Barbara Visser

Museum De Paviljoens

The title of this survey, “Vertaalde werken/Translated Works: Barbara Visser 1990–2006,” refers to the Dutch artist’s adaptation of her site-specific works to a new venue and format. Working with the Swiss designer Laurenz Brunner, Visser rethought the presentation of numerous photographs, videos, posters, installations, and ephemera from throughout her career. Perhaps the most eye-catching of these translations are the enormous black-and-white images that wallpapered one of the former Documenta 9 pavilions that house Museum De Paviljoens. One of these wallpaper blowups showed a poster from Visser’s 2002 series “Le monde appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt” (The World Belongs to Early Risers) installed at a bus stop in Nice. The poster shows a man lying on the seashore, possibly in ecstasy. The other posters in the series show the same scene, but the camera has pulled back to reveal more context: In one the man appears to be a victim of drowning, like any number of African refugees on France’s southern coast; however, the man in question does not look remotely African. In another, he is shown at the center of what looks like a fashion shoot, while a sunbather in the foreground goes about his business.

The complete poster series itself (in color) was installed in another pavilion in combination with Actor and Liar, 2003, a two-sided video projection in which a Flemish actor plays two roles: an imprisoned con man who once sold people plots of the moon, and an actor interested in the similarities between himself and the liar, between art and a con job. Together, “The World Belongs to Early Risers” and Actor and Liar could almost stand as a minioverview of Visser’s work, exploring as they do the vagaries of role-playing and places being transformed into sets or theme parks (like Europe’s tourist beaches, which have to be cleared of drowned or living economic refugees). Unfortunately, “Translated Works” also allotted considerable space to less convincing works; in pieces from the early ’90s, such as a series of photographs shot in wax museums, Visser’s investigations of representation and make-believe seem somewhat naive and formulaic.

The “translation” of the chosen works also posed some problems. Gimines, 1995, Visser’s legendary appearance in a Lithuanian soap opera as the artist Barbora Visser, is represented by a period interview with Visser plus a 1995 Gimines calendar and an old periodical; the actual TV clip, however, is missing. Given Visser’s own interest in the way that this piece has become something of an art-world legend, something more compelling than this exercise in tongue-in-cheek understatement would have been in order.

Still, the show allowed for some illuminating comparisons and insights. One theme that emerged was Visser’s persistent dialogue with modernism. “Detitled,” 2000, is a series of photographs of moderndesign chairs that have been ruined in a variety of ways—bumped, broken, torn, melted. In the black-and-white computer animation Transformation House, 2006, Visser resurrects the modernist dream of transparency and flexibility with surprising fervor, creating an oneiric sequence of unfolding and shifting spaces to illustrate her proposal for a house that would be more than simply a static, constricting box. Visser’s whole project might be said to revolve around the point where modernist ideals become Disneyfied make-believe. But even though Transformation House is peopled by virtual inhabitants from Pippi Longstocking books and Jacques Tati movies, this utopian abode is also a rather frightening illustration of the neoliberal imperative to be the most flexible subject imaginable.

However, in one respect this house seems not so different from the grand old Amsterdam town house of the Van Loon family that served as the set for Philippa, 1998, a video sadly absent from the show. In this gothic farce, Philippa Van Loon plays three slightly different versions of herself—reflecting the three countries in which she was brought up, and the languages native to them—chasing each other through sumptuous rooms with hidden doors. The dreamlike moving figures of Transformation House suggest that even this home will accrue its share of ghosts. In fact, its fleeting black-and-white presence may itself be seen as the ghostly return of a modernism that continues to haunt a culture that prides itself on having abandoned all utopian aspirations.

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