New York

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria

For costuming, see Matthew Barney; for sound, Janet Cardiff; for art direction, Gregory Crewdson. Over the past ten years the art world has witnessed the incremental reinvention of the cinematic wheel, one department at a time, via the movie-besotted mediums of contemporary photography and video. Working together, using their accumulated knowledge of the film industry’s bounces, booms, and production schedules, the aforementioned trio could probably pull off a respectable feature. With Single Wide, 2002, a Möbius-like six-minute, ten-second meditation on memory and narrative, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler lay claim to the job of camera operator, pioneering a moving version of staged photography through their singular, adamant use of the dolly.

In one, long, circular tracking shot (with a small digression), Single Wide explores the nighttime terrain of a single-wide trailer home and its outlying parking lot. The camera glides horizontally through a child’s bedroom propped out with dollhouse and stuffed animals, a bathroom with a leaky faucet, a living room, a kitchen, and an adult’s bedroom, then outside to the dirt yard where a Ford truck stands bathed in the electric blue backlighting typical of ’80s Hollywood. Along the way, the viewer glimpses the main protagonist, a woman in a flannel shirt with a bleeding gash on her head, as she looks at herself in a mirror, walks to the truck carrying a bag with a stuffed animal, weeps, and drives the truck into the kitchen of the mobile home. The spectacular centerpiece of this cool journey is the ruined kitchen through which the camera occasionally passes. Here, in a composition indebted to Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room, 1978, the steaming hood of the truck anchors a scene of chaos, including smashed appliances and artfully crushed Venetian blinds.

In this and their previous color video projections, Hubbard and Birchler’s primary subject is the construction of narrative itself. Scrupulously foregoing conventional epiphany or denouement, the artists instead build convincing atmospheres out of elliptical repetitions and dramatic moments that appear eternally stalled in a state of pregnant incompletion. The results of these structuralist storytelling techniques are somewhat mixed. After numerous revolutions of Single Wide’s perpetual loop, for instance, the sets do begin to hum with uncanny supplemental meanings—one wonders about those posters on the wall or the perfectly placed smudges on the mirror. Ideally one is led to wonder about the fundamental “constructedness” of narrative, identity, and reality itself. The trade-off, however, comes in the artists’ treatment of their main character. While this woman has obviously experienced some terrible trauma regarding her child, any other detail about her state of mind is frustratingly missing. By avoiding the recherché narrative devices of closure and first-person identification, Hubbard and Birchler also forgo the opportunity to establish a compelling emotional logic for their dramatic situation.

Still, Single Wide works better than much gallery-based deconstruction of cinematic coding, a genre in which bad acting is often justified as Warholian affectlessness and poor plotting passes for meta-fictional ambiguity. Along the sometimes hazy line between ambitious artmaking and lazy filmmaking, Hubbard and Birchler fall finally on the side of ambition, crafting elaborate images and temporal structures that allude to everyone from Hitchcock to Robbe-Grillet to Spielberg. Perhaps one day they will also decide to take on that most challenging element of the narrative apparatus—character.

Jonathan Raymond