New York

Aernout Mik

Aernout Mik’s video installation Refraction, 2005, which tracks the aftermath of a bus accident in the Romanian countryside, comes closer to naturalism than any of the Dutch artist’s earlier moving-image odes to disaster, dislocation, and freakish misadventure. Previously, Mik’s works have featured complex arrangements of screens, dizzying camera movements, ambiguously eschatological scenarios, and an almost Melièsian sense of creepy artifice. But Refraction, projected straightforwardly on a long, low, free-standing wall, at first seems to be merely an extended documentation of the type of event we’ve all seen a hundred times on the news: It’s a cloudy day and a bus has overturned on a highway cutting through a landscape of fields and rolling hills. Cars are backed up nearly to the horizon, and cops, paramedics, firemen, and even soldiers have converged on the scene. Their vehicles are bivouacked around the bus, which lies on its side; stretchers, aluminum cases, and other bits of first-responder matériel are scattered about.

As bystanders cluster nearby, the emergency services take care of business, searching the fields with German shepherds or clambering through the bus as if it were a jungle gym. The camera wanders like an inquisitive child everyone’s too preoccupied to notice, moving smoothly and constantly, sometimes panning up and back for a panoramic shot, and frequently digressing in the direction of a pigpen by the side of the road whose inmates wallow obliviously in the mud. A flock of sheep that wanders across the highway at one point underscores the pastoral mood, and the video’s silence (there’s no sound track) reinforces a sense of calm.

But slowly, you realize that something is missing—namely, gore, smoke, fire, or indeed any other traces of the havoc that has apparently just been wreaked. There are no injured or dead people, although the overturned bus is full of backpacks and other belongings. Have all the victims been suddenly beamed up by aliens? Their absence drives home the realization that Refraction is not a documentary but an elaborately staged fiction, and it also makes the emergency personnel’s entire endeavor seem profoundly bizarre. When the camera sneaks up on a guy in a hazmat suit using a pair of forceps to pick through the detritus on the bottom of the bus, as if he might find a Thumbelina-size survivor concealed under an errant ATM card, you think, “What the hell are these people doing?” Also, as you watch, you realize that there is no beginning or end. The video is an absolutely seamless loop, a structure that’s more analogous to incantation than to narrative.

Refraction’s central conceit is a continuation of Mik’s ongoing modus operandi. He subtracts not only the blood and guts from his pseudocinematic scenarios, but the affect as well—lack of affect being a major indicator that somebody (or an entire society) is crazy. Flattening and deranging a plot that most of us find utterly predictable, even reassuring (chaos erupts and people in uniforms show up to restore order), Refraction exposes something more disturbing than chaos running through the warp and woof of the social fabric—that is, order itself, ossified, emptied of meaning, and transformed into a series of ritual gestures.

Elizabeth Schambelan