Acting Out



Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA

March 18 – October 18, 2009.

Jen Mergel has selected five videos to explore the dynamics of social relationships in a variety of situations. Phil Collins’s he who laughs last laughs longest (2006) records a laughter contest in that dourest of countries, Scotland. Whoever laughs longest wins. Happily, an hour-and-three-quarters of hilarity is distilled into seven-and-a-half minutes. The familiar trope of laughter’s ambiguity lends itself to easy theorizing, so Collins’s piece has enjoyed attention since its showing at the 2007 Rotterdam International Film Festival. Far more telling explorations of alienation in urban settings are offered by Swedish artist Johanna Billing in Magical World (2005, shown at P.S.1, New York in 2006), and Artur Żmijewski in Them (2007, shown at Documenta 12).

Billings shoots resigned young music teachers leading children in Zagreb in a performance of “Magical World” from Rotary Connection’s super-tacky 1968 album Aladdin. The video is a compendium of telling details—a wall clock in the form of a ballerina, a nervous child’s repetitive foot flicking—edited to give a sense of Croatian longing for a western sophistication that is actually no more than kitsch.

Artur Żmijewski gathered four groups of people with varied opinions in Warsaw: conservative Catholics, Polish nationalists, Jewish activists, and leftists. He invited each to create a visual representation of their group’s ideals, then to modify the others’ products in a series of workshops characterized by escalating confrontations. If one sets store by wit in such circumstances, the Jewish activists came out way on top, using colored tape to turn the white-and-red ribbon wound around the sword of the Polish nationalists—the Szczerbiec—into a rainbow symbolizing sexual tolerance. Later, three of them sit on the floor in a row—seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil—while another group burns the image of a third. This was a potentially dangerous venture. While the video reveals the role in conflict of the symbolic realm, tension results from not knowing whether the participants will extend their actions beyond it. Like Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (1965), and Marina Abramović in Rhythm 0 (1974), Żmijewski unleashed social forces he may not necessarily have been able to constrain.

In Wild Seeds (2005), Yael Bartana also set in motion a process over which she had little control. She filmed a group of teenagers who had refused to serve in the Israel Defense Forces playing a game on a Palestinian hillside representing police removing colonists from an illegal settlement. It is not clear whether these youths refused to serve because they object to the occupation of Palestinian territory, or to the role of the IDF in such forced evacuations—both are reasons sarvanim (or “refuseniks”) commonly give. Either way, they are compromised by their participation in the colonization of Palestine. If Mergel had wanted to address artists’ responses to daily cruelties in Palestine effectively, she might have shown a work such as Emily Jacir’s Crossing Surda (2003), a quietly terrifying video recorded clandestinely while she walked the road, closed by the IDF to all but foot traffic, between Ramallah and Birzeit University.

The jewel of the show is New York based Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez’s Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See (2007, shown at the 2008 Whitney Biennial). This 27 minute film evokes not only the Indian fable of the six blind men examining an elephant, each of whom perceives a different characteristic so that they cannot agree on its nature, but Dennis Diderot and Jacques Derrida. The crumbling grandeur of the abandoned McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn provides a Tarkovsky-like setting of concrete unfamiliarity. Six blind people shuffle in to take their seats facing an archway through which, like an apparition, an elephant appears. Each person approaches the elephant in turn, and describes what he or she perceives. Each evokes a different simile: her skin is like a rubber tire, or goatskin, or furnishing fabric, or a strangely warm reptile, or the flesh of a vulture without feathers. While the camera lingers on the gently shifting skin of the elephant, inviting the sighted to find similes of their own—desiccated mud, a crazed lakebed, a network of canyons—the person who has just examined the elephant shares reflections on his or her experience of blindness. Each of these ordinary people offers insights. One talks of satisfying curiosity, for, as he eloquently puts it, to be curious is to be awake in the world. Téllez accords respect to those who convey a capacity for everyday transcendence mirrored in our fractured and damaged selves.