View of “Robert Breer: Time Flies,” 2016–17. Floor, from left: Column, 1967; Porcupine, 1967; Rug, 1968.

View of “Robert Breer: Time Flies,” 2016–17. Floor, from left: Column, 1967; Porcupine, 1967; Rug, 1968.

Robert Breer

View of “Robert Breer: Time Flies,” 2016–17. Floor, from left: Column, 1967; Porcupine, 1967; Rug, 1968.

THE FLYING SAUCER, a whimsical UFO-shaped glass and concrete structure built in the late 1970s, is one of Sharjah’s stranger architectural icons. Recently restored and repurposed by the Sharjah Art Foundation as an exhibition venue, the structure’s unsettling temporality, at once futuristic and strangely anachronistic, made it a particularly apt venue for “Time Flies,” a retrospective of the work of Robert Breer. The influence of the American artist and experimental filmmaker is widely acknowledged, but his heterogeneous oeuvre—which includes pioneering experiments in many new media of the day and ranges from paintings, drawings, and abstract films to kinetic sculptures—has resisted assimilation into conventional histories of postwar art.

Scattered throughout the galleries, a selection of Breer’s paintings from 1949 to 1956 were among the earliest works in the show. Completed during his years in Paris, where he settled after the war, these canvases reflect his initial commitment to hard-edged geometric abstraction. Composed of flat, opaque blocks of color and thin black lines that sometimes function as outlines and other times as armature, they reveal the influence of Piet Mondrian but forsake his limited palette and strict adherence to the grid. More interested in process than product, Breer came to feel confined by the finality of painting, and in the early ’50s he began to translate his compositional experiments into film, rendering abstract forms onto four-by-six-inch index cards, which he then shot sequentially with a 16-mm Bolex camera to make short stop-motion animations.

Breer’s first foray into this medium was the “Form Phases” tetralogy; the latter two films of the quartet were included in the show. In Form Phases III, 1953, the painted forms often appear still wet, their aqueous mutability allowing chance to play a role in determining both shape and its evolution. In Form Phases IV, 1954, their contours are fixed, with motion occurring between and across individual frames. While traditional animation strives to maintain the illusion of continuity through incremental shifts between frames, Breer’s films often shatter it by maximizing difference, resulting in a strobe-like flicker. Indeed, what Breer accomplished in these works is nothing less than a fundamental reinvention of the cinematic experience of movement: Viewers do not simply follow animated elements within a static frame but are forced to attend to the entire frame at once. This could be described as a type of filmic allover effect, a highly original translation of the compositional insights Breer gleaned from his experiments in painting into this new medium.

From early on, Breer’s formal experimentation within the filmic frame was accompanied by an interrogation of the apparatus of cinema itself. By the mid-twentieth century, the film industry had developed viewing conventions that normalized—even repressed—the uncanny magic that lay at the medium’s core. Deploying a beam of projected light in a darkened space, cinema was experienced as purely visual and immaterial, a disembodied space of illusion, fantasy, and imagination. Breer sought to bring the medium back out of darkness and reconnect it to the viewer’s bodily experience by remaking various types of protocinematic devices, ranging from kineographs (flip-books) to mutoscopes and thaumatropes, a selection of which were on view here. These small, simple handmade objects and machines, operated by thumb or hand crank, returned control over the illusion of movement to the hands of the spectator. With its structure and mechanics laid bare, cinema became material again.

Breer’s investigation of the relationship between perception and movement eventually extended beyond cinema to sculpture. In 1966, the artist began making and exhibiting works he termed “floats,” objects implanted with hidden motors that allow them to move extremely slowly and silently along the ground. A group of these sculptures—a semicircular metal bump (Tank, 1966–67); a roughly carved block of yellowing foam covered in short wooden spikes (Porcupine, 1967); two columns, one made of metal (Column, 1967) and the other Styrofoam (Borne, 1967); a thin golden aluminum sheet that makes the slightest crinkling sound as it gradually crumples and unfurls (Rug, 1968)—were left free to meander around the large open space under the Flying Saucer’s shallow concrete dome. Unlike the regular and predictable behavior we have come to expect from industrial machines, their motion felt aleatoric and contingent—a subtle but unnerving installation that morphed over the course of a viewer’s visit. The nearly imperceptible pace of the floats’ movement has a twofold effect. First, it shifts the act of looking from an instantaneous optical experience to an extended embodied one. Second, it compels viewers into a condition of focused stillness so that they may register the movement of Breer’s objects: Immobilized, viewers themselves become objects, momentarily scrambling the traditional hierarchy within the subject-object dyad.

By dissociating movement from speed, Breer’s sculptures find an unexpected resonance in our contemporary moment. They embody and advocate for slowness as a perceptual and critical mode of resistance to the unrelenting 24/7 demands for our attention made by late capitalism. They make us more sensitive and attentive to other, less familiar, less anthropocentric, and less easily co-opted scales of time and space. Gently nudging us beyond the limits of our usual perceptual field, they humbly ask us to extend our empathy and ethics beyond the human.

Murtaza Vali is a critic and curator based in Sharjah and New York.

Read Michelle Kuo’s interview with Robert Breer (November 2010).