The first North American survey of Dutch video installation artist Aernout Mik (b. 1962), organized by MoMA film curator Laurence Kardish, placed eight works (1996-2009) in gallery and non-gallery settings (hallways, lobby, etc.) throughout the museum. The unusual locations furthered the sense of disorientation Mik cultivates in his works. A map of the show was available to allow treasure-hunting in addition to stumbling-upon.

Mik’s videos, typically silent, somewhat resemble documentaries or newsreels, except that the events being recorded remain maddeningly unclear, and the extended shots are uncommonly elegant. In fact, they record staged performances, creating an ambiguity that aligns Mik with artists like Omer Fast and Walid Raad. In Mik’s scenarios, uniformed authorities carry out obscure duties, and groups engage enthusiastically in hazily defined undertakings. At MoMA, some of the videos were projected on screens embedded in low walls, not only lending them a sculptural quality but also heightening the audience’s awareness of the viewing experience. And with the run time of the show’s eight pieces totaling the better part of a day, and durations not indicated on the wall labels, a focus on the viewing experience itself was nearly guaranteed.

Perennially topical subjects such as terrorism and social unrest provide the background, and some of the emotional heft, for pieces like Vacuum Room (2005). In this six-screen work, protestors disrupt a parliamentary or legislative meeting in a grand chamber by lying on the floor, partially disrobing and engaging in shouting matches. Projected in a six-sided structure, Vacuum Room makes viewers feel as trapped as the protagonists seem to be. Training Ground (2006) presents an emergency-preparedness exercise in which even the uniformed personnel froth at the mouth, tremble and stare, and some of those apparently in custody wield wooden guns. Middlemen (2001), installed on a curving wall in the lobby, shows a trading floor strewn with papers, where plaid-jacketed traders stand and gape in shock—at what, we don’t know, though current events made the piece oddly timely.

Installed just outside the museum’s movie theater was a dose of reality in the two-monitor work Raw Footage (2006). Departing from his customary process, Mik compiled this video from Reuters and ITN footage documenting the civil war in Yugoslavia; he retained his characteristic emphasis, however, on off-center subjects. Farmers work in their fields, cannons fire, and young men with hands bound, some of them bloodied, pile into a van. Without a reporter’s explanatory voiceover, the real images remain as opaque as Mik’s staged ones. What we see may conceal as much as it reveals, Mik tells us. Encountering the show during the summer as crowds were gathering in Tehran’s streets, where shifting allegiances and complex histories made the political situation confusing for many Westerners even as we watched cell-phone footage of events on the ground, that message seemed especially pertinent.                           

[A show of Mik’s work was also at The Project, New York, May 7-June 26.]

Photo: Aernout Mik: Raw Footage, 2006, 2-channel digital video loop; at MoMA.