A little more than a week after sitting on a short, narrow bench and watching a video projection of Sigmar Polke’s 34:33-minute 16mm film, “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky (Quetta’s blauer dunstiger Himmel)/ Afghanistan-Pakistan” (c. 1974-76), I returned to the exhibition, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, currently at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (April 19-August 3, 2014), determined to watch the same film again. By then I knew that I was in for a loud, not altogether pleasant experience, as “Afghanistan-Pakistan” is one of four films being shown simultaneously in a noisy gallery, which is otherwise crowded with paintings, photographs, prints and drawings. I say “determined” because I have the feeling that the exhibition curator, Kathy Halbreich, wanted viewers to see the movies, but not to actually watch them. About the only thing missing was a psychedelic light show, the kind that Bruce Conner and his company, Ibis Alchemical Light Show, used to put on at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in the mid-60s.
In addition to the thirteen films, many of which have never been seen before, the exhibition includes more than 250 works in a variety of mediums (painting, photography, film, drawing, prints, collages, notebooks, and sculpture). When I first went to the exhibition, meandering my way through the atrium and different galleries, like a pinball in slow motion, I felt as if I had inadvertently wandered into a massive all-you-can-eat buffet offering more dishes than anyone could consider. The second time I went, having already decided on what I was going to spend time with, I approached the exhibition like a tasting menu, preferring only a very small portion of the many treats being served up.
In fact, I wondered if it were actually possible to review Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, which is the third retrospective of this artist that I have seen, the first two being the exhibition of fifty-five paintings in Sigmar Polke, curated by John Caldwell, which was organized for the Brooklyn Museum by Charlotta Kotik (October 11, 1991 – January 6, 1992), and the huge, comprehensive Sigmar Polke: Die drei Lügen der Malerei, curated by Martin Hentschel, which I saw at the Kunsthalle Bundsrepublik Deutschland, Bonn (November 1, 1997 – February 15, 1998). That exhibition was accompanied by a 375-page catalog that was published, alas, only in German. In order to review the current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, with its own 320-page catalog, wouldn’t the writer be obligated to watch all thirteen films, as well as listen to Polke’s saxophone recordings, free jazz, psychedelic rock and noises, which resulted in a four-CD set (2011)?
Am I wrong in thinking that there hasn’t been a single mention of this film by the critics who reviewed the Polke exhibition, and that almost no one has written anything substantial in the press about the other twelve? It seems that what everyone wants to weigh in on is whether or not Polke is a great artist. This might be why reviewers focus on the paintings, with the judgments spanning the gamut, from snooty dismissal to fawning praise, with each, in its own way, helpful up to a point. As far as the critics are concerned, the films aren’t considered minor; rather, they are thought of as largely irrelevant. But like poetry, which the press is always deeming irrelevant, I was interested in Polke’s films because everyone seemed so intent on ignoring them.
It was while I was watching “Afghanistan-Pakistan” for the third or fourth time that something I have been mulling over for the past few months became clearer. Isn’t conferring greatness upon an artist an efficient way to stop considering his or her art? Isn’t that what happened with Jasper Johns? Lots of people agreed that he was great and then, when he changed in ways that challenged their understanding, they stopped looking and said he has done all his best work, and then they went looking for the next great artist and the one after that and so on. There is something capricious and mean-spirited about this kind of thinking. And if Polke is great, why hasn’t a reviewer written something substantial about his films?
Despite the relentless, grating cacophony which seemed to drive many people out of the gallery almost as fast as they walked in, I went back to watch “Afghanistan-Pakistan” because I had to. Ever since I first saw it, I have been haunted by two sequences in what is essentially a home movie riddled with familiar, amateurish tricks that many beginners use, such as constantly zooming in and out, spinning the camera round and around to dizzying effect, and arbitrarily changing exposures so that parts are suddenly bleached out or nearly black.
