Lisbon

James Coleman

MNAC: Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado

James Coleman’s show combined a retrospective dimension—ranging from the historic Pump, 1972, and Playback of a Daydream, 1974, to mature works like Lapsus Exposure, 1992–94, and Charon (MIT Project), 1989, an extraordinary reflection on the nature of photography as a medium and the complexity of its aesthetic and sociopolitical role in contemporary life—with the premiere of a new work, –horoscopus, 2004–2005. Two television monitors placed side by side showed people engaged in conversation. Sometimes one image took up the entire screen, usually in close-up. At other times the screen was split into quadrants, with each window showing a different image or none at all. Vertical speakers installed in the middle of the room allowed us to hear the conversations, some in English, some in French. Lasting close to an hour and divided into six segments, –horoscopus features two major and several secondary characters. The actors, admirably improvising on a structure provided by Coleman, speak obsessively of their meetings, expectations, sufferings, and romantic disappointments.

This new work should be approached not only from the perspective of the use of the moving image in the plastic arts but also from that of the history of film and its relation to video and television (perhaps relevant here are Godard’s experiments with video and the films of Marguerite Duras, in which the actor-character relationship and the relationship between image and sound achieve a rare rigor and radicality). Evoking the narrative universe of the soap opera or photographic novel, the tone of –horoscopus nonetheless partakes not of their sentimental naturalism but rather has the gritty and misery-laden feel typical of so-called English social cinema. The fact that Coleman placed four of the eight digital cameras he used on the actors’ bodies gives the images a disturbing physical proximity. A sense of anguish, at times bordering on asphyxiation, permeates every scene. We have here not the sharp, limpid image of sanitized television but a constantly unstable image, dirty and decentered, that at all times challenges our capacity to see everything, to go on seeing, or to perceive clearly what is being seen.

This difficulty in seeing shifts the burden of identifying the message and the search for meaning to the sound track, that is, to the voice. What the dialogue tells us, in an explicit and insistent fashion, is that people, however much they may look at one another, never succeed in seeing others as they truly are and that this is the root cause not just of romantic disappointment but of more catastrophic failures in human relations. We have no essential identity to be discovered or liberated, and therefore there is no absolute truth from which a valid, accurate, and complete story of a relationship between people can be constructed. Only fragments exist, which correspond inevitably to incomplete, unstable, and noncoincident visions. This is why all love stories are unhappy ones—because they are not merely stories but nevertheless can’t stop being stories. We can see, and resee, this piece the way one reads successive horoscopes, looking for something—a word, a tiny hope, a hypothesis, relief—that will allow us to go on making up stories; in other words, to go on living.

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.