Text 1 (in English):
LAS VENICE and its Afterlife by Andrzej Wirth
Text 2 (in English):
Habitat-Text by Magdalena Lewoc
Text 3 (in Danish):
Berliner Luft-Text by Ellen Vestergaard Friis
LAS VENICE and its Afterlife
Andrzej Wirth for habitat catalog, 6th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial in Szczecin, 9.12.2005 – 29.01.2006
Proof read by Rick Butler. Text originally published in Habitat – 6th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial in Szczecin, ed. by Marlena Chybowska – Butler and Magdalena Lewoc, published by the National Museum in Szczecin.
Back in 2000, I invited Thomas Martius to visit me in the lagoon city of Venice, Italy. He had never been there and used his camera to capture it as well as any place can be captured. The visit marked the start of journey. Neither he nor I knew the length of the road on which we were embarking, nor where it would lead us.
LAS VENICE is a mixed-genre piece – residing thematically in the ground amid documentary and essay and travelogue, and when exhibited, among cinema, theater and artistic performance. The film features three main players: Andrzej Wirth, a critic who lives in Venice and whose journey to Las Vegas acts as the foundation of the narrative; an actor/writer (Michael Lederer) cast in a self-devised role as a casino visitor who then appears later as a commentator; a director (Thomas Martius) who is hidden behind the moving pictures yet interacts with those on- screen. When formally presented, usually with running commentary by one of the collaborators, the work revisits its central themes of the ephemeral nature of life and theater.
LAS VENICE records a personalized investigation into the ‘original’ Venice and its Disneyfied replica, the Venetian casino hotel and resort in Las Vegas. The ‘City of Sin’ on the Nevada desert and the sinking Lagoon City are shown as ‘walk-in installations’ with the scenery stronger than the moving figures that populate it. The scenery casts those walking through it in a role and exercises on them a clandestine act of directing. Thus, they become virtual actors, or what the project’s authors call vactors. In both places, tourists armed with camcorders and flash cameras let a familiar postcard scenery flow into their lenses. They contend that Las Vegas was built for tourists as a self-explanatory installation. Venice they see as a familiar historic landmark – one which Wirth deems ‘an enduring enigma despite all available guides.’
The installation of LAS VENICE at the National Museum in Szczecin is the latest incarnation in the afterlife of this five-year-old collaboration. The film has been presented in traditional screenings – most recently at the Segal Center in New York, (2004), and at the International University of Venice, where architecture students viewed it in a seminar situation – with its co-authors present. When Martius presents the film, he insists on radical adjustments that give the work the aspects of a performance. In galleries and museums, such as in Szczecin, the piece often is presented in the context of a mixed-media installation.
Martius and his collaborators often use exhibitions of the film to stage discussions of the work – essential given its length (101 min. 42 s.) – engaging with audiences in explorations of theproject’s genesis and the points it attempts to convey. Tracking those events provides a view of the film’s evolution from cinema verite to artistic installation.
Martius began experimenting with presentation after producing the film, using the parameters of the available space and adapting both the screenings and allied programs to them. For a performance on board the MS Stubnitz , a floating exhibition space, in 2003, Martius installed large screens on the inside walls of the ship. Both he and Wirth, clad in the white linen suits and strawhats that would become the tandem’s standard performance costume, provided commentary in two languages (English and Polish) about the pictures on the screens. The placement of the screens created the impression of a panoramic, closed environment. The images of water projected on walls of the ship led to an eerie effect of water-on-water that informed the installation.
The German premiere on the Prater stage in Berlin in 2004 was a straightforward presentation of the video/essay, this time in a theatrical context, with adjustments made to accommodate the nature of the space. Lederer’s unannounced appearance united the film’s three principal players and the event took place before a full house at the theatrical landmark.
At the Kanonenhallen in Copenhagen in 2005, Martius utilized the high-tech facility to produce an installation that incorporated some of his more radical ideas about the film’s presentation. Martius designed a café-type space for the audience, which was seated on platforms around small tables and surrounded by five large screens on which the film was shown. At this event, Martius assumed the role of entertainer, moving between platforms and discussing chosen sequences from LAS VENICE. In addition, there were live episodes that featured a flamenco dancer and an Irish drummer. The whole performance was recorded by a local TV station. In Copenhagen, the strategy of providing a running commentary of LAS VENICE as it was shown to audiences was firmly established.
