Did you know that in the 1920s a con artist sold the Eiffel Tower – twice? Or that Spain and Portugal once claimed discovery and settlement of the same nonexistent island? That MoMA might own an artwork by Marcel Broodthaers that isn’t an artwork at all? Collecting this sort of fun factoid is all in a day’s work for Agnieszka Kurant, the New York-based Polish artist who is equal parts scholar, editor, necromancer, and philosopher. In her interdisciplinary practice, stories, rumors, and the invisible are not powerless players, but active agents. Lending form to fiction, Kurant’s work illustrates the ways in which “fiction always has reality effects.”
Meet the hitchhiker, the lawyer, and the junkyard owner, characters resuscitated from the films Vanishing Point, The Conversation, and Pulp Fiction, respectively. Played by Charlotte Rampling, Abe Vigoda, and Dick Miller, these characters, cut from their films’ final edits, surface again in Cutaways. This short film is currently on view in Kurant’s parallel solo-exhibitions, both titled exformation, at Stroom in The Hague and SculptureCenter in Long Island City. Partnering with renowned film editor Walter Murch, Kurant researched characters cut from films, discovering over two hundred such editorial casualties. The aforementioned three, played by their original actors, briefly come together in an unremarkable storyline in Cutaways. The credits roll and Rampling, Vigoda, and Miller are joined by a protracted list of actors likewise expunged from films. These characters, previously reduced to rumor or trivia at best, become ghostly citations in an imagined filmic universe.
Agnieszka Kurant, Phantom Library and Phantom Estate, installation view of exformation at Stroom Den Haag, 2013; Photo: Eric de Vries; Courtesy of Stroom Den Haag.
At Stroom we find artworks considering other types of phantoms and absence as well: a library of fictional books, by authors real and imagined, mentioned in other works of fiction; a mini-collection of artworks discussed but never made; a New York Times, dated 2020, filled with stories outlined by a famous Polish clairvoyant, penned by actual Times journalists; and a map of imaginary islands traced from real cartographic history. Characterizing the work is Kurant’s detailed research, collaboration with top-notch experts, and slick execution.
Phantom Estate, for example, is a sort of museological display featuring Kurant’s enactments of artists’ unrealized artworks. She interviewed friends, families, and estates of artists like Marcel Broodthaers and Alighiero Boetti to discover works existing only in conversation or anecdote. The display, a platform rigged with an A.I. unit, moves stealthily around the gallery like a Roomba mantelpiece. Like the phantom artworks that comprise it, the display is unstable. It has acquired agency, a social life that operates outside the control of both Kurant and the artists’ estates.
Agnieszka Kurant, Map of Phantom Islands, thermochromatic pigment on archival paper; Photo: Eduardo Ortega; Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Fortes Vilaca Gallery.
Kurant generally avoids a common pitfall of research-based artwork, namely, that the findings don’t always make it from the data stage into analysis and transformation. The books in Phantom Library are empty – I peeked – but Kurant purchased ISBNs – codes that nevertheless make them “real” within the international book trade – and has even hired a novelist to write one of them. The archive accompanying Maps of Phantom Islands, comprising thirty pages of maps and historical information, was so interesting I read almost all of it. But while the research is fascinating, the work relies on more than mere replication of research. Printed in thermal-sensitive ink, the map’s islands fade and reappear according to temperature, perhaps a reminder of how the presentation of “facts” can be linked to political expediencies and the geopolitical climate.
88 MHz (title variable) is one of the few works where Kurant’s sources remain a mystery. The work – a tape deck and short range transmitter – broadcasts pauses cut from recordings of political, economic, and intellectual speeches, each consecutive “silence” having a unique sound correlated to the circumstances and original recording device. Contrasting John Cage’s 4’33”, the silence is not inflicted but rather collected, composed, giving clear but abstract form to something that seemingly doesn’t exist. At Stroom, in fact, this white noise supercut had so much presence that its hum interfered with the audio from Cutaways the next room over. Further collapsing the real and imagined, 88 MHz is itself a “phantom” artwork described in Heinrich Böll’s short story Murke’s Collected Silences from 1955. Just as it constitutes reality conjured from hearsay or fiction, 88 MHz broadcasts a silence that isn’t very silent at all.
(Image on top: Agnieszka Kurant, Cutaways, 2013, HD film still; Cinematography: Michael Simmonds; Courtesy of Anna Lena Films, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Fortes Vilaca Gallery.)