THE SELF-REFLECTIVE ILLUSION IN THE WORK OF SARAH & CHARLES
In their multifaceted artistic oeuvre, the artist duo Sarah & Charles have, for more than ten years now, dedicated themselves to making tangible narratives that exist in a continuum somewhere between fiction and reality. In their work, both the viewer and that which is viewed seem to be caught in an illusion. It is precisely one’s awareness of this illusion and its transient nature that renders the work of Sarah & Charles so fascinating.
Between fiction and reality
In their work, Sarah & Charles seek to expose the artifice that creates the illusion, while at the same time drawing parallels with real life. Their work presents itself as a “théâtre de la vie”: the viewer is fully immersed in the self-created artifice, thus becoming aware of the codes that are in play in the perception of their actual environment. The installations of Sarah & Charles exist in the form of décor, sculptures and videos and bring to mind “cinematic situations”. Created by the artists for the viewer, these installations function as an escape from the existing world, yet at the same time they create a gateway into reality. This makes clear that the real world is just as contrived as fiction. The entire production of the artists centres on the creation and subsequent subversion of illusion. They create images of a self-reflexive nature that draw attention to their very inception, and the act of perception itself. This occurs as a shift in the consciousness of the viewer.
This aspect of self-reflexivity, linked to the reconstruction of reality in a fictional way, is reminiscent of the work of Guillaume Bijl. Bijl breaks down reality through its very reconstruction, which is carried out with a merciless eye for detail. He confronts the viewer with the decor of our time through his installations of, for example, driving schools and marriage agencies in the neutral spaces of galleries and museums. In this context, the sce-nic and illusory nature of these installations becomes evident, revealing how magic is encoded and produced. Similarly, Sarah and Charles engage specific codes that are promptly
invalidated, in this way creating a situation that continually hovers between reality and fiction. Bijl's fascination with waiting rooms, which philosopher Frank Vandeveire sees as the prototype of his transformations and installations, is also reflected in the video installation The Waiting Room (2005), one of Sarah and Charles’s early works. The waiting room here stands for a banal and uninteresting yet at the same time very familiar and intimate place. The involvement of the visitor, and concurrently, the recurring shifting between fiction and reality, is made evident through the use of split-screen video.
The artistic practice of Sarah & Charles constitutes what could be described as a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. Not only do they integrate different art practices and disciplines such as stage design, film and performance, but their work also functions as a total interactive experience in which multiple senses are activated.
In this way, the utilized elements connect with the same frame of reference that infuses all of Sarah & Charles’s works, coalescing into a synthesis of visual storytelling, drama, choreography, sound and performance. Their joint interest in the performing arts, e.g. the work of American choreographer Meg Stuart and French theatre maker Philippe Quesne, is of pivotal importance in this respect. Charles was also an active member of the performance collective ‘Poni’, which laid the foundation for future collaborations with people such as Diederik Peeters and Lieven Dousselaere.
In their work, Sarah & Charles explore their interest in film, as evidenced by the many references to script-technical terms such as plot hole, foreshadowing, dénouement, but also the importance of mise-en-scene, the use of props or sound effects, references to film genres (musical film, film noir) and the codes they involve. As a result, their works acquire a cinematic quality. The connection with film, however, exists at a deeper level; film here is used as an investigational device, a way to explore reality, rather than represent it. Although incorporating many allusions, references and concepts from the world of film, the work of Sarah & Charles does not treat film as its direct subject. Their visual work, however, does include various references to film that could be categorized along two dimensions.
In a first series of works, Overcast (2006), Nowhere to be Found / Past-Present (2007) en The Hero Dies… But The Story Goes on Forever (2008), Sarah & Charles use film as a
metaphor for life. Storytelling by means of cinematographic techniques is their main focus here. Through plot devices and narrative techniques such as foreshadowing, plot twist, climax, flashback ... the artists develop a context in which a story is developed. Personal memories and associations are used to create a series of near-realistic rooms, in which characters may or may not appear. Overcast, for instance, presents an idealized image of a nursery in shades of grey. Through its colouring, the scene acquires the quality of a flashback, mirroring the way in which memories gradually fade in real life. The spectator discovers the story only to become part of it. In this way, film becomes a metaphor for life that portrays the human capacity for dramatization as self-awareness and reflection.