Also in 2005, Martius introduced what he calls ‘documentary fiction’ into a presentation of his POTTINGERS HAUS installation at Berlin-Mitte. This style features video material presented in an ever-changing variation. The POTTINGER-film has been indexed and divided in captioned chapters which are selectively shown and/or referred to during the course of a formal- yet-improvised running commentary.
Art galleries also have served as venues for LAS VENICE installations. In a Berlin art studio run by Francesca Saetti and other architects, Martius presented LAS VENICE on monitors that were placed in separate rooms and also on a screen that was set up in the gallery’s display window. At that installation, Michael Lederer again joined us in making improvised comments as the film played. This created the possibility to watch the work both from inside of the gallery and from the street.
At the National Museum in Szczecin, Martius attempts to accommodate the demands and habits of museum-goers. With LAS VENICE just one of many exhibitions at the Baltic Biennial, visitors pass through many spaces. To offer a wider view than what is on the screen when they pass, Martius has covered the space allocated to LAS VENICE with some 400 stills that appear as postcards from the cities, the film and the filmmakers. That the 4:3 proportion of the video monitor correspond to the size of the museum windows, which uncovered allow views of the city outside, enabling installation to upholds the atmosphere of the museum space and subverts it at the same time. Meanwhile, four chairs placed on elevated platforms enhance this dualist, inside/outside perception, an allusion to a sequence from LAS VENICE in which the narrator is positioned in a room that allows unobstructed, discreet views of a street below. Enhancing the interactive experience, visitors can choose film sequences and thus enter the discourse of LAS VENICE. Martius’ installation is thus an invitation to an investigative activity that transcends the stasis of a picture, and makes it move towards narration.
As evinced by the transformational nature of his installations, Martius draws considerable inspiration from LAS VENICE. For the artist, it is a pictorial universe to be dissected and analyzed to generate insights into the mechanics and aesthetics of perception. I would say, that Martius made me a practical performer of my own theories, which are provoked and seen by his camera. Thanks to the many incarnations of LAS VENICE as an artistic installation, a succession of viewers have seen that, too.
Curatorial text by Magdalena Lewoc, Chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, dept. of the National Museum in Szczecin. Co-curator of the Habitat exhibition. Translated from Polish into English by Marcin Wawrzyńczak. Proof read by Rick Butler. Text originally published in Habitat – 6th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial in Szczecin, ed. by Marlena Chybowska – Butler and Magdalena Lewoc, published by the National Museum in Szczecin.
The 6th Baltic Contemporary Art Biennial Habitat is based on the idea of dialogue with place, which is construed as a culturally structured environment in which meanings are established and actions carried out. In this sense, human habitat is a function of spatial, social, and personal relationships, played out on the intimate level in private, and in the collective sphere in public.
Manifesting itself on the material level, habitat is at the same time strongly idea-intensive, malleable and variable, expressing the needs and anxieties of the community located in it and that co-creates it. Mutual feedbacks and energy exchanges take place between the subjects of this community and the environment in which they function. Habitat’s visual-material structure is not exhausted in passive submissiveness towards the subject; rather, the emancipated ambience becomes a creative and corrective instrument. And its great gravitational power stimulates acts of transgression. The ambivalent nature of these processes – the grid of tensions and interactions between the environment and its users – define the primary area of reference for the exhibition, which refers to the category of private space (oikos) as well as to that of public space (polis), as well as to their mutual relationships.
Oikos, as a system of oppressive relationships, is one of the leading themes in the work of Marko Mäetamm. Private space is a place of perverse violence, evoking bloody phantasms. In A Dream (2004), Mäetamm’s intelligent, self-referential work reveals the vampiric nature of a family whose well-being is inversely proportional to the well-being of its individual members. The film’s protagonist, the artist’s alter ego, experiences a creative block that he blames on his family duties and fantasizes about doing away with his wife and child to save his endangered creativity. The work’s title situates it in the vague space between wishful thinking and dreamwork. Its ironic narrative allows a minor subversion that compensates for the the narrator’s discomfort with his family entanglements and works to abrogate the potential trauma.
