A LANDSCAPE OF FRAGMENTS

 

Reflections on the work of Sarah & Charles

 

Jeroen Versteele.

Experiencing the installations by Sarah & Charles always give me the ambiguous feeling of missing the point. The core, a dramatic act, a central theme, a conflict: it stays off screen. As a viewer you are served a fragmented perspective, distorted and extremely limited. You see a world intriguing through its rich details and unnerving though its lack of a graspable narrative. A universe combining careful craftsmanship with invisible technology and the ominous atmosphere of dreams which are almost real.

Often the titles let on that you are looking at an installation which is part of a larger whole. Sometimes that whole can be viewed at an exhibition as a trail, and sometimes it cannot. The feeling of fragmentation is emphasised by project names suggesting series such as ‘Nowhere to be Found - Present’ and ‘Nowhere to be Found - Past’, by the information that ‘The Hero dies… but the Story goes on forever’ is really the final piece of the series ‘Nowhere to be Found’, by the theme of the ‘room’ which is developed throughout the series of projects made by the artist duo. Even when they develop a concept for the stage, the artists continue their investigation into the ‘the room that leaves no tale to tell’, as a secret, a rumour, that stubbornly refuses to become a story. Just like the characters in ‘Thriller…’ who have to suffer the lack of protection and comfort they had expected to find in the room.

It is no coincidence that Sarah & Charles build bridges to traditionally more narrative media such as film and the performing arts. They design sets in collaboration for others and in their own installations they often incorporate film clips, even short films, or film principles such as the voice-over.

“When we are asked who inspires us, we usually think of directors”, say the artists themselves. “We believe in fingerprints sticking to an idea, fingerprints left by those who have been here before on the same intellectual material when committing the same crime, or in our case a act of art. ‘Props for Drama’, our new series of works, is covered with fingerprints of acts already committed … But we are still looking for a motive or a narrative.”

Props for Drama

 

Roland Barthes discerned two forms of pleasure that may follow an experience of art: pleasure and ecstasy. Where I would call my experience of earlier works such as ‘Co-mu-mi-fication’ (the fight on the surveillance monitor in which cannot be intervened), ‘Overcast’ (the darkening nursery), the ‘Nowhere to be Found’-series on the old man and the missing daughter as a reaction of ‘ecstasy’, an emotional enjoyment of a physical experience, I categorise my reaction to Sarah & Charles’ new projects as one of ‘pleasure’: a rather rational pleasure, a pleasure you get when solving a puzzle, when matching elements. The pleasure of a tenacious police inspector in a classic crime movie. 

With the titles of the various intermediate stages of ‘Props for Drama’ Sarah & Charles refer to notions in the narrative world, the art of telling stories. Earlier more literary titles have now been replaced with theoretical notions. On the aesthetic field as well, the artists take a large stride towards abstraction with this series of projects. The installations may be handmade and modelled after realistic, life-size objects, but they are neutral white and in all aspects smooth. In the first part, ‘Foreshadowing’ (or ‘a prior suggestion of

Clearly a form of meta art, whereby the inherent artificiality is elevated to a theme. Telling stories is reduced to showing unfinished, seemingly random stage fragments which appear to radiate a preference for the atmosphere of classic crime movies.

 

Returning once more to Roland Barthes. In 1957 this French semiotic published the book ‘Mythologies’, in which he, using the notion system elaborated by De Saussure stemming from linguistics, constructs an analysis of how images from popular culture and everyday life are interpreted, how identifiable elements from our collective memory fire up mental scenarios, ‘myths’. According to Barthes these are often determined by the bourgeois, conservative ideology that dominates culture and the general way of life.

 

In the wake of Barthes and other semiotics followed many other post-structuralists, with expressions in many arts: writers such as Italo Calvino (‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’) or Paul Auster (‘New York Trilogy’), film makers such as Louis Bunuel (‘Le charme discret de la bourgoisie’), David Lynch (‘Inland Empire’), Peter Bogdanovich (‘Targets’) or Charlie Kaufmann (‘Synecdoche New York’) – among many, many others.