Despite these and other flaws resulting in what I would characterize as unnecessary interruptions, there were riveting shots, which I found both fascinating and alarming, and was pretty sure that in filming them Polke must have felt something similar. In these sequences he stops playing tricks and basically lets the camera – its sensitive, memorizing eye –do all the work. It was these instances, really only a handful surrounded by less interesting and even irritating moments, that I wanted to see again, as well as discover if there were any similar sequences that I somehow missed.
The two, relatively short sequences that held my attention the first time I saw the film involved a trained monkey on a leash. In addition to the thick, black leather collar around his neck, the monkey was wearing a necklace of bells and a faded, open, full-length, embroidered, dusty rose robe. These sequences so colored my initial viewing that I needed to see the entire film again, convinced that I missed parts of it, which, after watching it twice more, proved correct. Despite my attempts to remain attentive the first time around, I managed not to register one sequence that was as disturbing as the two that I had come back to watch again.
One reason that I missed this third sequence, which focuses on bear baiting, is that the film has neither a title nor credits. Until you return at least twice to the spot where you first began watching, you can’t be sure if you have seen the whole thing or not. The film, which is a diary of a trip that Polke took to the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, suddenly breaks and then after a few seconds begins again, with a shot of a highway sign pointing in two directions, which is surrounded by fields with a mountain range in the distance. After briefly showing us the sign from, it seems, an approaching vehicle, the camera spins around a few times inducing in this viewer at least a dizzying feel, which is not the way to keep an audience engaged. We enter a town and see streets, rooftops, and brightly painted buses and trucks driving by. An open-backed truck full of vertically stacked logs is the first and only evidence of labor that I saw in the movie, which acts as something of a counterweight to the theme that I believe Polke discovered while filming.
In the town we find the monkey and his owner. The monkey does back flips. He walks on his hands, all while being tethered on a rope. At one point, his owner, who is hunkered down, takes a cardboard and gold foil crown out of his black duffel bag, along with a pair of yellow-framed sunglasses, and puts them on the monkey, who frowns. The owner adds a folded, fan-like piece of paper to the crown. After all this, he hands him a mirror, which the monkey holds up close and at an angle, and grimaces. At times, the monkey pulls his head back, as if he is about to be given a spoonful of awful-tasting medicine. Perhaps to reassure the small group of grinning men and boys that has gathered around them, most of whom are standing and keeping their distance, the owner pulls back the monkey’s lips to show that he has no teeth and isn’t dangerous. The owner produces a long stick and presses it down on the monkey’s neck, making him bow. Through it all, the monkey seems proud, defiant and defeated, perhaps even angry. There is a brief moment when he resembles a wizened, vanquished king pondering his fate.
After the man removes the crown and sunglasses, he puts a small helmet with a chinstrap on the monkey’s head and gives him a toy wooden rifle, which he points straight up into the air, reminding me of a headline that appeared in the English version of China’s online version of People’s Daily, “Monkeys trained as battlefield killers in Afghanistan” (July 9, 2010):
Reporters from the media agency spotted and took photos of a few “monkey soldiers” holding AK-47 rifles and Bren light machine guns in the Waziristan tribal region near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The report and photos have been widely spread by media agencies and Web sites across the world.
After repeatedly standing and squatting while pointing the gun in the air, as if he were mimicking a military exercise, the monkey falls on his stomach, the rifle beside him, and looks up at the owner.
In a later sequence, the owner covers the money with a striped cloth, securing it with a cloth belt, which he ties around the animal’s neck. The monkey jumps and then begins shaking in convulsions before collapsing to the ground. The owner tries to force the monkey to sit up, but he falls prostrate, a rag doll. The owner places the monkey on a can, but he flops over. This is repeated a number of times. At one point the owner picks the monkey up and throws him to the ground, like a meat patty. Eventually the man undoes the belt around the monkey’s neck and wraps his prone, stretched-out body, still wrapped up in the cloth, in another cloth and neatly folds the ends, as if preparing the body for burial. Here, the camera cuts away and we don’t see the monkey again.