In Bleeding Houses (2004), Mäetamm nuances the human relationships more powerfully. He envisions houses in the role of observers, commentators, and even animators of the stories happening inside them. And he reaches for the grimmest cultural clichés and the usual repertoire of pop-culture obscenity – bloodshed and gore, sadistic orgies, zoophiliac excesses. Again, the safety valves here are humor and ironic distance, which, rather than weakening the impact of the works, make us aware of the real presence of the acts of violence and perversion in play with social norms. Mäetamm’s houses have little to do with the nostalgic-sentimental images of family refuge; rather, they are the backdrop for psychotic actions, cathartic rituals, and the expression of repressed phobias.
Standing in counterpoint to Mäetamm’s work is Balázs Kicsiny’s installation Sweet Home (2005), an archetypal and ideogram-filled work that conjures the idea of home as a source of safety and contentment, but one that is ultimately unattainable. The chain-bound wanderer at the center of the piece is literally ‘anchored in reality,’ a faceless ‘everyman’ doomed to live with an un-resolvable conflict of time and place in search of a home that does not exist.
Heavy with symbolism, Kicsiny’s painfully static installation activates complex interpretative tropes. It suggests the potential transgression that could occur on the material plane – that of freeing oneself from the rituals of everyday life (to which the protagonist’s ordinary costume alludes) – or on a spiritual one – as the transgression of all materiality by freeing the mind from stimulation (sensory deprivation achieved here by binding one’s head with chains); and finally on the eschatological one, legitimised by the presence in Kicsiny’s use of anchors – Christian symbols of the hope of salvation. In reality, none of these transgressions actually take place. The fettered, immobilized, and ballast-heavy protagonist is stuck in the cul-de-sac between action and inaction, on the border of consciousness and unconsciousness. He portrays a compulsive, unfulfilled, nomad, personifying the paradox of apparent movement. Kicsiny builds restrained expression on the vectors of opposing forces and in painful ambivalence.
In the installation The West Pomeranian Room. Baltic-Nomadic Version (2005), Jarosław Kozłowski explores a similar theme of nomadic life from the perspective of the distortions of identity that it creates. Using items culled from the National Museum in Szczecin’s collection, the artist frees objects from the semantic ghetto of purely utilitarian interpretation in order to speak about the existential landscape of the postmodern reality from their perspective. Heaped upon mobile tables, the ordinary objects resemble frantically gathered belongings with which could be set off in an indeterminate direction. Kozłowski’s emphatically transient constellations feature objects that are old, worn and fragmented. The hybrid, mobile sets become a visual designate of new models of their participation in the world. In the process, the artist initiates meaningful dialogue with the Museum as a place where memory is stored and identity formed on the basis of the material traces of the past.
While Kozłowski bases his discourse of modernity on a semantic dislocation of objects belonging to the past, the works of the artistic duo son:DA (Metka Golec and Miha Horvat) are situated at the opposite pole. With their technicised image of the present and fatalistic vision of the future, the team’s large-format prints of computer-generated drawings, three-dimensional constallations, and video-objects intelligently comment on the contemporary iconosphere. The organic world surrenders to the invasive power of technology in these works. Living creatures appear in spaces covered with an intricate network of cables and electric sockets, preoccupied with further developing the system of connections using modern gadgetry, including computers, TV remote controls and mobile phones.
Paradoxically, the broadening scope of the domination of communication technologies is inversely proportional to the actual communication competences of the figures populating these digitally-rendered drawings. A depressive, dystopian image of the present – the progressive alienation, mechanisation, and stupefaction of subjects dangerously verging on cheap didactics – are evident in son:DA’s works. With their ironic distance, acute sense of observation, and ability to create attractive visual syntheses, the duo endows their pieces with the character of a sarcastic memento.
Human figures function in son:DA’s drawings in flat, non-descript spaces – vast, cold factory rooms, or, for contrast, claustrophobic box-houses. The oppressive nature of space deprived of individual characteristics is one of the main tension-building elements here.
The viewer is confronted with a similar phenomenon in Katarzyna Józefowicz’s Habitat (1992-1996), an installation configured with a huge number of cardboard elements forming a sort of gigantic, cramped human ‘termite mound.’
