than industry. Danger becomes humdrum as a column of bricks repeatedly topples onto the crowd, magically restores itself upright, and falls again, all with little effect. In fact, the people appear more interested in their own yawning give-and-take—expressions range from exhausted to apathetic—than in actually getting anywhere. As the camera zooms in and out on the “action,” so too do the walls and ceiling of the actual gallery space, which move back and forth via concealed rollers and pulleys—another layer of “disorientation” to which one eventually becomes fully oriented.

Two other works (both 2002) also show figures locked into a dance of perpetual repetition. In a two-channel projection entitled Flock, a herd (of people) squats apathetically in an outdoor space on the periphery of an urban setting. There’s no detectable reason why the group, which consists of Caucasians and Asians, spans age ranges, and seems mostly working and middle class, lingers here, tolerating varying degrees of social interaction and physical comfort. Wandering among them is a group of goats, one of which, strangely enough, appears to be animatronic. Park, meanwhile, presents another odd mix of people, barely aware of or interacting with one another, gathered around a large tree in a public park. Many are dancing and jumping up and down, and a few dogs frolic among them. The only hints at a reason behind this cultish congregation are a pair of photographs of a young man, one posted on a garden wall, the other pinned to the tree.

Whether Mik’s players are caught in patterns of behavior, lapses of memory, loops of time or history, collective delusions, or failures of nerve remains unclear. Certain, however, is the fact that, though they could be comical, these scenes aren’t funny at all. They’re baffling, not because they’re so “off,” but because they are so on the mark; the behavior on view might be far from normal, but it seems very close to familiar. And déjà vu occurs only to the viewer, as he or she is faced with the tragicomic, rhythmic tyranny of routine.

Christopher Miles