St. Louis

Julian Rosefeldt, American Night, 2009, five-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 40 minutes 42 seconds.

Julian Rosefeldt, American Night, 2009, five-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 40 minutes 42 seconds.

Julian Rosefeldt

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

Julian Rosefeldt, American Night, 2009, five-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 40 minutes 42 seconds.

In his sumptuous forty-one-minute, five-channel video installation American Night, 2009, Julian Rosefeldt mines tropes of the western movie genre: the waiting woman, the gunslinger, the lonesome wanderer. One screen features a shawled woman in front of a log cabin looking out across the landscape, another a man on horseback riding through wilderness, and a third an archetypal Wild West street. Characters with dialogue are shown on the fourth and fifth screens, which depict an evening campfire and a saloon brawl. These sweeping scenes are occasionally punctuated by anachronous imagery and dialogue that reference the Iraq war (American troops helicoptering into the streetscape, rallying statements by George W. Bush). However, taken in the greater context of the artist’s work, American Night stands more as evidence of Rosefeldt’s fascination with polemical speech—be it about war, guns, or art—than as nuanced political commentary.

The work’s campfire scene (whose device of multiple outside references would reappear in Manifesto, 2015, a thirteen-channel video installation starring Cate Blanchett delivering thirteen artists’ manifestos in character) presents five cowboys ruminating in flickering firelight. Their confabulation’s content consists of classic western dialogue, political addresses given by Bush and Charlton Heston, 50 Cent lyrics, and even a line from the 1982 movie Rambo: First Blood: “Live for nothing, or die for something.” If not for the list of quotations available just outside the gallery, only the most astute aficionado of westerns and the nightly news would be able to parse the references, although the tenor of the dialogue is evident. One cowboy utters lines from John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“Out here a man settles his own problems”), from Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach (“There are some things a man just can’t run away from”), and from Anthony Mann’s 1953 Winchester ’73 (“Some things a man has to do, so he does ’em”), before concluding with Bush’s famous remark made in the aftermath of 9/11: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” Rosefeldt lays bare the art of his filmic artifice, as these gunslingers shift in and out of character, alternately impersonating John Wayne and Clint Eastwood while reciting classic movie lines and rapping lyrics from 50 Cent’s “Gun Runner”: “9-millimeter Ruger, sixteen shots, hollow points will go through ya.”

The work’s most dynamic scene presents a bar fight, foreshadowed by a coquette who sings the Andrews Sisters hit “I Didn’t Know the Gun Was Loaded.” The childish remorse of the lyrics is entertaining: “I’m so sorry [for shooting you] my friend / I didn’t know the gun was loaded / and I’ll never, never do it again.” As the fighting escalates, men break bottles over the heads of other men while still others tumble over banisters and through the air, falling with such force that their weight crushes the tables on which they land. In a pivotal sequence, the five cowboys from the campfire scene enter the saloon and witness this exaggerated, bloodless bout of piano-accompanied stage fighting. One fires a single gunshot into the ceiling (cue falling plaster dust) and the fracas immediately subsides. The combatants then turn toward the band of men and (poorly) sing the first half of the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem. Stopping short of the stanza’s final plea for mercy and eternal rest, this makeshift choir ends instead with lyrics that foretell the Day of Wrath: “Lacrimosa dies illa [That day of tears and mourning] / qua resurget ex favilla [when from the ashes shall arise] / judicandus homo reus [all humanity to be judged].” A voice off camera then commands “Cut!” and actors playing director and crew come into view, furthering Rosefeldt’s pastiche and explicitly referencing to François Truffaut’s 1973 film about making a film, La nuit américaine, (released in the United States as Day for Night). As the artist’s collection of sound bites and images coalesce, we’re reminded of language’s capacity to bring about violence—both imagined and real.

Jeffrey Saletnik