While playing the role of the exhibition’s flywheel and leitmotif, Józefowicz’s parabolic image of the human habitat refers at the same time to one of its leading aspects – the impact of architecture on the nature and quality of social relationships, individual identity and the limits of freedom. The impetuous accretion of the standardised elements in Habitat mirrors the concrete slabs of cities as they grow and develop in the modern age. Józefowicz’s Habitat reveals the expansive nature of micro-structures, whose uncontrolled growth creates amorphous, uncontrollable entities. Mutating, space grows and emancipates itself, and one can only suspect other decentralist and organic processes are taking place in its ‘entrails.’
Veli Granö alludes to these processes in Tangible Cosmologies (1994-1995), which documents the often-surprising activity of collectors and their collections and, in the process, displays the way objects provide people with a means of defining themselves. Granö photographs his protagonists surrounded by objects, portraying the relationships that develop between people and things, with collections consuming significant amounts of the subjects’ living spaces. The work offers a series of psychological sketches that reveal the temperament, interests, and yearnings of his protagonists. All these works share a nostalgic aura, with the collections made up of objects from the realm of everyday life, worn and discarded by their former owners, that generate bizarre and complex spatial structures in which virtually any material trace of human activity can serve as the base module – from trinkets and toys to old radios and wrecked cars to decommissioned trains.
The scale of the documented collections - varying from those that will fit in a cramped apartment to those requiring open space – is of no fundamental significance. Invariably, the main impulse is the need to remain in constant physical contact with the collection and to organise one’s surroundings through its elements. The results are deeply personal micro-worlds – parallel spaces alienated from the main course of events and made credible in Granö’s photographs.
Like Granö, Małgorzata Jabłońska affirms and legitimises the banalities of everyday reality in her work cir:cumstance cur:iosity (2001), a cartoon-style story about family life, its modest successes and minor disasters, set in the cozy scenery of a home and its surroundings. Jabłońska builds short, fragmented narratives composed of episodes acted out by simple computer-generated configurations of circles and squares, which form the syntactical components of a language that the artist uses to describe everyday reality in a fresh and tender way. In the graphic series and computer animation The Training (2003) – a collaboration with Piotr Szewczyk – uses the same language to describe the artist’s classroom experiences from the time she worked as a teacher.
Similar to that of son:DA, the Jabłońska/Szewczyk collaboration uses the computer as a tool to generate an expressive and strongly individualised language. Equally, the pair reaches beyond private space and toward the realm of broader social interaction. In son:DA’s case, it is the dehumanised office spaces and server rooms, while in Jabłońska and Szewczyk portray the school as an instrument of socialisation. With their characteristic sympathy, Jabłońska and Szewczyk describe how pupils behave and interact. The pupils’ liveliness and unpredictable behaviour, including an ever-present element of insubordination, seem necessary for a creative equilibrium to be maintained between themselves and the school’s oppressive nature.
For Jabłońska and Szewczyk, to enter public space means to enter the realm of multi-level interpersonal relationships. In Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga’s works, the process of the negotiation of collective space is manifested in the ideological functions of public architecture. The starting point for the work The YMCA (2000) was the building in Warsaw once owned by the Young Men’s Christian Association and known since as the ‘Polish YMCA,’ which the authors transform in a way that turns it inside out. The result of their artistic modus operandi is a complex structure whose compatibility with the building’s actual disposition is not very rigorous. The way the photo-object called The YMCA (the final effect of a months-long documentation/creative process) is constructed, articulating its basic functions – the promotion of physical fitness combined with Christian values – refers us to architecture construed as an instrument of social communication and correction of social behaviour. An architecture that is a material designate of ideology, a transmission belt of certain attitudes and models.
A similar interest in architecture as an instrument of communication can be found in the works of Måns Wrange and his OMBUD Institute for Improving Society (Compromise House, 2000-2005). OMBUD’s main declared goal is improving the quality of everyday life. As a promoter of the idea of artistic involvement in social dialogue, OMBUD encourages the use of mediation and social-stimulation tactics in implementing alternative social solutions. Exploring new strategies for social change, OMBUD situates itself at the borderline between art and science. The statistical analysis and marketing methods it uses legitimise and objectivise the alternative channels of social dialogue – empathy training sessions, corrections of public institutions’ functioning on the basis of the views of the statistically defined average citizen, the reshaping of attitudes among conflicted communities.
