During an early investigation into the language of film it was Christian Metz who observed that “film is difficult to explain because it is so easy to understand.” According to Metz, in film—in contrast to written text or the spoken word—the distance between sign and meaning was too narrow to withstand established codes of semiotic analysis.
That distance, whatever its breadth, is central to themes explored in the exhibition Real Emotions: Thinking in Film, currently at Kunst-Werk Berlin. The curators have brought together twelve varied works in search of a visual metalanguage that encompasses the various tropes and image systems filmmakers employ in getting emotion onto the screen. There's an admirable attempt to address a wider audience here—an attempt not just to expose the audience to more diverse and challenging work, but to demonstrate that the work is coded in a language in which they're already conversant.
This is most apparent in the Archive of Emotions, situated in the KW's cavernous main hall where short excerpts from seventy-two movies are exhibited side by side on banks of screens. Together they represent eleven emotions that make up the “constantly reoccurring building blocks of film.” In "Hate,” for example, you can see Ben Kingsley’s head crushed by a television set in Sexy Beast; in “Kiss” Don Michael Corleone plants one on the lips of brother Fredo, his betrayer. Presenting these moments as “canonical” portrayals of cinematic emotion might seem somewhat subjective, but they do succeed in provoking dialogue and illuminating what the curators refer to as the instant when “the plot of an entire film crystallises in the briefest of moments.”
Sue de Beer , Making out with myself, 1997, film still; © Sue de Beer / Courtesy of Galerie Christian Ehrentraut, Berlin and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
Elsewhere in the KW, Sue De Beer's Making Out with Myself (1997) does just that, utilizing simple video trickery, three minutes of tape, and a single gesture. The work is an example of the video and performance art tradition that explores the screen as a mirror—the kind of work that led Rosalind Krauss to associate video art with narcissism. The immediacy of the video image (along with its ability to undergo manipulation and synthesis (considered its only advantage over the authenticity of film until very recently) allows the artist to interact with her reflection on screen.
Here the distance between artist and reflection is closed and the artist is united onscreen with her video double. Entranced by her own countenance, she wastes no time seeking closer union—with limited success. De Beer is interested in the limits of intimacy in a kiss—the mouth as a gateway but also barrier. For all her tongue-twirling the video twins remain separate, unable to truly know the same space.
Roee Rosen, Hilarious, 2010, film still; Courtesy of the artist.
Works that play with the complexities of humor and failed emotional connection are well represented here; monologues and performances that intentionally miss the mark, overdose on pathos, and die-on-stage. Moments filled with such deeply touching emotion that they cannot fail to evoke Schadenfreude, embarrassment, and the odd stifled laugh. Roee Rosen's Hilarious (2010), Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn's Let the Good Times Roll (2004), and Jesper Just's No Man is an Island (2002) all draw on these moments, asking where our emotional responses sit when a heartfelt baring of the soul drifts toward an awkward baring of the ass.
Subtler, drier humor is found in John Smith's Museum Piece (Hotel Diaries 2) (2004), mixed with a darker sense of anxiety and claustrophobia. Smith’s work is concerned with the space between denotation and connotation, what occurs within the matrix of author, image/sound, and spectator. Set late at night in a Berlin hotel room, the work appears to be an insomniac’s video diary, a slightly angsty gonzo roam through the rooms and reflections of day spent abroad. On closer inspection, we sense it is tightly scripted and structured—not just an invitation to share a late night chat with the filmmaker, but to unravel layers of meaning between the imagery and voiceover.
Rolling world news chatters on a television in the background, occasionally invading the screen, and the hotel’s history and interior begins to generate metaphor for the world events that are keeping the artist awake. Moments of elephant in the room dramatic irony contrast tantalizingly cryptic observations and juxtapositions. Slowly a sense of unease builds until all lines seem to point inwards. John Smith said he wants the viewer to feel that “no images in the film are innocent.”
This is a large show with an ambitious agenda. Perhaps its greatest achievement is creating a level field on which to integrate and compare work from varying disciplines. Video works use and reference cinema; Chantal Akerman's three-and-a-half-hour arthouse film becomes an installation; a short clip of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is posited as something akin to a conceptual art film.
While it falls short of pinpointing any universal language of film (as with Metz, generalizations can cause as many problems as they solve) the show does well when tracing recurrent patterns of expression across these assorted disciplines and—rather than informing us what they should mean—illuminating and revealing what we already knew about them.
[Image on top: Ed Atkins and Simon Martin, Untitled (Strawberry Poison Dart Frog: Demuxed), 2011, film still; Courtesy of the artists, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and Cabinet Gallery, London.]