Johanna Billing

Drawn to contexts that might, in lesser hands, prompt lumbering pontification, Johanna Billing happily favors a direct appeal to viewers’ senses and emotions over an overtly pedagogical approach. The videos that the Swedish artist showed here are watchable and well crafted. Filtering understated sociopolitical allusions through accessible meditations on everyday life, Billing distills the scattershot into the essential by marshaling connections among people, places, and processes, conjuring affecting juxtapositions of image, music, and incidental sound en route to a bigger picture.

Titled after I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm, 2009, this exhibition also included four other videos made since 2001, plus an ongoing project, You Don’t Love Me Yet, 2002–. The earliest piece, Where She Is At, 2001, is a short loop that depicts a swimsuit-clad girl standing indecisively atop an outdoor high-diving board. Wandering back and forth, sitting on the board’s edge, clambering up and down the steps, observing other divers, the unnamed protagonist embodies a familiar and universal tension. That the scene of her dilemma is Oslo’s Ingierstrand Bath—a rare survivor of 1930s functionalist architecture, built in the spirit of healthy optimism but now in decay—also suggests a certain ideological uncertainty. While Ole Lind Schistad and Eyvind Mostue’s design originated in and promoted a forward-facing confidence, its fate reveals the subsequent failure to fulfill those utopian hopes.

The setting of Magical World, 2005, is also worth noting for the productively complicated effect it has on the video’s otherwise fairly straightforward action: Billing filmed a children’s after-school music club, housed in a grim-looking community center located in a suburb of Zagreb, Croatia. In a little more than six minutes, the work documents the students’ attempts to learn and perform the title song (originally recorded in 1968 by the “psychedelic soul” band Rotary Connection). Billing displays enormous sensitivity to the minutiae of human interaction and the everyday influence of place, but it is the fusion of these visible elements with knowledge of the project’s setting that complicates the work’s effect, albeit subtly, as the plaintive lyric’s origin rubs up against the singers’ efforts to comprehend the foreign words and make them their own.

This Is How We Walk on the Moon, 2007, a twenty-seven-minute video shown in the gallery’s reading room, also has a melancholic feel. Here, the famous Forth Road Bridge at their backs, several musicians, among them members of the Edinburgh music collective Fence, are seen on a sailing course. Some of them are also heard on the sound track, with a meandering interpretation of the dreamlike, eponymous number by Arthur Russell. Billing’s motivation here seems to have been mainly an interest in the city’s proximity to the North Sea, but the result has an elegiac resonance that recalls another storied sailing-voyage-as-art, Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous, 1975 (albeit without repeating that trip’s tragic conclusion).

Magic and Loss, 2005, which shows a group of people methodically shifting an unseen individual’s possessions out of his or her apartment, and You Don’t Love Me Yet, a wildly diverse set of commissioned reinterpretations of a single Roky Erickson song (presented here on DVD), are effective demonstrations of Billing’s conceptual range. But it is I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm that shows the artist at her most accomplished. Condensing a days-long dance project produced during 2008’s Periferic 8 Biennial of Contemporary Art in Romania into a thirteen-and-a-half minute video, Billing revels in the proximity between everyday movement and scripted dance. The specifics of setting are, as always, significant, but it is in her sensitivity to the universality of human gesture that Billing really shines.

Michael Wilson