David Claerbout’s exhibition the time that remains is currently on display at the Parasol Unit in London. It is a wide-ranging, multifaceted and visually complex exhibition that requires the viewer to spend (as the title of the exhibition suggests) time with the work. A video work called Bordeaux Piece, for instance, could be watched for almost 14 hours in order to decipher the complicated social drama unfolding. Filmed in a modernist building towering over the city of Bordeaux, the meticulously produced video tells the story of a father, a son and the son’s girlfriend. In this piece, like in most of Claerbout’s works, nothing is straightforward and it quickly becomes evident that the dominant and successful father is having an affair – or so it appears – with his son’s girlfriend. One could assume it is a loop, yet the story is played out numerous times in sequential 14 minute interludes, thus heightening the viewer’s perception of duration in searching for the slightest alteration each time.
The father is depicted as a man who usually gets what he wants: both in terms of material possessions (as signified by the superbly designed exterior and interior of his house) but also in terms of what he can emotionally possess of others. The son meanwhile is physically and metaphorically locked out of the house and his father’s undignified advances on his girlfriend. The father’s competitive and manipulating persona comes to the fore in a poignant scene in which he stands on top of the gates to the house, like a king in his castle, teasing his son about whether or not he wants to be let in.
In spite of representing fractured and corrupt relationships, the video is shot with subtlety and rhythm. The physical presentation of the video too, projected on the back of a semi-transparent white screen, adds to an extremely aesthetic experience. The lush greenery of the west coast of France juxtaposed with the harsh linear structures of the modernist building are thus not only projected on the white screen, but also, they are projected through the screen into the room of the gallery. The viewer, too, inadvertently becomes a temporal screen in Claerbout’s carefully considered set up.
Just as much the visuals of Bordeaux Piece literally spill into the room of the gallery, the sound also appears to travel beyond the realm of the work of art. The birds tweeting in Bordeaux thus cunningly mesh with an adjacent two-channel video piece, titled Breathing Bird, which depicts a still image of a bird on each screen apparently reflected in a window. As if to reiterate the contrast between father and son in the previous piece, one bird is shot from the inside, another from the outside, as they are reflected in the glass. On closer inspection however, it becomes clear that the birds are not as much looking at reflections of themselves, but rather, that they are looking at a type of alter ego on the other side of the glass. The work is laden with Freudian and Lacanian references that go to the core of discovering and developing human subjectivity.
Another modernist building is the main set for a video piece titled Sunrise. Here, the viewer follows a cleaner who enters the residential building in near-total darkness to begin her shift. To avoid disturbing the owner of the house who is still sleeping, the cleaner conducts her job in darkness and as silently as possible. The owner of the house, one can assume, is a pedantic person who likes to wake up in a clean and tidy environment. Comparing Claerbout’s video with a photograph, Sunrise is perhaps the nocturnal video version of Jeff Wall’s Morning Cleaning photographed at Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.
Similar to Wall’s influential photograph, the modernist architecture lends itself to the rectangular frame of the image. If Wall’s cleaner is an anonymous and even faceless ‘worker’, the cleaner in Claerbout’s piece is depicted with personality, quirks, even with desires: she indulges in a cigarette in a brief break, she appears to do her job with pride, and after her shift on her way home she briefly smiles when the first rays of sun shine on her face. As the height of the camera and the volume of the music towards the end of the 18-minute video rise in equilibrium, it becomes abundantly clear that Claerbout understands film-making as a craft, a craft that can be perfected.
In a backlit photograph, exhibited in a completely dark space and titled Orchestra, the viewer is deeply implicated in the work as the conductor of the orchestra and, on a closer look, the entire audience is eerily looking back at the camera. Ironically, the orchestra is actually beyond the frame of the image, instead, the spectator of the artwork becomes the spectacle. The image is characteristic for Claerbout’s measured approach: he consistently seeks to ‘project’ his work beyond the confines of the image, the artwork or the film, and ultimately also the gallery. Those indulging in Claerbout’s artworks should be prepared to see the world with different eyes hereafter.
This article was originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.