If these cinematic metaphors – or the whole idea of cinema as a metaphor for life – permeate their work, then it is precisely because the artists themselves identify with the images they create. There is this famous quote by Hitchcock: “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out” . It is precisely these “dull bits” Sarah & Charles are fascinated
with and take as the subject of their installations, as in The Hero Dies… and The Waiting Room. The fascination with the intimacy of ordinary (living) rooms becomes the impetus for the creation of a realistic-looking universe that incorporates elements of “magic”. The viewer is presented with recognizable or credible images, and is left to decide to what extent these can be considered
Sarah & Charles, The waiting room, 2005
Sarah & Charles, scenography of Blond Eckbert by Muziektheater Transparant, 2011
“real” or not.
The later work of Sarah & Charles focuses on a shift in the understanding of the viewer. According to Godard, film is not the reflection of reality, but the reality of this reflection. As such, film addresses presentation rather than representation. Similarly, from 2009 onward, Sarah & Charles gradually abandon the fictional story in favour of a process of abstraction. The focus shifts to an analysis of the structure of the story, in which the viewer is
increasingly expected to engage, thereby aligning themselves with the codes established by the artists. The visual aspects of representation are explored through film, photomontage, sculpture or installation. The emphasis lies not on the relationship between the work of Sarah & Charles and film as such, but on the way in which the artists present the viewer with things they want them to see and believe.
This is noticeably reflected in the scenography Sarah & Charles created for the opera Blond Eckbert (2011). Present on the stage were only models, filmed by cameras. The images were projected on a large screen in the back. The story elements present onstage (set, singers, light ...) only came together in the video projected above it. The actors played their roles on a virtually empty stage, while the composed image on the screen created an illusion of wholeness. For the first time, the artists expect the viewer to temporarily abandon all notions of the real and rational and fully immerse himself or herself in the illusion.
Abstraction in Props for Drama
This dimension – the fact that a reader should be disposed to accept events in a story as “real” in order to fully immerse themselves in the story – is called “suspension of disbelief”. It is a recurring and essential element in the work of Sarah & Charles, in particular in the series Props for Drama (2009-2013). Here the artists go one step further, and use the aforementioned narrative techniques in a more conceptual and analytical way. Both the material and narrative elements are analyzed and abstracted, making the experience less direct. The viewer is made to reconstruct the story on the basis of a code set by the artists (on the basis of imagination, memories ...).
The Props for Drama series at this point consists of four parts: Foreshadowing (2009), Plot Twist (2012), Plot Hole (2013) and the short film Suspension of Disbelief (2013), constituting an amalgam of ideas and reflections that were already addressed in previous works. The idealization of memories and the use of certain archetypes (previously already touched upon in ‘Overcast’, for instance) is extended here, be it in an entirely abstract manner. In analogy with Plato's allegory of the cave, these archetypes focus on the idea that underlies form, rather than on their physical perception, thus embodying the most fundamental reality. In this way, the installations consist of handmade and life-size props and set pieces, inspired by features of mansions in which the artists have lived. These components, however, are entirely white, like
a blank page that has yet to be filled in by the viewer. The concept of abstraction and deconstruction recurs increasingly in the more recent works of Sarah & Charles, as well as in the series Sounds (2012). These text-based works consist of a written list of sound effects and allude to a particular story. As the associations the sounds evoke are different for each viewer, the experience of the work exists solely on a personal level, entirely linked to the individual’s imagination.
In the first part of Props for Drama – Foreshadowing, the props are merely static matter. In the second part, Plot Twist, the element of sound is added. The viewer can now follow the various elements that are illuminated by theatre spotlights, while a voice reads the descriptions of the sound effects.
Front and backstage
What draws the viewer into the work of Sarah & Charles is the fact that both front and backstage remain visible, making it possible to simultaneously witness the construction of fiction and its outcome. Sarah & Charles are fascinated with everything that happens behind the scenes, often bringing these contexts to the foreground in their work. Similarly, in the third part of the Props for Drama series - Plot Hole, inspired by making-of documentaries or movies (e.g. ‘The making of: The Night of the Hunter'). The screens of the multi-channel video installation show different takes of one particular presentation in which the same actor plays two characters. We see the repetitions, retakes and nuances of several consecutive shots, taken from different angles, both from backstage and on the stage itself. The repetitions are driven by the pursuit of an ideal, a principle that is more prevalent in film than in theatre. During filming, multiple takes are shot from which the best one is selected, in this way strengthening the idea that an ‘ideal’ exists and can be attained. The fact that film, in almost all cases, presents an idealization of reality and the image - an almost intrinsic characteristic of Hollywood cinema - while being played out on the screen, is precisely what fascinates Sarah & Charles most, and has held audiences captive for over a century. This fascination with idealism and the world behind the scenes is also evident in the recent installation La Nuit Americaine (2012), realized for the art manifestation ‘Façade’ in Middelburg.