In the Good Rumour Project (2005), initiated and carried out in the border region of San Diego/Tijuana, Wrange’s aim was to reduce the mutual prejudice. The project involved monitoring the directions in which the artificially generated rumours spread, as well as their socio-therapeutic effects.
Another artist operating in the broad cultural landscape is Thomas Martius who explores the theme of authenticity and artiface in the video essay LAS VENICE (2004-2005). Working in collaboration with Andrzej Wirth, Martius examines the parallel worlds of the city of Venice and the Venetian Hotel and Casino, a copy based on the city that is located in Las Vegas. In the work, each local dictates the scenes taking place in it. Venice as a visual icon shapes people’s behaviour, casting them as actors in a quasi-theatrical event. Public space – polis – becomes a stage that evolves towards a dynamic artistic installation. The camera’s eye recording the movement of human masses is accompanied by Wirth’s meta-theatrical reflection, fragments of interviews, and more or less staged scenes. The way the film is edited, allowing the viewer to move freely between its different sequences, resembles the structure of hypertext. The work’s meaning is fluid, depending on the viewer’s individual decisions and preferences.
The dynamic contrast between the urbanised space of the metropolis and the landscape of desolate suburbia is also the conceptual and compositional axis of Dorota Podlaska’s painting installation There and Back (2004-2005). Far from imposing a social mission upon itself, Podlaska’s work operates in the realm of interpersonal relationships and emotions. There and Back is a sequence of scenes and details composed into a narrated installation presented in the form of quasi-diary of the artist’s period of residency in Finland and her return to Warsaw. Like the artist’s other works, There and Back is based on creative imagination, humour, and observations that are applied to everyday life. On the example of Warsaw, Podlaska has managed to capture the essence of big city life, casting the desolate Finnish interior in the role of its visual pendant. In characteristic small-format paintings configured into a complex composition, the artist creates a visual dialogue between two radically different habitats. Podlaska’s Finnish impressions introduce into the space of the exhibition the image of nature – viewed from a distance and largely reduced to decoration – that is otherwise absent but nonetheless important.
In Natalia Pershina Yakimanskaya’s video installation Light Breath (Exercise no. 1 for Girls) (2005), a forest clearing creates a therapeutic space. The arrangement of the screen, on which we see the figures of girls falling into fluffy snow, in a kitschy living room with overalls hanging on nails suggests that the scenes the viewer is watching are a projection of the protagonists’ unspoken needs. Somewhere between dream, illusion and reality, the women have dumped the drab overalls in the claustrophobic room and now find themselves in a light, open space. In Yakimanskaya’s works, including Found Clothes Factory (DATE), her joint project with Olga Yegorova, the traces of human existence and individual histories left on old, worn pieces of clothing play a central role. These imaginary signs are amplified and articulated through inscriptions, photographic images and embroideries placed directly on the fabric.
In Light Breath, too, the women appear in dresses, or costumes, that make them unique, and the mantric ritual of falling into snow is like a psychodrama where the moment of touching the ground serves as a catharsis of quasi-death. A punchline for the exhibition, Light Breath also looped it. Private space revealed here its non-autonomous nature, a function of the many variables organising public discourse.
The Habitat project explores the ways in which space, construed as the field of interpersonal relationships, is negotiated. The artistic and discursive values of the interacting works create the exhibition’s dynamic tissue. This publication documents its shape while offering a series of critical essays that set the works presented in the exhibition in the broader context of the participating artists’ creative praxis.
Danish Catalog BERLINER LUFT 2
KANONHALLEN , (5. - 6. april 2005)
Text by Ellen Vestergaard Friis
Ordet "Island" flakser med mellemrum henover væggene i Kanonhallens foyer. Den ene ende er fyldt med caféborde, som publikum sidder ved. Bagved og rundt om dem kører en film via fem megaprojektioner på foyerens vægge, søjler og skilte. Vinduerne i loftet er ikke dækket til. Man kan se himlen og de røde murstenshuse, der omgiver Kanonhallen. Filmen på væggene står længe på et billede af vand, og det giver en ambient stemning af at være neddykket i en ubåd sammen med de andre tilskuere og performerne. Det sætter en ramme om værket, uden at skabe en fiktion for publikum at fortabe sig i.
