The work of 34-year-old Israeli artist Keren Cytter draws on cinema, literature and theater to suggest a contemporary world in which identity is preformed and fate predetermined by existing characters and scripts. Assessing this aspect of her work, Daniel Birnbaum, director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, where she had a solo show in 2010, describes her as emblematizing our moment by treating that alienation from the genuine self as a cliché and a readymade. Besides creating dozens of videos over the last decade, the Berlin-based artist has also published three novels and formed a modern dance company, D.I.E. Now (Dance International Europe Now).
Opening Saturday at Zach Feuer Gallery, “Keren Cytter: Video Art Manual” includes four short video works made from 2002 to the present, some to be projected and some on monitors, and a few works on paper that will hang across from the front desk. The latter feature simple line drawings of hands doing the classic magic trick in which the thumb appears to be removed, and resonate with Cytter’s preoccupation with artifice.
In the understated domestic drama Family (2002), characters are amusingly miscast: grown men play both mother and infant son, for example. The dialogue—such as the young daughter, referring to the infant son, telling her mother, “Don’t you get it? He is sexually attracted to you and wants to kill father”—is heavy-handedly dubbed. The video’s dry humor stems from such equally unsubtle articulations of unconscious processes.
The four-channel Avalanche (2010) features seductions, confrontations and sex scenes among several young men and women living in a wintry Berlin, who pass around a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, of which one character says, “One page of that book is as good as a year’s worth of therapy.” A voiceover repeats a quote from the novel: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him . . .” Symbolizing unstable identity, at one point one man stands before a mirror that reflects another man entirely. And in a move directly out of avant-garde cinema, the narrative is interrupted by a videographer character who enters the scene and commences to review the camera being used to shoot the work itself.
Returning to the familial theme, The Hottest Day of the Year (2010) features a voiceover recounting several generations of a clan whose members move among France, South Africa, Mozambique and London, with archival photographs lending the tone of an earnest documentary. Key domestic developments coincide with historic events—a birth on the day Woodrow Wilson called for “peace without victory,” a death the day Jerusalem was named capital of Israel—thus tying personal lives to world history. Extended shots of displays at a Mozambique history museum, landscapes in Mozambique and cityscapes in Johannesburg provide the visuals and create a contemplative mood.
It’s an open question whether the story presented has any relation to actual events. At several points in the video, characters watch Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, a fable about the unreliability of images—a sly implication that Cytter herself is untrustworthy in regard to the purported facts presented in the video. In a similar vein, Roger Federer appears in the credits. Asked why, Feuer director Grace Evans replied, “She’s a fan.”
The newly completed Video Art Manual introduces a new tone to Cytter’s oeuvre in its moments of broad comedy as well as its more openly philosophical bent. Speaking to the camera, a man offers to “unfold the mysteries” of video art. Combinations of image, text and voiceover ironically analyze the techniques of the medium while referring to canonical works; a young man paces in a white room while playing a viola, recalling Bruce Nauman. Footage of recent news reporting on solar flares is cut together in a manner similar to the word-by-word cuts in Omer Fast’s CNN Concatenated (2002) to form the sentence “yeah, baby—time to pay.”
The video points out that those solar flares, which can interrupt terrestrial electrical power, threaten to deprive us of all our entertainments, which are represented in a montage of YouTube hilarity including Charlie Sheen. In this case, we will have to confront boredom, and worse: “If you offer any human being one second of boredom,” a subtitle reads, “he’ll think about death.” It is a measure of Cytter’s genius that her work can take us in one step from LOLcats to mortality.