New York

Paul Sietsema

Whitney Museum of American Art

You might think that an artist based in Los Angeles would be concerned, at least minimally, with entertainment value. Not so with Paul Sietsema, whose 16 mm film Empire, 2002, currently on view as part of the Whitney’s Contemporary Series, is blissfully content to fly in the face of not only Hollywood’s categorical imperative but also the gesamtkunst hydraulics of Matthew Barney, the social allegories of Steve McQueen and William Kentridge, and the psychological noir of Eija-Liisa Ahtila. But if the thirty-four-year-old artist’s oblique homage to Warhol’s far longer film of the same name turns away from the narrative or quasi-narrative basis of most contemporary film and video art, where does it turn to?

At first blush, Empire, a straightforward, arguably antiseptic presentation of various types of space—two-dimensional and three-dimensional, biomorphic and geometric, formalist and baroque—appears to raise the deadpan ghost of structuralist film. Sietsema begins with a long “sequence” of black on which a grainy image comes up in the way a photograph magically appears in developer. Once visible, however, the image makes us question less what it is and what it means than where the hell we are. For we could be anywhere and, more disconcerting still, at any scale—macro or micro,staring at a distant nebula or into a molecule. (In a few moments we see that this is an image of a grasshopper.) By obliterating our sense of scale, Sietsema deprives us of the idea that film records the real space of objects, as André Bazin proposed. Our point of reference here is not the human body and the stable theatrical space of, say, Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game but rather a dematerialized, pure spatiality.

Sietsema’s effort certainly recalls iconic works of the ’60s and ’70s, such as Michael Snow’s Wavelength, 1967. The resemblance, however, is one of style, not substance. Empire isn’t a phenomenological exploration of the medium of film; nor does it set out to critique visual pleasure, the seductions of narrative, the scopic drive, or any other bogeys of film art (in this respect, Sietsema stays true to Warhol). Instead, Empire seems to be interested in what empires are built on: the occupation of space. Yet it isn’t a political proposition, an attempt to overthrow one notion of space and replace it with another. Sietsema is content, perhaps at the expense of his audience—whom he cues to expect a beginning, middle, and end by placing the movie projector prominently in the exhibition room—to blithely run through his series of increasingly complex visualizations of space without offering the slightest inkling of “dramatic conflict.”

The centrality of spatiality is confirmed by the appearance of negative images of two very different spaces: Clement Greenberg’s Upper West Side living room as it looked in a 1964 Vogue spread, though here tinted red, and an ornate, gilded and mirrored, eighteenth-century octagonal royal salon. Sietsema built scale models, James Casebere style, as the sets for his movie, and these are on view on another floor of the museum, along with related drawings and collages. A Barnett Newman “zip” painting hangs on the far wall of Greenberg’s place and repeatedly appears as a full frame in the film. This zip is literally double (a pair of zips runs down the center of the canvas) and also has a dual role. First, it marks the segue between Greenberg’s living room and the sequence showing the salon, suggesting that line, not color—or color seen as line rather than as phenomenon—is what ultimately differentiates space per se. Secondly, the zip also evokes Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which rooted cinematic expression in the notion of the cut, the filmic “interval” that exists both within and between frames. Yet here the interval is reduced to its zero degree, which is why Empire feels more like flipping through a book of photographs—looking at moving pictures—than watching a film.

It’s not difficult to see how the opposition between formalist space, epitomized by Greenberg’s midcentury bourgeois room of (art) objects, and baroque space, in which the eye loses itself in an infinitely self-reflecting mise-en-abyme, defines a slew of critical antitheses: modern and postmodern, symbol and allegory, flatness and objecthood. But for Sietsema, it’s not a matter of choosing the “correct” model of space and, by extension, of art. For this would cast us back to the notion of progress that was so precious to Greenberg, who conceived his formalism in the service of a historical model of art. Instead, each model of space is simply an expressive form, and the intervals between them do not dictate or develop but simply separate. The structure of Empire is circular rather than linear; it recalls Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle and his effort to extricate Western art from subject-object aesthetics. Transcending narrative resolution, Empire simply unfolds.

While difficult, Empire nevertheless has a peculiar, haunting power; I found myself recalling it days later and asking, Despite the many and various deaths of formalism, to what extent does Greenberg still haunt contemporary art? Even if we’re no longer haunted by his particular tastes, does our art continue to inhabit a model of space that conforms to his formalism? If replacing one model of space with another doesn’t get us out of Greenberg’s living room, Empire does leave us to decide who’s haunting what, or what’s haunting whom. Whether the haunting will ever end is another story.

Saul Anton is a frequent contributor to Artforum.