Rereading the Odyssey: found footage in the work of Unn Fahlstrøm
(commissioned catalogue essay 2011)
A figure in a white suit and a black hat, facing away from us crosses the frame quickly from right to left, briefly acknowledging the view. His departure seems to awaken the camera and it pans, following his direction and revealing more of the landscape before eventually catching up with him as he strides across an empty concrete viewing platform, cropped at the neck and knees. He hovers briefly at the extreme right of the frame, split in two, before disappearing entirely leaving only his shadow, a last trace of his presence, which is in any case a copy of a copy. Fade to black.
This sequence is one of four, comprising Unn Fahlstrøm’s installation, I reread the Odyssey Last Night shown at UKS Gallery, Oslo in 2005. Projected simultaneously in three separate undarkened spaces with an elegiac string score by Øyvind Torvund, the work evokes a cartography of a space half remembered, half dreamt.
Blurred to the point of indecipherability and reprocessed to look as if shot from behind a pane of frosted glass, a narrow horizontal stripe of focus scans up and down the screen. The form of two lovers caught in an embrace is gradually revealed before the image dissolves. They meet, or fail to meet in an endless choreography of absences, of barely glimpsed gestures. Anticipatory narrative fragments elided in their re-composition. After a brief interval this once again gives way to the horizontal band of focus, scanning the frame. Now synchronized it reveals a glimpse of classical statuary as the camera circles. Chasing the lost aura in a reproduction of a reproduction, second hand light evoking a transcendental space.
Simultaneously projected in an adjacent room, a female figure on the same viewing platform moves with a less apparent sense of purpose. She turns and waves with both arms as if signaling. Paces back and forth apparently more preoccupied with her shadow than the bleached Mediterranean light. The frame acquires a sulphorous yellow tint before fading out.
Looped and projected across three spaces, odd correlations emerge amongst these images, moments of synchronicity and a-synchronicity. Time is fractured. The melancholy score evokes each repeated gesture, renders each repeated frame a crystal image. A fractured instant stolen from an erased narrative, compressing past and present.
Elsewhere in the distance at the edge of the platform, the man wanders back and forth contemplating the landscape. We return to the sequence with the female figure, this time in blurred close up and again re-graded. These tracking shots are repeated. The two figures wander back and forth, torn from their original narrative context. Simultaneously present in three adjacent spaces and not yet destined to meet within a single frame, their mirrored perambulations are defined by the brutal geometry of the platform, to which these sequences return again and again. Who are these ghosts? What space do they occupy?
The sea in I reread the Odyssey Last Night is not “wine dark”, as it was for Homer but rather the bleached Technicolor of an European art house movie watched late at night. Telecined fragments barely remembered, the invocation of the memory of a ghost.
These sequences, taken from Godard’s Le Mépris, were shot overlooking the Gulf of Salerno in 1962 but they lost their phenomenological specificity somewhere between the reference print and the master. Between the photosensitive chemistry of celluloid and the electromagnetic voodoo of tape, they were reduced, compressed and set adrift. Signifiers that have slipped the bounds of their referents, subjected to the tender mercies of the Time Based Controller eventually to suffer the final archival indignity of digitization, to be reduced to no more than zeroes and ones in an economy of equivalence. This equivalence now rendered absolute.
A further sequence reveals more of the geometry of the platform. A mad Escher tower reached by an apparently impossible terrace of steps, which the male figure climbs and climbs again. The brutal edge of the platform revealed like the steps to an Inca pyramid.
A concrete wall curved like a crescent moon, its shadow the only respite from the sun.
The high, implausible cliff on which the platform appears to perch could be Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead or De Chirico’s summer hideaway. A location shot of an architectural revenant simultaneously conjured and exorcised, at once real and yet no more real than a scene painter’s matte. In this virtual Hacienda the inhabitants are made to do the artist’s bidding, just as they were made to do by the director before, both through the lens and in the editing suite, like puppets in a dislocated dance of death.
I reread the Odyssey Last Night was preceded by three collaborations between Fahlstrøm and Ignas Krunglevicius, Hundre Runder (2003), Non Lo So (2003) and Passion (2004). In these, as well as in the work commissioned by Ellen Ugelvik for the performance of a score by Simeon Ten Holt, Soloduiveldans #2 (2004), a formal language and approach begins to emerge.
In these works fragments from Truffaut (400 Blows), Antonioni (L’Eclisse), Scorsese (Raging Bull) and Godard (Vivre sa vie) are prised from their original narrative settings and held up as objects of meditative contemplation. Fahlstrøm’s purpose is an emotional interrogation of their formal properties, her method the re-sampling and remixing of light.
Fractured from its original context, the cinematic text becomes an electromagnetic palimpsest on the cusp of digitization, decodable only at the moment of its disintegration.
The artist’s preoccupation with these themes and desire to explore the space between the reproduction and the original, the map and the territory, can also be seen in her recent prints, Serok (2008) and TV-monogatari #1-3 (2009). In these large landscape format prints a black and white and a colour image taken from the screen are juxtaposed creating a 1:2 interval. This ratio inevitably creates a sense of linear narrative progression recalling the frame line of celluloid even as the shift from black and white to colour and from full frame to detail make the implied sequence an unlikely one. As in the prints Hjort (2009), Zietling (2010) and Self Portrait (2010), Fahlstrøm seems less concerned with what these images depict than with the visible hiss of video noise, the compression artifacts and molecular chaos of quantization.
In contrast to video, film (the pre-digital cinema referenced in many of the artist’s early installations and video works) remained a lensing process. From the sensitization of the emulsion to the projection of the reel, it trapped light at 24 frames a second to reveal it later by chemical processes and re-projection. The celluloid frame held a correspondence to something that at least once existed. It remained indexical even at its most self consciously artificial and phantasmagoric.
The telecine process by which the sequences appropriated by Fahlstrøm were initially recovered to tape effects a further schism between the image and what it appears to represent. The schism widens and becomes fundamental and irrevocable as they are transcoded digitally. Now virtualized, first as electrons and now as bits, these images are made newly labile, they acquire the ability to pass through themselves, marking the transition from the age of sorcery to the age of simulation. In a world of perfect and imperfect copies there can be no access to this Primae Materia, only to its electromagnetic shadow.
It is in this shadow that Fahlstrøm operates. Stretching, splitting and fracturing sequences into reaction shots, camera movements, small gestures and inflections, she undertakes a séance, summoning form out of digital ectoplasm as scan lines pulse hypnotically. Broadening or contracting into a horizon, these subdivisions track both up and down and across the screen in restless pursuit of interstital narrative moments. Frame ratios, colour, focus and time are all reduced to a state of flux as Barnett Newman’s “zip” is rewritten as the restless surveillance of the barcode scanner.
In these repetitions and re-framings a seizure of the narrative, a glitch, occurs. Spatial, temporal and optical distortions are improvised as if trying to bring the images into focus whilst re-spatialising them as architecture. Remixing the light into narratives of repetition, Fahlstrøm undertakes a necrophile dance with cinema. Ontological categories are transgressed and the crystal image emerges from its own refraction at the limit of an indiscernible actual and virtual image.
Her passage through the mirror of the screen can only be accomplished as these images dematerialize into information and their referents fade to memory, the Geiger counter tracking their decay toward zero. It is only as they disappear, sunlight no longer trapped but substituted, narrative and character and authorship dissolved, that the holographic potential of these images reveals itself.