Vietnam, 1967, near Duc Pho (Reconstruction after Hiromishi Mine), 2001
In his works, David Claerbout moves exactly between these two poles: the aspect of the fleetingly 'atmospheric' which he attributes to film, and the material constancy and insistence of photographs, which he compares in a conversation with Lynne Cooke to a skin that may be touched.
Accordingly, with those works in which he makes use of (digitally edited) photography as well as of video film, Claerbout removes from the photograph a piece of its static quality that is oriented towards fixation and takes from film its impulse of movement. This manner of working achieves a precise clarity in a work from 1998, Kindergarten Antonio Sant'Elia, 1932. We see stretches of grass and light-colored stone slabs upon which a swarm of boys and girls clad in white kindergarten uniforms cavort between saplings that have apparently been recently planted. The video installation which Claerbout develops from this image is based on a black-and-white photograph from 1932 and refers to the new building of the kindergarten, which is named in the title of the work and which was erected in Como by Giuseppe Terragni, one of the most important representatives of Fascist rationalismo.
Claerbout edits this photograph in a minimal but significant manner. By means of digital manipulation, the saplings which are bare in the original photograph are given verdant foliage which furthermore is set in lightly rustling motion that repeats itself as a loop upon the video projection. Since this movement is limited to the leaves upon the trees, one first has the impression when viewing the work of a trompe l'oeil which is quite deliberately intended. For it is only the irritation about that which one is actually seeing here, a projection of slides or video or something entirely different, that causes us to more closely inquire into the visual offering, to peer behind the surface of the images, so to speak: to direct our gaze to the contentual saturation but also to the media-mechanism that is at work within and upon them. Through the movement in the leaves of the trees, Claerbout yanks photography out of its fixing historicity and imbues it in a certain sense with an aura of contemporaneity, whereas on the other hand he freezes the impetus of film to such an extent that instead of movement it now tends to signal standstill and repetition.
Precisely in that the artist not only interweaves photography and film but also proceeds in such a way as to interchange the respective bases of these media, their specific possibilities and restrictions emerge all the more clearly. To that extent one could legitimately say that in Claerbout's pictorial constellations, which almost always have an affinity to the still life, the two most important image-generating machines of the twentieth century regard each other at work, continuously deconstructing themselves only to reconstitute themselves in the same breath. At the center of this examination of media, however, is to be found the aspect of temporality, which attains in the work of this artist a strangely luminous quality. The past of the photographic image appears by means of movement to be loaded with presentness, and the vibrating, instantaneous energy of film is slowed down through the statuesque quality of the projections into an archival gesture preserving the individual image. Thus time vibrates with Claerbout in a sort of moving standstill. It is saturated with that which was and with that which is, but it does not derive there from any unambiguous direction. Like the loop through which it uncoils in the movement of the media, time could spread out in every direction, forwards into the future or backwards into the past, and yet it would arrive again and again at an ever-ongoing beginning which represents at the same time its ceaseless ending.
This is perhaps also the reason why almost all the works of the Belgian artist radiate an atmosphere of indefinable melancholy. Whether in the Nocturnal Landscapes (1999), Untitled (Carl & Julie) (1999) or Vietnam, 1967, near Duc Pho (2001): all the video installations work with the aspect of loss and the absence of something about which or someone about whom we can know nothing, because it or (s)he is located outside the picture. It is the quiet, almost imperceptible movement upon images that otherwise seem to be frozen which sets this process in motion. Because the individual image remains within its frame and yet partially moves, our curiosity is automatically directed towards that which could occur upon a succeeding possible image. On the one hand, the elimination of these 'further' images raises the tension and the impulse to discover everything, even that which is invisible, in the individual image, so that these projections are also turned into scenes of a crime without culprits. On the other hand, it enhances the already-mentioned aspect of emptiness and structural absence that causes these visual designs to appear like fleeting manifestations which exist within a shadowy 'twilight zone' and can never fully attain the dignity of the real.