Postmodern narrative mechanisms and notions are diverse but there is one thing that all these philosophers, artists and writers share in common: they question the recognisability of reality. Using the illusion of infinity, meta and intertextuality, changing narrative perspectives, fragmentation, the playful reference to popular cultural products, magic realistic or docufictional elements they undermine every linear interpretation of the story behind the narrative. They target the need of a viewer of performing arts or of films, of readers of a book, of man in reality, to be told stories that make sense, hold water, serve as advice or example, are comprehensible. 

Sarah & Charles, La nuit américaine, 2012

the dramatic act that will take place’), we see a door with a door frame, a chimney and some walls. ‘Plot Twist’, the second work, consists of fragments of a garden fence and a ladder leaning against a tree branch – some rungs are missing. It encompasses a fragment of a staircase with handrail and an open hatch to a lost space under the stairs.

‘Glass Smash Medium Glass Smash’ (after the name of a soundbit from a database for professional post-synchronisation) is nothing more than a door held erect by a piece of plywood and a sandbag, with a broken window, as if a thief tried to break in. Beside the door are sixteen replacement windows. The door has a remarkable resemblance to a theatre prop that performance after performance plays its role in the same crime story.

 

Besides, all objects in the series ‘Props for Drama’ have the character of theatre or film props that need a finishing touch, but will presumably play a crucial role in the story to come. It just seems that in this work these unfinished, non-painted, context free props are promoted to protagonists in an as of yet flawed storyline whose development was prematurely aborted. They form a landscape of stage fragments, proud and unbound in the exhibition space, the basis functionally weighed down with sandbags, brightly lit by theatre lights – or are they working lights from the workshop? 

Sarah & Charles, Overcast, 2006

The illusory reality of Sarah & Charles cannot be deemed ‘comprehensible’ – though they apply said postmodern gimmicks in a rather soft, non-invasive manner. Contrary to early postmodern works in literature and film, which employ a programmatic, even gaudy way to juxtapose the relationships between narrator, story and viewer, the work by Sarah & Charles acts in a rather subtle manner. Likely an important reason lies enclosed in the medium of performing arts: as viewer you are not really, or at least less than in film or literature, looking for a story. You approach what is shown as an object by itself. The objects in the series ‘Props for Drama’ flirt with kitsch, with the treacherous appearance of the objet trouvé which is lifted to autonomous work of art. At the same time visiting these installations gives rise to a series of references to typical situations in classic crime movies, the precisely setup, white as a sheet, sharply lit stage fragments generate numerous expectations and questions. You would hope to return in a few weeks to find that the set has received more form, a describable identity. Sarah & Charles do not really believe in the notion of ‘collective consciousness’ and thereby oppose an all too obvious Barthian interpretation of their work: “every memory is always personal”, they say. “Of course everyone will think of the same beverage if you say ‘Coca Cola’, but we are drawn more by the individual associations that come to mind. It’s those personal connections we aim to activate, rather than referring to the larger, shared, general knowledge.” Indeed it cannot be said that ‘Props for Drama’, as early postmodern art did, deconstructs its sources of inspiration or even comments on them: the elements are too neutral, too general and in a strange way also too self-willed. They are not standard models. Something is happening to them. They have a flaw, sometimes literally. But they are also sterilised, freed from infections and polished smooth which has given them a certain form of artificiality and ominousness.

Sarah & Charles, The Hero Dies...But the Story Goes on Forever, 2008

Sarah & Charles, Props for Drama : Plot Hole, 2013

Thus the series ‘Props for Drama’ makes a double movement. On the one hand the camera sways upward, showing the artists and their creations in the workshop, lending aesthetics to artificiality – completely different than in earlier works, which constructed a fantasy filled, realistic and individual universe and created the suggestion of ‘tellability’. At the same time ‘Props for Drama’ may well be the most personal project by Sarah & Charles so far. Notwithstanding the abstracting movement the duo shows a lot about themselves, about their way of working. They embellish their own memories, without including any psychology whatsoever. They construct and show images from their personal lives and stemming from their most cherished sources of inspiration. Precisely that paradox – distance from the fictional story, nearness to a tangible personal reality – makes ‘Props for Drama’ an intriguing work of art. Perhaps not the most accessible or at first glance enjoyable, but nonetheless an important step in a slowly growing, profound oeuvre.