London

Maja Čule, Mouth, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 18 minutes
55 seconds. Photo: Ollie Harrop.

Maja Čule, Mouth, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 18 minutes
55 seconds. Photo: Ollie Harrop.

Maja Čule

Arcadia_Missa

Maja Čule, Mouth, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 18 minutes
55 seconds. Photo: Ollie Harrop.

Maja Čule’s new video Mouth, 2017, is what a nature documentary might be like if made with a mumblecore aesthetic. Men in outdoor gear roam through a forest holding big sticks, shuffle around a muddy lake, and cross terrain thickly covered in decaying autumn leaves. One howls to the sky. Another scans a man’s back with his phone, zooming in on what appears to be a tick bite. At night they stalk animals and wrestle with each other—at one point I heard a pig or boar grunt, but it was too dark to see what’s happening. The soundtrack is ambient: Sometimes we hear their voices or the camera microphone knocking against things, other times leaves crunching, wind blowing, foliage rustling. These scenes are interspersed with others shot in what appears to be an animal sanctuary. A woman clad in beige and khaki, with messy long auburn hair and tortoiseshell glasses, tends to birds, turtles, and ducks, which waddle and paddle around in an indoor tank. The video emphasizes the natural color tones: Browns, greens, and beiges merge into one another under faded light, both indoors and outdoors, as if the footage were deliberately undersaturated in postproduction.

The exhibition was accompanied by a text by Emily Pope that begins: “Among civilized men, the mouth has lost the relatively prominent character that it still has among primitive men.” She goes on to explain that the video’s title refers to Georges Bataille’s 1930 essay “La Bouche” (The Mouth), equating the “rustling in the bushes” of Čule’s video to the foraging and gathering of cavemen, and explaining—in a wry tone—that you can live guilt-free nowadays if you kill your meat yourself and post images of it online. Čule’s video was shot in New York’s Central Park and on Staten Island, with actors who collaborated with her to create characters based on prior interviews with hunters and volunteers in a wildlife-protection organization. The men parody a romantic cliché of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Čule was inspired by selfie videos from YouTube personalities who mimic the television explorer Bear Grylls—the archetype of this genre of heroic masculinity. The woman at the wildlife sanctuary, meanwhile, plays the opposite role. As Pope writes, in a parodic style, her caring persona is “a nurturing antithesis to the group mentalities which can produce toxic masculinity.”

Čule’s video is equally mundane and absurd, as it ricochets between slapstick, satire, and boredom. It is tricky to work out what anyone is actually doing by just watching the video without reading the accompanying text. At points, it seems as genuinely frivolous as its YouTube counterparts, with its one-dimensional presentations of gender. What Čule seems to be getting at is “authenticity”: of experience and of the self. When reality television began in the early 1990s, it sold itself to viewers as a kind of surveillance, where the events of real people’s lives were authentically captured on camera and beamed into homes. Except the reality was never shown. Instead, people saw a highly edited, and often highly staged, version. Yet audiences were riveted, accepting the notion of the authentic persona this format offered. Nowadays we can all broadcast our own lives via numerous online platforms. And although the stories we choose to tell are staged moments, to some extent we still buy into that idea of an authentic individual persona. Čule addresses this collective cognitive dissonance—which, among other things, enables the binary construct of gender she presents—in a world where the only truly authentic protagonist is nature, itself irrecoverably altered by humankind.

Kathy Noble