YOUTH, ILLUSIONS AND DEATH

Pieter T’Jonck

 

 

Dogville, the film by Lars Von Trier, left nobody untouched. Yet it constantly pierces the cinematic illusion by showing how film is actually created in a studio. That is precisely the point, according to Slavoj Zizek. In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema he states: “Cinema, as the art of illusion, tells us something about reality itself. It talks about how reality brings itself to life. Even though we know it’s a set-up, fiction, it continues to fascinate us. That is the fundamental magic of film. (…) The illusion contains an element that is real, even more real than the reality that lurks behind the illusion”.

Without the illusion reality is invisible according to Zizek. It purely manifests itself through illusions. Only then things seem to really matter. Reality is an illusion and film shows us that. As Jean-Luc Godard says: “Photography is not the reflection of reality. It is the reality of that reflection”.

This knowledge is not workable: you forget about it at the exact moment of realization. It shares this trait with the realization that all men are mortal. With this difference: the idea that death is the final truth seems beyond doubt. Few believe, however, that reality is illusory in itself. It’s hard to bear that all what we experience as real would only be a mirage. In rare cases this insight takes people by such surprise that they can only withdraw themselves by fleeing in the ultimate, insane illusion that they are already dead and as such completely beyond any illusion.

This condition is known as the syndrome of Cotard. Not coincidentally, the main character of Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche New York is named Caden Cotard. We meet this hypochondriac director during a relationship crisis that coincides with the premiere of his production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Young actors perform the parts to teach the viewers that even youngsters are influenced by death. It betrays his obsession with death as the only steady ground in an otherwise elusive existence. He already seems half dead when one disease after another befalls him. If this isn’t a case of his imagination taking over, becomes less certain as the film progresses. He receives an inexhaus

tible artist scholarship to create the ultimate play. It has to portray ‘reality itself’ (which means death as we hear one of his actresses explicitly say). Of course, the piece is never performed.As he reconstructs more and more ‘scenes’ from his own life truthfully, which ends with a complete replica of New York City, the only consequence is a multiplication of the illusions. The ‘representation’ gets entangled inextricably with the ‘reality’ on set. In the end it becomes impossible to discern between reality and illusion. Even Cotard cannot best the power of illusions. He can only enlarge them to the degree they literally fall out of the frame.

Dualism

Synecdoche, New York was a major source of inspiration for Suspension of disbelief, an exhibit by the artist duo Sarah & Charles in Z33 in Hasselt. Through an ingenious track filled with cinematic and scenographic illustration, they make us feel that not only theater and movie viewers suspend their disbelief (consciously or not). This suspension is an essential human condition. They unravel the delusion of every day as they build it and

vice versa. Sarah & Charles always work with such intricate set-ups. Overcast, a piece from 2006-2007, consisted of a meticulously recreated replica of a nursery room. The colors of this decor, which it obviously was, had sharply grown gray to refer to the film technique that portrays memories in black and white. At the beginning of the tunnel the light still shines bright, but fades with each step that brings you closer to this scene. The last flicker of light disappears when reaching the threshold of the room. This way one could not help but see that this dream or this memory proved inaccessible in the end. The most interesting thing about this installation is not the metaphor as such, but that the darkening of the image crosses the action of the beholder, who is seduced to enter into, to grasp this quasi realistic childhood image. Precisely by moving in that direction, the illusion vanishes.

This way Overcast implies in a direct, sensory way that you have to keep your distance from illusions in order for them to work. Too much physical reality blocks the line of sight on the ideological reality that lies behind them and makes them meaningful. In Overcast illusion and reality still face each other as mutually
exclusive, independent entities. Suspension of disbelief turns that logic around. Things can
only become reality by incessantly dismantling and rebuilding illusions. Too much physical

reality blocks the line of sight on the ideological reality that lies behind them and makes them meaningful. Sounds, word, music and especially movement play principal parts in that.

 

Kindreds

Sarah & Charles are unmistakably kindred to that other duo, the in Berlin residing Canadians Janet Cardiff + George Bures Miller.  They have been experimenting with installations that generate illusions for a long time. This is realized by a combination of hyper realistic decors and media technology that often refer to the cinema. In Paradise Institute (2001, Venice Biennale), you enter a room that evokes and old-fashioned cinema by perspective manipulations. You discover the meaning of the work by putting on headphones that immerse you into the atmosphere of such an old movie theater, the unnerving sounds of crackling candy wrappers included. All of a sudden you also pick up on the faint whispers of a woman disturbed by a strange man in the room. The story gets completely entwined with the movie that is showing. It appears to stir up the imagination of the woman and vice versa. The voice serves as the vehicle of the inner thoughts
of the woman, ‘credibly’ present, without any

Sarah & Charles, 31 sounds (2015) 

physical representation, as the movie continues to ‘realize’ what goes on in her head. Film as the reality of the reflection, indeed. Illusion and reality are not separate things here but different sides of the same coin.

