Art

Fixed on Bodies at the Moving Image Art Fair

Despite a new section devoted to virtual reality, the strongest trend running through the 2017 fair is work grounded in the body and its place in society.

The author experiencing Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s VR piece “Primal Tourism: Island”(2017) at Moving Image art fair in New York (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the February 27 opening of this year’s Moving Image art fair in New York, works vied for visitors’ attention amid the din created by the visitors themselves. People stood in small lines, eager to try the few virtual reality pieces on display, which seemed to get the popular vote. I dutifully waited my turn too, interacting with works like Rebecca Allen’s “Inside” (2017) and Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s “Primal Tourism: Island” (2017), the latter of which was part of the inaugural “Moving Image Immersive Media” section of the fair. They brought only new sensory experiences, though, no meaningful or lasting impressions. On the other hand, a few film and installation pieces left me ruminating on corporality.

Still from Zachary Fabri, “Forget me not, as my tether is clipped” (2012)

The strongest trend running through the fair is work dealing with either representations or performances of the body and its place in society. Zachary Fabri’s “Forget me not, as my tether is clipped” (2012), at the booth of Rockelmann &, is one such work. Shot on Kodak 16mm black-and-white film, it features Fabri sitting on a chair in Marcus Garvey Park with a cluster of balloons in his hand. The 15-minute short recalls Albert Lamorisse’s classic children’s film, “The Red Balloon” (1956). “Forget Me Not” has a trace of that film’s whimsy, but leeched of color and, at times, in slow motion. In the work, Fabri fuses with the balloons, first a small group and then an even larger one, by tying his dreadlocks to the strings. He walks out of the park and sits on his chair on a street in Harlem. People walk by him. They gawk or they ignore him. Life goes on around him. Finally, Fabri takes out a large pair of scissors and proceeds to cut his hair ritualistically. Is it a kind of castration? Or perhaps it’s a severing of the shackles that bind a black man in contemporary society. “Forget Me Not” ends with a shot of a cluster of balloons, Fabri’s dreads still attached to them, drifting on a sidewalk as little boys watch with curiosity, before being dragged along by their mother.

No hair is involved in “Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise)” (2008), just Jefferson Pinder’s bald head. Brought by Curator’s Office, this time-lapse animation of over 2,000 photographs — scored to a jarring string instrument (a sitar, maybe) — brings to mind not only Afrofuturism, but also Günter Brus’s Aktionist performances. Whereas Brus uses plaster to cover his body, Pinder uses white paint, smearing it on his head and neck to match his white clothes. Images from the ’60s — of astronauts, of a spaceship, of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, along with Gil Scott-Heron reciting his “Whitey on the Moon,” can be heard intermittently on the soundtrack) — are projected onto him. Pinder reacts as if a ship were crashing into him and exploding, but there’s a disjunction and a distance between him and the projected images. The work inserts Pinder into the original mission to the moon. Disguised as a whitey, he’s part of the team but also foreign to it, an alien outside of the spaceship and in outer space.

Still from Jefferson Pinder, “Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise)” (2008)

Arda Yalkin’s “The Circle Jerk” (2016), at the booth of Gaia Gallery, is the most unsettling piece at the fair. Despite its lewd name, “The Circle Jerk” actually captures the aggression of job interviews. Thin screens are lined up — three on one side, two on the other — creating a narrow path that you can walk through. When you do, you end up in the middle of a man and a woman dressed in similar business attire; they stare at you and talk about inane things, or ask questions like, “Why did you leave your previous jobs?” and “What do you do after hours?” At intervals, the screens glitch, becoming noise and pixels as their audio scrambles with the sound of something like a transmission or a signal. The effect is intimidating and uncomfortable — you’re not so much participating as entrapped in this type of inane communication by the characters’ unwavering gaze and chatter. Unfortunately, a pair of larger screens mounted behind the thin ones, kitty-corner to each other, dilutes the impact. These show fantastical images in black-and-white, such as the man and woman embracing while a tornado destroys the buildings around them. While they’re intended to convey, as per the artist statement, the “inner world” of the characters, they’re so blatantly otherworldly as to seem separate.

Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani’s “The Rise” (2007), brought by Marie-Laure Fleisch, covers somewhat similar territory as “The Circle Jerk,” but in a more succinct manner. It’s a short film in which a businessman (Christoph Bach, a dead ringer for a young Robert De Niro) walks up and up the stairs of a high-rise building. Come sunshine, rain, or snow, the man climbs. The handheld camera stays close to him, sometimes even taking his point of view. He climbs; he stops and looks around; he climbs some more. What appears to be paranoia ends up justified, because a doppelgänger (differentiated by a scratch on his cheek) attacks the man and proceeds to climb the stairs in his place. Upon reaching the top, the man enters a room and looks out at the cityscape below. The camera moves in behind him as he assumes his position of power, hands outstretched against the floor-to-ceiling window.

“The Rise” is a Ballardian work set in the shiny, metallic, and modern world of Berlin skyscrapers. It’s an especially appropriate piece, given where Moving Image takes place. Leaving the fair, you find yourself smack in the middle of Chelsea, where luxury high-rises near the High Line stand semi-finished. You’re in the cold world of “The Rise.” Is there a way out of this late capitalist nightmare?

Moving Image New York 2017 continues at at the Waterfront Tunnel (269 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 2.

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