Paris

“HF|RG”

Jeu de Paume

Rarely has a title’s punctuation been so warranted as the vertical slash cleaving the initials in this double billing, “HF|RG”: simultaneously soldering and severing the names and careers of Harun Farocki and Rodney Graham. Both artists were born in the 1940s and work with the moving image, but their similarities ostensibly end there. In this joint retrospective, Farocki is the doyen of reticulated montage and cracker of documentary codes, while Graham is the deadpan jack of many trades, whose dry wit pricks the profligate beauty of his installations. Where Farocki is systematic, Graham is satirical; where Graham is at ease in a gallery, Farocki’s film essays seem like envoys from more sober contexts, namely the documentary television programs and cinema houses that screened his films for the first thirty years of his career. Farocki disentangles the political and martial origins of archival footage, while Graham’s film installations—including the awesome 35-mm projectors of Loudhailer and Rheinmetall/Victoria 8, both 2003, and the exposed calligraphic cascades of the looping system of Coruscating Cinnamon Granules, 1996—enmesh their images in material presence.

That said, this exhibition did not aspire to mount dueling retrospectives. Like another endeavor with a cloven title, Roland Barthes’s S/Z, the exhibition came equipped with a set of categories—the Archive, the Non Verbal, the Machine, and Montage—to assure a common ground. But the essential commonality was the artists’ shared fascination with the loop. In a triptych of films, Vexation Island, 1997, How I Became a Rambling Man, 1999, and City Self/Country Self, 2000, Graham casts himself in three stock scenarios, playing a castaway, a cowboy, and both rube and dandy. Looped continuously, the films confine their protagonists to a circuit as airtight as the conventions they so faultlessly rehearse. Farocki’s twelve-monitor installation Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik in elf Jahrzehnten (Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades), 2006, repeats excerpts of films ranging from Louis Lumière’s La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon, 1895) to Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000)—eternally and infernally waylaying the depicted workers in front of their factories, thus tracing the demise of industrial labor yet occluding what might follow it.

Equally infernal are Graham’s Reading Machine for Lenz, 1993, and Reading Machine for Parsifal. One Signature, 1992, book pages and staff paper splayed in glass panels that rotate on brass frames, forever turning round the same phrase. In Parsifal, Graham diffracts an interlude composed by Wagner’s assistant, Engelbert Humperdinck, into an array of musical epicycles for each of the fourteen orchestral parts, the combinations of which would take more than thirty-nine billion years to play out. The unheard modulations echo the normally unseen channels of surveillance and closed-circuit video in Farocki’s montages. In the film essay Auge/Maschine (Eye/Machine), 2000, Farocki documents technologies of warfare that produce an inscrutable volley of visual information—technology that is increasingly pervasive and only nominally intended to “bear witness” for any viewer. The same kind of volley seemed stealthily at play in “HF|RG.” But if this gave the exhibition a touch of inaccessibility, it did so to lend a keener edge, to bestow on that vertical slash one more function: generating a montage the size of an exhibition, where two discontinuous oeuvres engage in closed-circuit communion.

Joanna Fiduccia