Moving images of collapse, of people laughing and crying, of bored and seemingly dead teenagers. In the video installations of Aernout Mik, things happen, but there is no outcome. There is motion, commotion and emotion; hence, narrative, but without conclusion: no story. Nor can one identify with central figures; there are none, and the figures we do see are not developed into characters. The experience of Mik’s exhibition, which contained 13 video installations created during the past 12 years, was unsettling and, in my view, profoundly empowering.
Mik installed the works himself, designing an enfolding space that embraced the visitor. A large gallery at the Stedelijk was divided by makeshift walls into a labyrinth, where one could stand, sit or lounge on cushions, watching one-, two- and three-channel videos. Almost all were silent, prompting more intense and engaged looking. The overall space wavered between corridors and rooms, some wide, some narrow. Most angles were obtuse. There was no itinerary, no chronology. While watching a video, one could always see another work in the distance. Most images were flush with the floor, so that visitors and projected figures seemed to be in the same space, near one another. No durations were indicated, adding to the sense that this was one large work rather than discrete pieces. The installation created a continuum.
In the videos, camera movements can be conspicuous. For example, when nervous brokers in Middlemen face financial disaster (in 2001!), the image becomes jerky. The camera’s participation in the movement makes it another figure, as well as a spectator: more continuity. Situations and their filming appear to lead to stagnation, impasse and role reversal. Policemen rehearsing the arrest of illegal immigrants are sometimes held under fire by their targets. A Berlusconi look-alike appears in court, where the power relations between the defendant and the judges, lawyers and public, janitors and officials, constantly shift, as do allegiances, moods and body temperatures.
Mik gives shape to social “folds”: moments where we are invited to enter, and go along with, uprooted and uprooting situations. He is sometimes considered pessimistic, because he relentlessly stages scenes of apathy, stagnation, disintegration. His playground is social disorder. But rather than truly creating pessimism, he compels us to think about possible new beginnings by leaving situations unresolved—he bets on our being narrative animals. And this can be seen as optimistic. The openness embodies the primary function of art: to engage us, and make us think.
Is this art political, and if so, how? Without ever staging actual political situations, Mik makes abundant allusions to them. Are the people in the 2010 video Communitas sleeping after an exhausting day of activist occupation of the huge Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, where the video was shot, or are they dead, in an allusion to the disaster in the Moscow Dubrovka theater, in 2002, when Chechen rebels were exterminated, along with innocent theatergoers, by chemical weapons? An allusion is not a metaphor; instead of comparing one thing with another, an allusion enfolds the alluded to into what we see. Shunning moralism and political propaganda, Mik opens a field between structure (social order) and anti-structure (communitas) for possibilities to create new situations.
All staged, is this work fictional? It makes the distinction between fiction and documentary obsolete. Tongues and Assistants (2013), shot in Brazil, documents an actual service at a Pentecostal church. Businessmen in suits, people raising their hands as if voting, holding hands, touching heads. Religion and business appear as inseparable as documentary and fiction. Who can tell? If Mik doesn’t stage and direct the masses, then the priests and their attendants (alias businessmen) do. Either way, there are directors, leaders, who tell people what to do. In Mik’s works, they don’t obey exactly.
Mik’s search not for a solution but, more modestly and more aesthetically in the proper sense of the word, for an opening between community (order) and communitas (disorder) is contagious. This was the meaning, the performativity of the design of the exhibition space. Mik was trained in sculpture, and here he made architectural sculptures, turned inside out. Instead of surrounding the sculpture, we spectators entered it, so that it enfolded us. And this, rather than the thematic staging of political situations, made the work, and the exhibition as a whole, political.
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.