Amsterdam

Melvin Moti

Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA)

Melvin Moti’s 16-mm film on DVD The Black Room, 2005, is a montage of two apparently disparate elements: footage of wall paintings from a village near Pompeii and a sound track consisting of an imaginary interview with the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos. In the interview, based on a variety of historical sources, a female voice interrogates “Desnos” about the famous/infamous “période des sommeils” just before the official launch of Surrealism, in 1922–23. During this period, the group around Breton experimented with hypnotic sleep, or trance. The interviewer voices her concern that the proto-Surrealists’ disregard for safety and for their mental health brought them to the brink of an abyss; Desnos tries to make light of the incidents she brings up, such as the one in which he chased Paul Eluard with a knife. All the while, the video projection shows details of the Pompeian frescoes, the camera slowly panning across them.

The frescoes are from the famous Black Room of a villa in Boscotrecase; they are in the so-called third style of Roman wall painting, which abandoned illusionism in favor of monochrome planes with whimsical columns, ornaments, and small figures. As Desnos tells about his life as a sleepwalker, sleeptalker, and potential sleepkiller, the camera travels along a black field which is pierced, near the edges of the video image, by thin and grotesquely elongated columns that function like Newmanesque zips. Other tracking shots in the video make do without these quasi-architectural elements. In one case, a vague, blotted scene of two men and what looks like a goat—it would seem bucolic, if the man on the right didn’t look as if he was going to club the animal to death—slowly floats across the black void as Desnos recalls Breton’s growing concern about the psychological consequences of their reckless dedication to daydreaming. Elsewhere, the Desnos voice recalls his first “conscious dream,” at the age of eight, when he saw the sentence “The ox, black like ink, glows, passes and disappears” hover in his dark bedroom.

At this moment in the film, there are no elegant columns or animals to alleviate the spotty, stained darkness—just the English subtitles of the French dialogue, which make the sentence recalled by Desnos actually appear on the dark background. Then, as columns in the guise of plant forms appear on screen, Desnos describes how these words somehow became flesh, or the semblance of it, as the terrifyingly real vision of an ox appeared in his childhood bedroom. In Moti’s work—also in the earlier film No Show, 2004, shown in the back space—the absence of an image is more stimulating than its presence. Moti’s videos offer a suggestive alternative to the overcoded imagery mass-produced for the visually literate denizens of contemporary culture. To this visual culture Moti opposes the visionary; to actual images, imagination. This could be seen as a neo-surrealist project of sorts. Of course, Surrealism’s visions have themselves become part of the spectacle’s repertoire of clichés; Moti focuses on what has been lost and betrayed in this process of reduction.

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