The same can be said for Pianorama (Bregenz, 2005). The work consists of an old fashioned upright piano with two speakers on top. Above the keys stands a device, an elongated black bar

that imitates human piano playing by little hammers that strike the piano keys (almost unnoticed). Meanwhile a man and a woman are arguing over the speakers over the soundtrack of a movie. Thus you can experience, at the same time, the ‘making of’ the score and the final result. It is your own imagination that connects shards of the story, sounds, conversation and the physical object to create a movie that does not exist. Critic Jörg Heiser compares this approach to the early work of Robert Smithson, 'Box with the sound of its own making' (1966). This consists of a simple wooden box, but you can hear how it was constructed by a speaker that is hidden inside. What permits Heiser to denote Pianorama as the heir of conceptual art. But there’s more at

Sarah & Charles, Glimmer, Glimmering Lights (AKA Red Herring Installation) / 2013

Sarah & Charles, Props for Drama: Suspension of Disbelief / 2013

they are assembled as a ‘cadavre exquis’. As a result you often do not know who gets the instruction. The voice is after all the same. That creates confusion but also has a comical effect. Another peculiarity of this film is that the props are stark white and you often see them from behind. It cannot get more fake than that. Yet not one spectator takes issue with that, as is the case with Dogville. Secretly the director cheats occasionally by making the illusion seemingly complete. When the man in the suit opens a hatch in the floor to descend via the stairs into the basement, the camera switches to this room beneath the studio floor to film the descent from the bottom up. This is, however, ‘impossible’, because the floor is made out of concrete. At that time the viewer is barely aware that the directors are giving imagination a little boost by smuggling in images that aren’t real but that reflect an illusion the spectator has. This film does not merely offer images that the spectator must complete in his head, it also completes what the spectator is imagining. That complex relationship between what the image suggests and what the spectator concocts in his head, is further developed in the rest of the exhibition.


The halls of the left wing on the first floor read as a staging of the inner workings of the creators. The first hall appears to be a stack space annex film studio. All ‘props’ from the previous film, casts in white pvc of doors, windows, floors and brick walls are scattered haphazardly. Though little crosses on the floor do suggest a ‘plan’. In the middle of the room a carpet is pulled up as a ‘backdrop’ in a photo

part of the movie). Film and reality are literally each others extension. The film itself constantly tilts between a ‘realistic’ story and an abstract musical. Strong fractures lie between both. The film opens with a close-up of a very real looking lawn. When the camera zooms out, you see a similar city garden with a tepee made of boards and blue tarpaulin. The camera enters the tepee to find a young girl there with a long blue skirt, a sequined blouse and a feather in her hair. A squaw losing herself in the dream of a fairy tale. Next to her a cat is purring. When you leave the tepee, the girl follows. At that exact moment a fracture occurs. The viewpoint of the camera changes to a spot far outside the garden. You notice that it’s only a set. The garden walls are made of the same pvc as the walls of ‘rolls’ you saw earlier. The only difference is they have been patinated. Imagination is colored. A young woman, Linda Blomqvist, walks ahead of the camera into the distant ‘garden’. An assistant director takes her golden coat of of her. With her sequined dress she resembles the little girl. Immediately you see in her the adult version of the girl. Against your better judgment, because you see them swopping places in front of the

garden. Afterwards you see the grown woman from her back – we’re thrown ‘into’ the film again – looking into the garden. Do you imagine her reminiscing her lost innocence? When she turns, her face completely fills the screen. While she steps forward, away from the ‘past’, the camera recedes even faster to picture her fully. The garden fades into the darkness until the background of the image is an abstract black-grey. Blomqvist starts dancing and singing now to the music of Lieven Dousselaere. It is about a naïve dream in which

Sarah & Charles, Sounds, Barn door, Brick Wall, Floor panel Z33 / 2013

she stars in a musical. Until she stops, takes off her heels and looks to the side, as if something caught her eye…All of a sudden, without any ado, we’re in the middle of a real musical (thus in her desire). Three boys and three girls with showy wigs, bright red lips and shorts like chicks from the fifties (one inconsistency more or less won’t matter at this point) juggle on the music of Dousselaere with the ladders that you still remember from Plot Hole. The dance is nothing special, but that doesn’t matter: a quick succession of sought after camera angles as spectacular topshots, close-ups, pans and travels knead the dance into a dance of images. Blomqvist appears, as the starlet of the day cause she is the only one in party attire. What follows is more dancing and juggling with random props like balusters of a hash, which you already saw in the stack space. Until the dancers, who are a group of ten by now, carry big rolls of pvc. They drape Blomqvist in those rolls. Immediately the music stops and the camera focuses again on Blomqvist’s face that is sandwiched between ‘walls’, this time not patinated. Casually she blows her tangled hair away. Then her face frowns: is the musical dream over? A new fracture occurs when a second camera follows Blomqvist from behind, while she walks towards the camera that held her in sight beneath a plastic tree. Logically speaking this image is impossible: a camera couldn’t have been behind the woman because of the walls (this image fares the same way as the stairs to the basement in Plot Hole). You forget about that instantly, because ‘the making of’ the movie has just become as ‘real’ as the ‘story’. The image is the counter shot of the image when she stepped out of the garden of her youth. She puts on white sneakers and joins