This mood is also established with regard to the projection of the scene from the Kindergarten Antonio Sant'Elia, 1932. Here as well as in other works, the tension inherent to that which is displayed arises out of the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the concrete place which is named in the title and is, moreover, historically objectified through the indication of the year and, on the other hand, the almost surreal atmosphere with its peculiar dream-logic which the scene is given through Claerbout's treatment. The white-clad children stand in the clear order of stone slabs deliberately laid out upon the ground and appear like little lost angels, each one utterly alone. As if Fascist modernism and its architectural rigidity had robbed them of all energy and transformed them into decorative elements in the design of its plans, they take their white and graphic place in the visual architecture which ironically, because of the soft vibration of the leaves, appears even more strict and final.
In The Stack (2002), Claerbout successfully attains a masterful concentration of his central thematic fields. For thirty six minutes we watch the sun as it shines through a complicated, repeatedly overlapping construction of highway bridges held up by pillars and as it thereby illuminates the architecture of reinforced concrete as well as the various zones of the sometimes bare, sometimes grass-covered ground. Superficially there is nothing more to be seen, and yet, once one has entered into its seeming slowness, what a grandiose complexity is unfolded by this video projection covering an entire wall. In its precise focusing of light and shadow as motif-creating categories, the work reflects in an extremely paradigmatic manner the logic of the creation of photographic and filmic images by associating the aspect of exposure to light, which is inherent to these media as a requirement for the image to attain visibility, with the wandering illumination of the sun which leaves behind nothing but utterly black and imageless emptiness in those places which its rays cannot penetrate.
The format-filling highway construction, on the other hand, presents a motif which — as is often the case with Claerbout, one need only call to mind Untitled (Carl & Julie) — oscillates exactly between abstraction and tangible, objective nature. In as much as it fills the picture with the reinforced-concrete weight of an immeasurable architecture that is difficult to logically decipher, so it inevitably also becomes a metaphor for the process of image construction itself, the symbol of a visual composition which, by showing its structure, provides as it were a commentary upon itself. Here once again it is the sun which makes it possible for the viewer to experience the manner in which foreground, middleground and background are categorically separated from each other according to the incidence of light and thus become comprehensible as distinct visual zones, which nevertheless always remain annulled in the massive architectural structure reminiscent of the dungeons of Piranesi.
The key-word Piranesi and the carceri which are fundamentally associated with that artist effect the transition to a further dimension of the oeuvre, one which clearly transcends the self-reflexive closed circuit of the media mentioned earlier. The unlocalized impenetrability and prison-like eeriness which places the pictorial space behind bars, as it were, and which is typically enhanced by the sun attains a dramatic climax when — for a period of two minutes in a film that goes on for more than half an hour — in the foreground a person becomes visible lying upon the ground in a sleeping bag. Just when one has recognized this fact and possibly begins to wonder what the person is doing here and whether it is someone sleeping or a corpse, the spot of sunlight upon the puzzling figure in the sleeping bag again becomes smaller until finally like a lamp it is extinguished, and there where we thought to have seen something, undifferentiated darkness once again renews its reign. It is a sign of the high quality of the artistic work of Claerbout that he presents this climax as a total anti-climax. It is exactly through the parenthetic casualness with which something is shown in such a way as to cause the overall context literally to appear in a new light that this deeply disturbing effect is attained.
The highway as a symbol for speed, the opening up of space, and — especially in America, where the work was shot — as a metaphor for unbounded freedom appears here — in this view from below, down near the ground — as a brutalizing, inexorable dungeon at the base of which are stranded the losers in a social dream that is oriented towards dynamism and success; they are marooned in an anonymous darkness out of which a straying ray of sun raises them only momentarily and then thrusts them with all the more finality back into oblivion. Thus not only does 'Stack' stand ultimately in the great Belgian tradition of a surrealism which plays in sovereign ease with the elements of the quotidian and the uncanny, but moreover the work successfully suffuses the genre of the still life with a virulent, social-political trenchancy and thereby redefines it as a 'nature mort' suitable to the times.
Stephan Berg, "David Claerbout, video works, photographic installations, sound installations and drawings", A Prior, 2002 (excerpt)
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