Go to Chelsea art galleries on any given day and you are bound to see at least one video installation, if not several. But it is quite remarkable to discover three installations in three contiguous galleries, and just as remarkable to encounter three exceptionally strong videos – especially since so much video falls flat on its face. Perhaps we should not be so surprised since the three galleries, Metro Pictures, Gladstone, and Marianne Boesky, all in a row in West 24th Street, are major galleries with impressive track records.
Marianne Boesky is presenting Hans Op de Beeck, a 50-year-old Brussels-based artist who makes drawings, sculpture, and films, all of which are included in the exhibition. But the show-stopper is his new 44-minute, single-channel, black-and-white film, Staging Silence (3). In it we see a miniature stage, with two sets of hands gracefully descending to first create a set, and then slowly altering it from a landscape, to a cityscape, to a suburban neighborhood, to a seascape, and to interior spaces, such as a library or a living room. These tiny scenes are fashioned using such found materials as dirt, sand, stones, broccoli, mushrooms, costume-jewelry plastic pearls, and fabric.
The hands create clouds out of cotton, crinkled aluminum foil becomes mountains, and Saran-wrap is stretched to become shimmering water. Day is turned into dusk and then into night by sliding increasingly darker sheets of glass in front the scene. In addition to working with found material, Op de Beeck laboriously makes miniature palm trees for landscapes, and furniture for interior scenes. Gradually the artificial set magically becomes real, transformed into an idealized yet mysterious, never-never world, its surreal quality reinforced by the film’s eerie grey tonality, its slow graceful pace, a haunting soundtrack, and an unsettling calm.
Still from the film Staging Silence (3) by Hans Op de Beeck
Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. © Hans Op de Beeck. Photo credit: Studio Hans Op de Beeck
Op de Beeck says he “regards man as a being who stages the world around him in a tragi-comic way,” and Staging Silence (3) is certainly tragi-comic. We smile at the clever whimsy with which his world is created, only to see it washed away as it is transformed into an entirely different environment. The film powerfully highlights how we seek to manipulate the world and create identity within it, and ultimately how artificial and impermanent everything is. Reality is never what it appears to be.
In contrast to Op de Beeck’s single-channel video, the Philippe Parreno installation, next door at Gladstone Gallery, is an environmental work in which video is but one component. Parreno is a 55-year-old Parisian generally identified with the Aesthetic Realists, artists who do not make discreet works of art, such as a painting or a sculpture, but instead create multi-media art that functions in a real environment. Consequently, he has installed carpeting in the gallery and covered several walls with an ironic wallpaper of black irises on a yellow background.
Throughout the gallery (which consists of one large room, two smaller ones, and connecting corridors) small speakers descending on poles from the ceiling emit peculiarly unsettling sounds. Grey shades on the gallery windows periodically rise and fall, sometimes only attempting to rise, going up just a few inches before dropping with a thud. In the main gallery, two beach ball-size globe lights are installed on the wall some 7 feet above the floor, generally unlit, but unexplainably flickering from time to time. Two large black wooden boxes sit on the floor, one emitting a rumbling sound and the other light.
Installation shots for Philipped Parreno’s Anythen in a Time Colored Space, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York
The focus of the installation is an enormous floor to ceiling video projection, which is in the main gallery. The film features a live cuttlefish, which, like an octopus, ejects ink for protection. But more often than not, the cuttlefish is not apparent in the film, and instead is reduced to an abstraction through close-up photography. There are moments when the fish is seen in dramatic silhouette, tentacles extended. Occasionally it is presented with the tentacles tucked in. Whether abstract or representational, the color of the film is deeply saturated, making it lush and sensual.
The installation, which is titled Anywhen in a Time Colored Space (an earlier incarnation of the installation appeared at the Tate Modern in London), is extremely visceral, as is the entire installation. We hear shades moving, and sounds coming from the ceiling speakers. We feel the soft carpet beneath our feet as well as the vibrations from the shade movement and the rumbling large black box. Time and space as well as perception and perspective are constantly changing in Parreno’s world.
Next door to Gladstone, Metro Pictures is presenting Isaac Julien, a 59-year-old British artist who is best known as a filmmaker, although he produces photographs as well, which are included in the show. In 1991 he won a Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his Young Soul Rebels, and his expertise as an award-winning filmmaker can be seen in his Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass. Its production values are extremely high, with dazzling cinematography, costumes, and sound effects. And the work is extremely complex. It consists of 10 screens suspended from the ceiling with wires, and set against a rich red fabric on the wall, almost transforming the screens into paintings seen installed in a formal nineteenth century gallery or room.
Julien describes the installation as “a poetic meditation on the life and times of Frederick Douglass,” and the imagery shows fragments of Douglass life, especially focusing on his physical and emotional experience. We see scenes of Douglass, a runaway slave, walking in nature, often leading a horse, and by the seaside, supposedly in 1840s Ireland or England where, as he wrote in his book, for the first time in his life he felt free, and where he was lecturing as well as raising money to purchase his freedom. We see the interior of a charming, nineteenth-century home, where Douglass lived, and settings of contemporaneous train and carriage travel. The film also underscores Douglass’s fascination with newly invented photography, an inexpensive reproduction process that would become a social class equalizer. We also see images of cotton fields. Julien’s installation includes early twentieth-century, black-and-white film footage of a lynching and train travel.
While multi-channel installations are commonplace, Julien use’s of the technique is brilliant, for the ten screens give the work a sense of how the historical past is for us living in the present highly fragmented. We see history not as a continuum, but rather as an accumulation of facts. His imagery is extremely visceral, pulling us into the scene, making us feel as though we are there in the nineteenth century and directly experiencing what Douglass himself experienced.
Photograph made in conjunction with the video installation Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass:
J.P. Ball Salon 1867 (Lessons of The Hour), 2019
gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum
22 7/16 x 29 15/16 inches
57 x 76 cm
© Isaac Julien
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
Photograph made in conjunction with the video Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass:
Lessons of The Hour (Lessons of The Hour), 2019
matt archival paper mounted on aluminum
63 x 84 inches
160 x 213.29 cm
© Isaac Julien
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York