A billboard in a city park shows a picture of a nighttime film shooting, yet without any technicians and actors, creating, in this way, an
“uncanny” atmosphere. Along with references to the films of Fellini and Truffaut and the emergence of a visual mise-en-abyme or reduplication, the central notion here is that film stages a reality that is, essentially, not a reality.
Props for Drama: Suspension of Disbelief
Over the years, the artists have created a web of cross references that culminate in their latest and most elaborate work so far, ‘Props for Drama: Suspension of Disbelief’, the fourth part in the ‘Props for Drama’ series. For this short film, the artists took inspiration from the Hollywood adaptations of Broadway musicals that emerged in the late ‘20s, after the disillusionment of World War I and the Great Depression. Delving into the genre, the artists discovered that the musical film has a lot in common with their own artistic practice. The musical film can be seen as the genre par excellence in which fiction, used in creation of
Sarah & Charles, Props for Drama : Plot twist, 2010
Sarah & Charles, Sounds, Ongoing series
reality, is simultaneously established and invalidated. In this way, a code will be introduced by means of a set (e.g. one single door and window will create the illusion that a whole world lies beyond them), a device that ties in closely with for instance Props for Drama’. The idea of the mise-en-abyme, the creation of an ideal image and the combining of various art forms are characteristic of the musical film. With Props for Drama: Suspension of Disbelief, Sarah & Charles apply these mechanisms to their own work. To this end, they have collaborated with artists from other disciplines: choreographer and dancer Siet Raeymaekers, musician and composer Lieven Dousselaere and cinematographer Hans Bruch Jr. all worked on this project.
More than in the previous works from the series Props for Drama, the story is fleshed out with concrete elements and characters. The story apparently centres on a girl coming of age, yet the plot is promptly invalidated when it becomes clear that everything is taking place on a film set, with an actress playing the role of the girl. Moments later, however, the fictional world infiltrates reality, when the members of the film crew are seen to participate in the story. The viewer here is forced to navigate between different layers of fiction and semi-documentary, in which the real oscillates to the point of becoming unreal.This aspect can also be found in the work of Mika Rottenberg, who
in her films presents extravagant narratives that seem to blend fairy tales and advertising films. With great sense of humour and imagination she brings into play documentary techniques to explore labour and production practices through the creation of imaginary territories.
Her films are presented in complex installations that are part of the sets in which they were recorded. In a similar way, Sarah & Charles present their short film Suspension of Disbelief together with a part of the set that is used in the film. The installations function as some sort of viewing devices that make the viewer become aware of the relationship between the body and the physical space. They prepare the viewer for the viewing of the work and create a setting similar to that of a theatre, which forms a transitional space between reality and illusion. The viewer of ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ escapes from reality while the real world remains close, strengthening the feeling that reality is as bizarre as his or her
own fiction. Is reality knowable and if so, does it matter whether something is real or fictional?
Art as imagination machine
This is a question that will give the artists plenty to work on for quite some time; there is definitely no lack of material to keep refuting the dichotomy between fiction and reality. For Sarah & Charles, the awareness of illusion and its ephemeral nature creates an insatiable fascination that underpins all their artistic expressions. However, to drift back and forth between imagination and reality is also the fate
of the spectator, who has escaped from the existing world and is often driven to one or other form of participation. In following the thread of fiction, the limits and possibilities of the visual dimension are explored and artistic creation as such is examined: how is an image constructed and how does the manner in which it is presented affect it?
Even if reality remains available, part of the perception of the viewer is nonetheless lifted to the magical level, which is where a projection of a dream can be experienced. Art in this way becomes an imagination machine, yet it is precisely the symbolic imagination that structures our reality. It is not a matter of seeing
the reality behind the illusion, but of finding reality in the illusion. With their work, Sarah & Charles seem to indicate that there really is something in the illusion, something that is even more real than the reality that lies behind it. This confident use of illusion is present throughout their entire artistic practice as an intravenous element: both the viewer and the viewed subject are caught in an illusion and the work itself becomes a locus for these ambivalent polarities. This makes their artistic practice both enjoyable and intellectually challenging - echoing the dual function inherent to film. This is one of the highest claims art can make: to confront the ambiguities of artistic illusion.
 Interview between Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Robinson, recorded for “Picture Parade”, BBC, 5/06/1960
 From British Sounds/See You At Mao, directed by the Dziga Vertov group in 1969
Sarah & Charles, Props for Drama : Suspension of Disbelief, 2013