emphasizes. Just like in that movie the subject is the making of movies. It’s a brilliant play on illusions within illusions, an endless ‘mise en abîme’. Add that to the ‘preliminary stages’ of this film within theexhibition, and you will discover that we’re dealing with a conceptual piece of art, identical to the way Heiser described the work of Cardiff + Bures Miller. It makes a thesis explicit that fits closely to what Zizek has to say about cinema.

Yet that is only half the story, if only because theme’s like childhood and sheltered spaces to dream in, that are present from Overcast till the tepee in the beginning of the film, lay a foundation in the construction. Otherwise it would merely be and endless ‘spielerei’. Moreover, you can hardly miss the similarity between Sarah and Linda Blomqvist. There is something that guides this work, but that remains completely on the outside, like a blind spot that is endlessly painted over, as Frank Van de Veire states. That is precisely what brings the whole thing to life. Sarah & Charles don’t strive, like the unfortunate Cotard in Synecdoche New York to ‘reality itself’ but have discovered that you can only dance around it. Illusions are preferable to death, because as long as there’s life, death will remain an illusion.

the crew who is watching the recordings. Another ‘plot hole’: the crew consists of the people you saw dancing a minute ago. The camera slowly swerves over their faces while they stare in the distance ahead as if they are watching a recording, even though that is not possible because of the direction of their gaze. The ‘plot’ of the movie has now completely shifted to the making of a movie as a theme. The next image leaves no doubt about it: the whole crew stares at the screen from which Blomqvist is looking directly at them. Then the camera roams further through the recording studio. At the left you see the garden, at the right the yellowish carpet. What follows is the final ‘fracture’ in the ‘story’. Blomqvist turns around suddenly and a new ‘musical’ arises in the studio, with an equally abstract dance but without the ‘props’.

Even in real life, we continue to dream. Film and reality are interchangeable entities.  The film is such a brilliant synthesis of the way musicals switch between ‘realism’ and abstraction and the role props play in that respect. Like the dancers waved the balusters around, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds waved their umbrellas in Singing in the rain. The object itself has no meaning and only becomes relevant through and by the action it

Sarah & Charles, Overcast / 2006-2007

Sarah & Charles, Props For Drama: Plot Hole,  Z33 / 2013

stake. Media technology manipulates a fragment of a situation, a piano, so that a parallel reality arises in the mind of the beholder. He forgets, so to speak, the piano and the technology, even though they are constantly in his sight. Voices pump up the physical object to a complete illusion. Illusion and reality are continually entwined instead of opposed. That is the direction that Sarah & Charles chose after Overcast.

 

 

Suspension of disbelief

The exhibition in Z33 is built as one journey of experience. It begins on the ground floor with the film Plot Hole from the series Props for Drama. It appears as an ‘exposition’ of resources and themes of the exhibition. One actor, Diederik Peeters, gets make-up twice. At the left of the screen as a jack-of-all in the film studio. At the right as a character, a man in a tight black suit. This happens simultaneously, just as everything both characters do afterwards as instructions are whispered to them. Strictly speaking you witness two separate movies, but

studio. To seemingly complete the exhibition of ‘props’ from Plothole, there is also a latex doll of Diederik Peeters as the character from the movie against a wall. The series Sounds takes a bigger toll on your imagination. Colorful, framed posters list descriptions of sounds like the clanging of glasses, the crunching of footsteps on the gravel or a purring cat. They naturally evoke the movie plot. The sounds are well chosen: one by one they seem to announce an event.

A complex light installation is placed in a small room, borrowed from the décor that the artist created with Henri-Emmanuel Doublier for Red Herring by Diederik Peeters. Just like in that piece, rays of light fall through a small crack of the door on the walls of a neighboring hall. There they magically turn into a fairy tale spectacle. A bit further on, you gawk at the huge silver glitter curtain that hides the big window of 8 by 8 meters of the central stair hall of Z33. It cloaks the hall with a festive, somewhat clandestine nightclub atmosphere.

Apotheosis: the film as the reality of the illusion

The last hall on the first floor, in the right wing of Z33 brings a surprise. The room has been completely opened, including the antechamber. A yellowish wall-to-wall carpet covers the floor and ends at the base of a white projection screen. This gives the impression that the room continues in the film that follows (the yellowish carpet is also the floor of the second

Sarah & Charles, Props for Drama: Suspension of Disbelief / 2013

Sarah & Charles, The Great Ziegfeld, Z33 / 2013