View of “Tobias Zielony,” 2015. From left: Vele di Scampia (The Sails of Scampia), 2009; Kalandia Kustom Kar Kommandos, 2014; Big Sexyland, 2008.

View of “Tobias Zielony,” 2015. From left: Vele di Scampia (The Sails of Scampia), 2009; Kalandia Kustom Kar Kommandos, 2014; Big Sexyland, 2008.

Tobias Zielony

View of “Tobias Zielony,” 2015. From left: Vele di Scampia (The Sails of Scampia), 2009; Kalandia Kustom Kar Kommandos, 2014; Big Sexyland, 2008.

Tobias Zielony’s investigation of reality encourages multiple interpretations. The Berlin-based artist’s presentation of eight videos in “Dream Lovers. The Films 2008–2014” allowed those who are familiar with his photographic work to appreciate the thematic contiguity of his research across media, as well as its consistent marriage of the documentary with the abstract. Zielony’s “Dream Lovers” (the title was appropriated from the 1959 song by Bobby Darin) are antiheroes, typically adolescents, who inhabit the artist’s personal pantheon. These precarious protagonists are drawn from the pariahs of humanity, and Zielony depicts each dreaming of a life different from the one he or she is living, thus complicating the relationship between reality and its representation.

At Galleria Lia Rumma, a cathode-tube television played Big Sexyland, 2008, the artist’s first film, set in a porn theater in Berlin that is frequented by young prostitutes from Eastern Europe. The reflected light of a film intermittently illuminates the emaciated face of a dozing man, shown in looming close-up. Emphasizing the space between dream and desire, the situation refers, with bitter irony, to the exhibition’s title. Der Brief (The Letter), 2012, and Danny, 2013, are also tied to the world of prostitution. In the former, which is shot like a documentary, two prostitutes recount the story of one of their colleagues, pursued by a disturbed client and forced to move and change her place of work. The latter video is more ironic, centering on the way a prostitute, now past her prime, lures her clients. In an unspecified street in the Ruhr valley in western Germany, she takes advantage of an improvised installation of little colored lights to attract the attention of potential johns. The same gadget reappears in The Street (C.P.A.), 2013, in which underage and parentless Bengali youths sell neon lights and other electrical sundries to tourists in order to survive in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Rome.

The alienating Vele di Scampia (The Sails of Scampia), 2009, is also set in the urban periphery. A stop-motion animation composed of seven thousand individual frames, it conveys one of the symbols of the social and urban degradation of Scampia, a suburb in northern Naples: the infamous “Sails,” Francesco Di Salvo’s ill-fated housing project (a poor relation of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation). These decaying monoliths are emblematic of the irreducible gap between the good faith of a design and its disastrous realization. Zielony’s work, of course, recalls the disquieting atmospheres of Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s much-discussed book (2006), made into a film by Matteo Garrone in 2008; both the book and its adaptation brought an outpouring of media attention to these buildings. Similarly grim, The Deboard, 2008, pivots around a ritual beating undergone by members of an aboriginal street and prison gang in the Canadian province of Manitoba who want to drop out of the group. Shot inside a prison cell in the notorious Stony Mountain prison in Winnipeg, the video includes the voice of a former detainee, recently released, who survived the gang’s harsh practice.

Zielony takes a more cinematographic approach toward the construction of shots and sequences and diegetic development in his recent work. Al-Akrab (The Scorpion), 2014, is a declared homage to the opening scene of Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or (1930), conveying, here though a Middle Eastern setting, a similarly obsessive and alienating atmosphere. Kalandia Kustom Kar Kommandos, 2014, enigmatically concludes Zielony’s survey of a varied slice of humanity. The piece is a slick remake of Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) set in the vicinity of the Kalandia roadblock, the most crowded point of passage through the wall that divides Ramallah and Jerusalem. In Zielony’s video, two young Palestinian men inside an auto-repair shop give new life to an old red Volkswagen bug, as if it were the projection of their every desire, their actions set to the tune of “Dream Lover.” Here, as in the other works on view, Zielony’s gaze, seemingly detached and without pieties—suspended between a documentarian impulse, social criticism, and anthropological research—sometimes gives way to unexpected poetry. The psychological introspection with which Zielony examines his proud characters is typical of his methods; he distills their essence, encouraging the viewer’s existential reflection.

Eugenio Viola

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.