Once Upon a Time
The Reality Behind the Fairy Tale
New narratives for our time: On the occasion of the exhibition "Once Upon a Time" at the Deutsche Guggenheim the film scholar and curator Marc Glöde examines the tendency towards fabels and fantasy in current video art.
||Crystalline description was already reaching the indiscernibility of the real and the imaginary, but the falsifying narration which corresponds to it goes a step further and poses inexplicable differences to the present and alternatives which are undecidable between true and false to the past. The truthful man dies, every model of truth collapses, in favour of the new narration.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (1989)
When French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, in considering the development of a new cinema after World War II, dealt with the essential dynamics of and fundamental break in cinematic form, his critique of existing narrative strategies not only played a crucial role, but he also challenged the filmic image as such. In particular, the powers of falsity and the relationships among image, truth, and lies became highly significant for Deleuze. It hardly comes as a surprise that, starting in the mid-1990s, this issue again gained relevance during the shift from filmed to calculated images and digital image worlds. The numerous video works and installations that one increasingly encountered in museums from the mid- 1990s onward addressed one of the most elementary changes to image worlds and their features.
These new spaces for visual images categorically departed from cinematography’s previously mimetic conditions. That is, they no longer functioned in a direct, analogue manner in that light rays impress an actual space on celluloid or our eyes; they instead reordered perception on a level separated from human vision. As art historian Jonathan Crary aptly stated, such picture forms no longer have anything to do with the viewer’s direct relationship to a perceivable world. Moreover, they increasingly depart from the classical place of presentation (the canvas on the wall) and, via monitors and media walls, enter into free interplay with the space, which can abandon the architecture of museums and cinemas and call for new approaches on the part of viewers. Thus, for example, Internet platforms have become new playgrounds with a completely distinctive aesthetic, as the more recent works of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch show. This tendency is apparent in a number of installations.
Taken together, at issue in these new developments is an increasing abstraction of the visual. This, in turn, leads to questions of how the image is related to truth, lying, and storytelling. In other words, what constitutes truth or lies in film? How does the photographic medium relate to the idea of making fables? These new inquiries are reflected in a growing number of filmic formats. The scope of the fabulous ranges from Matthew Barney's Cremaster (1995-2002) film series (1995–2002), to film installations situated between dreams and trauma, such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Tänään (Today, 1996–97) and Consolation Service (1999), to pseudodocumentary fantasies such as T. J. Wilcox’s Das Begräbnis der Marlene Dietrich (The Funeral of Marlene Dietrich, 1999).
If the image is less able to help us to fundamentally understand the real—quite the contrary, it refers us to the powers of alsity—then we must comprehend its new potentials and make them experienceable. The exhibition Once Upon a Time, on view at the Deutsche Guggenheim, assembles several cinematic positions hat deal with mythmaking potential. Vacillating between documentary and mockumentary, between analogue filmic images and animation, these works suggest the complexity of this field. What is striking, though, is the recurrence of one motif that has become a prime example of cinematic fabulation: the moon landing. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of this endeavor has inspired artists and repeatedly prompted fantastic narratives. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells presented literary versions, which in turn were popular as films (right after this invention). One of the earliest cinematic versions is Georges Méliès’s film La Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902). Later, great directors as Fritz Lang (Frau im Mond [By Rocket to the Moon], 1929), Robert Altman (Countdown, 1968), and Stanley Kubrick (2001, 1968) as well as numerous science-fiction B movies treated the topic in depth. Even after the moon landing in 1969, the motif continues to play a key role in fantastic narration.
Aleksandra Mir's First Woman on the Moon (1999—) is a wonderful example of such a fantasy, in which the artist questions the origin of this modern, legendary event. On the 30th anniversary of the first moonwalk, Mir staged a moon landing on a Dutch beach. She modeled a moonscape and reenacted the landing with a female astronaut planting the American flag in the ground. There are only pictures and accounts of this action, akin to the original landing on the moon, which only very few people have experienced. Nevertheless, this event fires the imagination of space-travel enthusiasts today, as well as that of conspiracy theorists who believe the landing was staged (by no less a person than Stanley Kubrick).
For Pierre Huyghe, by contrast, the question of the real does not seem to be central since visually One Million Kingdoms (2001), as an animation, is far from making any such claims. Acoustically, however, the question of mingling truth and fiction becomes all the more pressing. Here, passages from Jules Verne’s Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1864) overlap with sound sequences that refer to American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's lunar transmissions, forming an idiosyncratic amalgamation.
Detached from the forms of realistic reproduction (on the part of the artist) and cognition (on the part of the viewer), such fabulous approaches often reveal what it means to use and develop these now free forms of cinematography. In this regard, the works are often reminiscent of a feverish dream. By joining what is incompatible, a truly novel space of possible thoughts emerges, something that traditional forms of cinematography can often no longer create. Precisely here, in frenzied interstices and fabulous dreams, forms of potentiality arise that do not cease to ask us what reality, the fable, the image, and—not least—we ourselves mean. In other words, we ought to enter into this realm of fables and lies, as a moment that is open to experience, as a potential.
What is interesting, however, is that, as these forms of fabulation grow in power, a unique presence of the facticity of the cinematographic dispositif emerges. The more intense the fable, the stronger the possibility of discerning the reality of the cinematographic narrative at the fringes of the artwork. For example, in Stan Douglas’s Der Sandmann (1995), the narration combines suppressed memories and alienation in a Schrebergartensiedlung, a colony of allotment gardens in post–Cold War Berlin, to adapt a famous literary work and engender an almost delirious moment. Yet as these narrative strands merge, the formal editing techniques,with which Douglas creates a disquieting visual experience, become more manifest. It seems paradoxical, but at the fable’s fringes we seem to again comprehend the forms of the real. Even more than this: in some of the film sequences, individual aspects of real occurrence are exaggerated to a degree that makes it difficult to believe that what we’re seeing is not fake, but has really happened in front of the camera. This also goes for Francis Alÿs’s video work When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), in which a banal act is virtually elevated to the sacred. What is essentially a sober affair—500 workers using shovels to move a mountain of sand only a few centimeters away—suddenly seems like a mirage. The question arises as to whether the belief in the power of work moves mountains or whether it’s the belief in the evocative power of images.
In conjunction with its positive reassessment of creating such fantastical worlds, “Once Upon a Time” uses video to make evident another myth: Plato’s cave. In dialogue with the works, however, this allegory experiences an interesting turn. While for Plato, the experience of the world via shadows in a cave always retains a primitive status, a state that must be overcome, this notion is all but contradicted by Once Upon a Time. For him, human experience is, on the one hand, always mediated, meaning that there is no direct access to the realities of the world, and, on the other, it is always a passive process. The world under the sun and the realities are always connoted vis-à-vis the mediocre paleness of shadows. As opposed to Plato’s connotation of experiencing the sun, one can now experience the realm of shadows in a rather positive light in these videos. One comes to realize that precisely in a culture of digitally generated images, the video installation offers decisive experiential potential. In this respect, it is not about further degrading the state of visual perception, but rather about acknowledging the qualities of fiction and, in addition, actively using the realities and conditions of this structure to create nothing less then new narratives for our time.
Once Upon a Time: Fantastic Narratives in Contemporary Video
July 8 until October 9, 2011
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin