Monthly Archives: April 2019

Body + Camera 2019: The Un/Certain Body

On Sunday, Mana Contemporary staged their annual Body + Camera festival at the Chicago Cultural Center, where they screened a variety of short films based around the central theme of moving bodies in moving imagery. This years title was The Un/Certain Body, reflecting upon the incertitude of the human form as seen in the entries from their open call submissions process. The all day screenings were further broken down into smaller categories, with the Chicago leg (having previously been screened at their Jersey City and Miami locations) featuring several live presentations of work and artists talks. As I did not have a whole day to spend screening experimental films, I decided to attend the section entitled, Public Place, Private Worlds, featuring short films focusing on ‘…navigat[ing] private lives in public spaces and distort[ing] the physical form of everyday reality.’

Though not entirely billed as such, it came off largely as an experimental dance film screening, which wasn’t really what I had been anticipating. Perhaps I should have expected it, as the festival is put on in partnership with the Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Montom Arts, but they do describe the event as a ’dynamic forum celebrat[ing] the intersection between the moving body and the moving image, focusing on risk-taking and independent artists, and featuring contemporary experimental projects that stretch mediums to their edge.’ Though there were a few films that were more movement, less dance—Jillian Mayer’s Day Off 1; Erika Roux’s Psyche and Cupid; Xiaqing Zhu’s Mutual Measurement—the dance based works overwhelmed the others. Maybe because there were more of them, maybe because the section ended on a bunch of dance heavy features—maybe because the ones featuring dance appeared, in many ways, less straightforward, more ambiguous, and yet simultaneously, more narrative. Most of us experience movement as part of our everyday lives, even if we do not think about it for being what it is—it is always labeled as exercise, or transportation, walking. I would venture to guess that most do not think about how they actually move through space, as it relates to their body.

And yet, many of the films that employed dance as movement, tell stories of the common, the relatable, the ‘normal’ that is experienced daily, and turn it into something else, something which is somehow out of reach. Consider Camiel Zwart’s Platform 13: a beautiful, poetic, moving story involving a Japanese train conductor, a lady with too many suitcases, and the suggestion of time travel. Over a million people in Chicago alone use the the L train—granted, this is not the same experience as a Japanese train station, but I’m sure even their commute experience is nothing like the one suggested in the film. This piece was definitely the most well received, if I remember correctly, it was the only one to receive applause. Maybe I am wrong—perhaps people do not want to focus on the odd, out of place movements of average human bodies in unusual circumstances, whether they come from Mayer’s taping of a person experiencing VR, or Roux’s endless, minute adjusting and framing of hands, or Zhu’s insertion of her body into public, artificial structures around Chicago. We do however, as was mentioned before, all move: the navigation of space is an intensely personal negotiation, one informed by our past experiences and where we perceive our place to be in the world. Rather than focus on the odd, singular movements specific to one person, the employ of dance in these instances offers us a chance to view our daily, at times mundane, routines in a different light, to rethink what we think we already know. Certainly, by the time we have been transported from the modern day Japanese train station to a disused, crumbling one, and then once more to a neon hued, futuristic station via The Great Wave and our train conductor, we have ‘distorted the physical form of everyday reality.’

Trompe L’oeil or Primary Sources

In 2011, the Brooklyn based artist Anna Plesset did a trip to Europe. She visited different places in England, France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, trying to retrace the journey of his grandfather Marvin R. Plesset who recorded, on a 16 mm film, part of his experience as a division psychiatrist in the US Army, during WWII. Her encounter with the original film and then her own travel are the points of departure for her latest exhibition, Various Records, currently on view at Patron Gallery, from March 23 to May 4.  

At first sight, the show looks like a contemporary display of a personal, as well as historical archive. Near the entrance, to the right, there is a wood table with a surface that seems used and, on top of it, various vintage objects: the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, 3 old Kodak boxes for photographic and cinematographic film, a VHS cassette, an instant picture, a micro SD Card and a blue notebook. This piece is called Primary Sources and was made from 2015 to 2018. Then in the center of this main space of the gallery, there is a freestanding room titled Travelogue (21st Century Room) made out of the same wood than the table and produced between 2013 and 2018. Inside, we can see another collection of mementos. Museum’s and train’s tickets, photographs, the page of a philosophy book, pieces of a paper note, etc, all of them attached with tiny pieces of tape. Suddenly, a minuscule trace of a brush in these elements reveals itself. The tape is not tape, the photographs are not real, the marks on the white surface are illusions, and so on with everything in the small, intimate room. Using trompe l’oeil painting the artist is tricking the spectator with incredibly precise and precious copies of all the elements of her memory puzzle. At that moment, the show starts to make much more sense and open multiple questions. Are the Primary Sources painted as well? Are they real sources or it is a kind of fiction? Does the use of painting add another layer of time into the work? Does illusion make something more real, more engaging, than the real document?

Well, while all these questions start popping up into your head, you continue through the show and find another table like the first one but this time supporting a map of her travel, and a projector that shows parts of the original film of her grandfather edited along her footage from her travel –Document of a Travelogue by Lt. Col. Marvin R. Plesset, Division Neuropsychiatrist (2013)–.  Once again, there is a play between the original source and the one produced by her. The same game of the painting but through a different medium. So, part of the puzzle is finally exposed. There are primary sources, documents and film excerpts from the 1940s but then, what you are seeing are exact painted replicas of that material. What the artist is doing is involving herself in those documents through the slow act of painting and, as a consequence, is engaging the viewer in those multiple times. The time of her grandfather’s journey, the time of the encounter of this archive, the time of her trip to Europe, the time of painting and finally, the present time of the exhibition. In other words, is like a dissection of what memory can be. According to the artist, in conversation with Orit Gat: “Institutions, books, and media construct our knowledge of history” and “the faith that holding onto the memory of how you learned something means really grasping the fact that stories are all constructs”.            

Unfortunately, after those instants of excitement and discovery, you continue to a second space of the gallery, expecting new clues, or new parts of the puzzle but, instead, the trick is poorly revealed. Two hyperreal pencil drawings of two of the mementos just seen in the standing room are replicated, and over explaining what you can discover slowly by your own. Like if a magician, after impressing his audience, decides to boorishly tell them how he did it. This is a poor decision whose only justification is the fact that the exhibition is happening in a commercial gallery and that those 2 drawings, as well as others in storage, might be easier to sell than the video, the room panels or the boxes and books replicas. But it definitely kills part of the beauty and delicate strings of thoughts that hold the show. This doesn’t happen with a small cabinet of ceramic objects, Obsolete Objects from the Golden Mile and the Golden Arrow (2014-2018) that once again trigger the questions on reality, documents, memory, archive and fiction.   

Note: the exhibitions at Patron gallery tend to resonate with the ones at Document Gallery. Both spaces seem to be pushing the boundaries of what is usually shown in other galleries of Chicago.