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Acting Out.

Acting Out

Institute of Contemporary Art | Boston, Massachusetts


The five videos selected by Jen Mergel for "Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video" (through October 18) explore the dynamics of social relationships in a variety of test situations. Phil Collins's he who laughs last laughs longest (2006) records a laughing 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 much attention since it was first shown at the 2007 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Far more telling explorations of alienation in urban settings are offered by Swedish artist Johanna Billing's Magical World (2005), shown at P.S.1 in 2006, and Polish filmmaker Artur Zmijewski's THEM (SIE) (2007), shown at Documenta 12. Billings shoots resigned music teachers leading children in Zagreb through a performance of "Magical World" from Rotary Connection's kitschy 1968 album Aladdin. The video is a compendium of informative details--a wall clock in the form of a ballerina, a nervous child's repetitive foot-jerking--all edited to give a sense of Croatian longing for a Western sophistication that actually doesn't exist.

Zmijewski 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 come 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--literally seeing, hearing, speaking no evil-while a second group burns the image of a third. This was a potentially dangerous venture. While the video reveals the positive role conflict can play in the symbolic realm, a growing tension results from not knowing whether the participants will extend their actions beyond it. Like Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1965) and Marina Abramoviae's Rhythm 0 (1974), THEM unleashes social forces Zmijewski may not necessarily have been able to constrain.


In Wild Seeds (2005), Tel Aviv/Amsterdam artist Yael Bartana also set in motion a process over which she has 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 more productively, she might have shown a work such as Emily Jacir's Crossing Surda (2003), a quietly terrifying video recorded clandestinely while Jacir 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 Tellez'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 touches a different part without grasping its totality, but also the philosophical reading of self-portraits of the blind by Jacques Derrida. Shot amidst 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. They all give a different interpretation: the 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 comparisons of their own--desiccated mud, a crazed lakebed, a network of canyons--the person who has just examined the elephant also shares with us reflections on his or her blindness. The insights offered by these people are profound. As one of them eloquently puts it, to be curious is to be awake to the world. Tellez brilliantly conveys the everyday transcendence mirrored in fractured or damaged selves.
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Title Annotation:video art exhibit called 'Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video' at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts
Author:Gaskell, Ivan
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Previous Article:Claudia Schmacke.
Next Article:Victoria Sambunaris.

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