Clemens von Wedemeyer

Galleries often re-present works commissioned for other contexts, but rarely do they expand on them. This is precisely what’s been done, however, at Koch Oberhuber Wolff for its solo show by Clemens von Wedemeyer. “The Fourth Wall,” 2009, consists of nine videos and films conceived for London’s Barbican Art Gallery and exhibited there last year. Here this project was supplemented by photographs, wall texts, a sound document, and vitrines filled with books and a copy of National Geographic. The work’s thematic reference point is the story of the Tasaday, an ethnic group with only twenty-four members who until 1971 had been living presumably undisturbed in caves in the rain forests of the southern Philippines. The Tasaday were presented by their ostensible discoverer, Manuel Elizalde Jr., as a Stone Age tribe clad only in leaves and using primeval tools and were quickly picked up on by the Western media, becoming an ethnological sensation. From the very beginning, though, Elizalde strictly controlled the flow of information, refusing access to serious scientists and later even creating a closed-off reservation. But in 1986, journalists succeeded in reaching the Tasaday and found them wearing jeans, smoking, and living in houses; a hue and cry was raised, and Elizalde was accused of having passed off a group of local peasants as savages.

“The Fourth Wall” stakes out a position right in the middle of this clash between claimed authenticity and staged media presentation, using additional materials to transform the stark concrete spaces of kow into a sort of media studies cabinet. Displayed behind glass was not an exotic tribe but a documentary of the construction of the other. An approximately half-hour-long collage of found footage elaborates on the connection between camera and mask, while a heavily made-up actress disguised as a “savage” gazes directly into the camera, looking the viewer in the eye, in a 16-mm film displayed by a motion-activated projector. In a long video interview, John Nance—the head of the Philippines bureau of the Associated Press, who played a crucial role in the first wave of media hype surrounding the supposed Stone Age tribe—gives his view of things, while in another, Italian director Ruggero Deodato expresses enthusiasm for the issue of National Geographic that featured the Tasaday on the front cover. That publication inspired him to produce a number of sensationalist exploitation films, among them Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (Last Cannibal World, 1977) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980). By the time the video of Leis Bagdach’s specially commissioned play The Gentle Ones, 2009—based on the story of the Tasaday and staged for the camera at the Barbican Theatre in London—was juxtaposed with a three-channel video showing actors from the play experiencing their “first contact” with the audience in an artificial palm-tree paradise created to celebrate the video’s premiere, documentation and fiction had blended together.

“The Fourth Wall” has been assembled, produced, and presented with a sound understanding of the thematic complexities involved. Of course, one might also criticize this second edition for its fixation on contextualization and transmission—for presenting such concrete, almost obligatory suggestions for interpretation that parts of the works themselves seem to have become all but superfluous. But in fact the show works best precisely where it looks most like a classic educational presentation straight out of a museum of natural history. In displaying a thematic and formal coherence that exceeds even its own perhaps overly pedagogical deconstruction of media myths and strategies, the exhibition gestures toward its own implication in the structure of spectacle, exemplified by the very notion of a “show.”

Dominikus Müller

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.