“Talking Pictures”

When, in his 1967 article “Art and Objecthood,” Michael Fried attacked the Minimalists for their theatricality, he could not have known that his critique would affect the dialogue between art and theater for decades to come. Even videos, performances, and installations became antitheatrical. But no more: Today’s films and videos feature drama, role play, and pretense—a point underlined by K21 curator Doris Krystof in her wonderfully installed exhibition “Talking Pictures.”

Theater is, above all, a form of social interaction, and as such, it has not only an aesthetic but an ethical component; both play a role in the works on view in Düsseldorf. The aesthetic aspect is perhaps most prevalent in Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 1, 2003, by Yang Fudong. This five-part cycle looks back stylistically to the Shanghai film industry of the ’30s, and its exquisite images recall the light touch of traditional Chinese ink painting. Markus Schinwald’s film Dictio Pii, 2001, has a distinct aesthetic style as well. In this “conversation of the blessed,” seven characters carry out enigmatic acts (for example, one ties a chain around his face) in the rooms of a decrepit hotel in Vienna. The film is projected atop an enormous wooden box with patterned curtains in the center of the exhibition space: pure theater.

Some works make even more direct reference to the theater. In Victor Alimpiev’s double projection Wie heisst dieser Platz (What Is the Name of This Place), 2006, actors imitate the Sprechstimme (speaksinging) of Arnold Schoenberg; Keren Cytter’s film The Victim, 2006, transforms a kitchen into the site of explosive drama, using alienation effects that call to mind Brecht. An exceptionally engaging projection by Ana Torfs, The Intruder, 2004–2005, brings Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1890 play L’Intrus to life in an unconventional production.

How does a role acted on the stage relate to our role in everyday life? Danica Dakic´ examines this question in her film Role Taking, Role Making, 2004–2005, in which she follows a Roma theater group; one of the film’s characters, a very German-seeming psychologist, mulls over the dilemma of how to avoid being different and yet remain true to one’s individuality. In the five large projections of Big Hunt, 2002, Catherine Sullivan, herself a trained actor, shows scenes that she rehearsed with professional actors in the style of films by Ingmar Bergman and Arthur Penn. In Gillian Wearing’s video Trauma, 2000, masks distance people from their everyday selves and allow them to talk about traumatic events from their childhood.

Two women with guns pursue each other in Mathilde ter Heijne’s No Depression in Heaven, 2006; the film ends with the sound of a shot being fired, but the identities of shooter and victim are not revealed. The projection is presented in a complex installation that includes two dolls, a painted wall, and a melancholy voice singing an Appalachian folk song. Garlands, 2003–2005, by T. J. Wilcox, consists of six screens of documentary material found by the artist as well as material he filmed himself, on a wide variety of subjects. Projected in a half-circle, the films are addictive; one could sit and watch for hours on end. What all the films and videos in “Talking Pictures” have in common is the nostalgic reference to old masters of cinema and theater—as if current production were the furthest thing from these artists’ minds.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.