På et podium, som kun er en anelse hævet over gulvet, sidder Thomas Martius og Andrzej Wirth. Wirth er klædt som en turist i hvidt, med stråhat og solbriller. Martius er i mørk habit. Han holder en fjernbetjening. De drikker vin fra baren.
Martius præsenterer projektet og siger at tilskuerne er frie til at stille spørgsmål og starte diskussioner undervejs i forløbet. De vil gennemgå filmen og stoppe op, hvor de har lyst. Der er ingen kronologi. Filmen begynder, og "Island" viser sig at være halvdelen af "Treasure Island"; navnet på hotellet overfor Venetian, som Wirth og Martius var indlogeret på i Las Vegas. I filmen ser Wirth ud af vinduet og drikker vin. Man ser Martius spejlet i vinduet. I dét filmen projiceres direkte på Kanonhallens vægge skabes en reference til åbningsscenen og til hele projektets tema; dobbelteksponeringen af ude og inde, af de to byer på hinanden; Las Vegas og Venedig. Filmens fiktionselementer punkteres af DVD afspillerens kommandoer (stop, pause) der dukker op når Thomas Martius bruger fjernbetjeningen. På et tidspunkt klikker han til indholdsfortegnelsen. Han tilbyder publikum at bestemme hvad der nu skal ses. "Theatre is shortlived" vinder, og Wirth forklarer hvorfor.
Filmmaterialet danner rammen om et forskningsprojekt med utallige tilgange og temaer. Finder man den rigtige ramme, er alt indenfor den teater. Både Venedig og Las Vegas iscenesætter deres turister som skuespillere uden instruktør. Virtuelle aktører; vactors; kalder Wirth dem. Det kræver mod at skabe noget usammenhængende og at tillade tilfældets komposition indenfor en stram ramme, siger han.
Filmen krydsklipper i hektisk tempo mellem byerne, og opsøger med forkærlighed rammer, TV skærme, et blik ud af et vindue og ned i en gyde. Martius inviterer de to fra Kanonhallens bar op på scenen: Stephen Williams synger på walisisk og slår på tromme.
Selene Münuz danser flamenco. Bag dem viser filmen en fotovæg, hvor der er skåret huller til at man kan sætte sit ansigt ind . "Use your face here!". Der klippes til en arkitekt fra Las Vegas, som siger at det handler om at skabe en ramme for eskapisme, så folk tør give slip (og bruge penge). Byerne er fulde af begær og romantik. ”Handler dans om romantik?” spørger Martius Selene Münuz.
”Byerne er labyrinter” siger Wirth. Og i enhver labyrint er der en hemmelig have; et centrum som kender dig. Filmen viser klip fra "Døden i Venedig" hvor en mand dør, mens han leder efter en dreng, han begærer; og fra "Leaving Las Vegas", hvor Nicolas Cage spiller en alkoholiker, der tager til Las Vegas for at drikke sig ihjel. Tusinde billeder flakser henover Kanonhallens vægge. Selene Münuz demonstrerer hvordan alle turister rækker armene op i samme opgivende gestus, mens de skyder sig selv med kameraer, der fryser dem i et hvidt sekund. Selv døden er en simulation og et billede blandt andre.
by Thomas Martius
When it all started and Andrzej invited me to Venice, equipped with my videocamera neither he nor me knew how long the road of this unfinanced project would be and where it would lead us. I had never been to laguna town Venice before and used my camera to capture it. Andrzej introduced his VACTOR-modell to me and picked a few locations where it was performed by the tourists. I more and more followed his perspectives, introducing my own. I soon had the urge to let Andrzej become a virtual actor himself. A practical performer of his own theories, seen and provocated by my camera. When visiting the second set of our investigation I brought some questions in my backpack that I wanted to focus on. On the other hand I liked to follow the unprejudiced views of Andrzej, him being confronted with the desert city for the first time. Paola Ganapini was a special guest to our lives and work in Venice, so was Michael Lederer in Las Vegas. I wanted the video to function on many levels, being as much a documentary as a playful fictional meditation. For me the video covers many fields and cannot easily be defined. Perhaps it provides the listening viewer with some of the experiences that we were exploring. Tiredness and watchfulness are part of it.