Los Angeles

Mathias Poledna

Hammer Museum

Mathias Poledna has designated his works “fragments,” a term that could apply to their subject matter as well as to their relation to one another. Poledna has produced just a few short films: Actualité, 2001; Western Recording, 2003; Version, 2004; and now Crystal Palace, 2006. Each one is the centerpiece of a series of highly controlled cinematic environments in which every aspect of the presentation is significant, from the film gauge and stock to the make of the projector, the configuration of the screen, and the absence or presence of seating. Above all, he exploits the potential of the gallery context to encourage a close reading of what might otherwise be experienced in a state of distraction. If we understand cinema as a hallucination engine, Poledna’s installations amount to an objective extrusion of its psychic contents. Typically, we remain within the space of the shot, its minimal movement demanding our sustained concentration while also reminding us that, on-screen, the image is always still, only becoming animate in the mind.

Aside from the image “itself” and the apparatus that renders it visible, additional interpretative clues are often scattered around the venues in which Poledna shows, either as concrete artifacts (posters, photographs, related objects), checklist marginalia, “insider info” passed on by gallery staff, or what the artist terms “fallout”—thematic material carried over from prior exhibitions. Comprised of three sections, three distinct views of the rain-forest landscape of Papua New Guinea, which might be related to the three acts of conventional Hollywood narrative, Crystal Palace is the artist’s longest and most complex work to date, and also the most cryptic. Aside from standard informational pamphlets, the exhibition space is left bare. More than ever before, Poledna appears to insist on the primacy of historical memory within reception.

One might recall how, in Version, the ambiguous moves of a group of young dancers introduced an ethnographic theme, which the artist carries over into Crystal Palace. As the former film is silent, the question as to how exactly to read the performers’ dance becomes all the more perplexing: Is it a vaguely uptight take on a “new music” groove, an instance of concerted Martha Graham–style choreography, or a sly countercolonialist “gag” along the lines of Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons, 1983? The title of a popular Folkways LP from the 1950s, Sounds of a Tropical Rain Forest in America, is singled out for attention here as a reference for Crystal Palace. The Folkways label released this disc as aural accompaniment to an exhibition at the Smithsonian in the playfully unsystematic manner that has since become known as its trademark style, compelling wide-ranging speculation as to the sounds’ actual sources.

Highlighting the slippage between the evidentiary functions of the museological specimen and a sound track that strays eagerly into the terrain of Musique Concrète, Crystal Palace unfolds as a meditative series of medium-close and medium-wide shots that place us squarely in the midst of the jungle’s gently swaying foliage. The fact that Poledna was actually there to film a landscape we have seen many times before is rendered acute, as is a lack of broad context. The LP cover boasts a bird’s-eye view of seemingly endless greenery, making us all the more conscious of the implication of documentary film in sustaining as fantasy that which is threatened with actual disappearance. Far from “fleshing out” the image, the sound-design of field and library recordings builds toward a patently hollow climax of deep atmospheric rumbles and screeching birdcalls. The slightest glitch in the “crystal synchronization” of the camera and tape recorder motors will in time grow into an abyss. With ever more purpose and precision, Poledna seizes upon this process of fracture as a site of historical recovery.

Jan Tumlir