Along with the monkey’s performance, there are two other gatherings that Polke records. One, which is cut into brief sections and inserted throughout the film, takes places in small, enclosed courtyard where languid men of all ages, many of whom are sitting on a ledge jutting out from the wall, while away the time drinking tea and smoking hashish from a tall pipe with a large, silver-colored water bowl placed in the middle of the courtyard. Often they peer into the camera, at once curious and disdainful. One young man, who is smoking from a small pipe with a big open bowl, points the bowl at the camera, like muzzle, as he exhales clouds of smoke.
While Polke is filming the men in the courtyard, his camera falls on a doorway. We see a man, his head cropped, put money into a woman’s hand and then enter the doorway from the sunlit street into the darkened interior. The woman, holding a child, turns and is gone. We see neither the woman’s face nor the man’s, just the movement of a few coins dropping from one hand to another. As soon as she disappears, another woman, young and barefaced, holding a child on her hip, shows up, and smiling shyly toward the camera, begins to speak, seemingly to Polke. It is likely she too is asking for money.
The sequence that I seemed to have missed the first time around, a bear- baiting scene, set the tone for the whole film. The bear is on a chain while a pack of large white dogs, held on leashes by their owners, attack him. Behind this grisly scene, a huge crowd has gathered on the gently sloping hills rising behind the plain. It is likely a few thousand men and boys are watching the day’s entertainment, most of them smiling, as if posing for a graduation photo. The bear-baiting scene shares one thing with the monkey and the men smoking hashish; they are about the kinds of looking we do when we entertain ourselves. If there is sympathetic looking and brutal looking, these activities fall into the latter category.
I suspect that Polke was equally disturbed, curious and fascinated by the whole scene. He doesn’t turn the camera away, except to show the crowd, all of whom seem to be having a jolly good time. When the whole thing is over, he shows us the bear, who is still alive, licking his chops. All the dogs seem to be alive as well. The crowd begins dispersing, many rapidly ascending the hill and disappearing over its crest. In the foreground – and this is what most startled and troubled me, two young boys, who couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven, see Polke filming and begin dancing and waving; they are acting clownish because they know they are being watched, and they want to be seen and remembered. Polke can’t seem to take the camera (his eyes) off them.
I couldn’t help thinking of something that Jasper Johns once wrote: “artists are the elite of the servant class.” What purpose does the artist serve? Is art simply a form of entertainment – a painting with a joke written on it, an oversized shiny balloon dog, a candy factory making and giving away tens of thousands of candies, or an invitation to an audience to watch an artist do “nothing?” Or is it the latest attempt to try and act relevant – an abstract painting based on a South Vietnamese army camouflage pattern done in bright colors?
In his flawed, but fundamental film, “Afghanistan-Pakistan,” the artist is the monkey doing back flips and playing dead, as well as the bear on his back, fighting off the dogs. He is what the viewers – the stoned men in the courtyard – peer at, as if examining some kind of exotic specimen. Through the camera, Polke looks right back at them, lets himself be looked at, pointed at, and even dismissed. He is the proud and defiant monkey who refuses to be defeated, the curious eye that keeps looking, no matter how disturbing it gets.
When poets read yet another article that proclaims the irrelevance of poetry, they laugh. What else should they do? The people making these judgments haven’t a clue, and all those who don’t go out and buy a book of poetry, in a show of solidarity, don’t either. Poets don’t sit down at a desk because they are trying to be relevant. Towards the end of my third time watching the film, a family walked in and stood behind me. After a few moments, the man, who was wearing a baseball cap – it being Father’s Day after all – announced in a loud voice to his wife and young son: “Look, it’s a German psychedelic artist out having some fun.” On the screen the monkey was looking in the mirror, disgusted with what he saw. As they walked away a few moments later, seemingly bored with what they saw, the boy, trying to emulate his father, said in a loud voice: “That monkey is retarded.”
Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through August 3.