The Body Politic: Video from The Met Collection, an exhibition at the Met Breuer, features four videos ranging in length, subject matter, and tone. Created over a span of two decades, the works are David Hammons’s “Phat Free” (1995), Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death” (2016), Steve McQueen’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1995), and Mika Rottenberg’s “NoNoseKnows” (2015). They are disparate but nonetheless speak to one another. The connections between them are not always obvious, but the films can be seen as four separate conversations about the body that inform and overlap with each other.
David Hammons’s “Phat Free” is short and minimal. Beginning in absolute darkness, the film gives us a sound before it gives us a visual: what seems to be a brackish, partly ominous drum beat. Eventually, the film reveals the artist kicking a large steel can along a city street. When the image becomes clear, the nonsensical sound becomes sense, as the mind connects what is actually happening to what it’s been listening to without context. The space in which the film is shown — a darkened gallery where one watches a blank screen at first, hearing the sounds of something as yet unconnected to meaning — is a negative space, one gradually filling up with meaning. Whether the viewer is frightened or intrigued is determined by what one’s mind — informed by one’s social and political background — imagines in the void.
At the Met, even when the screen was filled with images and meaning, visitors peeked in, looked quickly, and left. What does it take to engage an audience? What does the audience want? The film itself also illuminates the fact that so many viewers seem disinterested — the camera following Hammons down the street catches passersby who don’t notice him. This says something not just about what the art world wants, but also about how contemporary American society sees a black man — which is to say, it often doesn’t. In an interview in 1986, Hammons said: “Doing things in the street is more powerful than art I think because art has gotten so … I don’t know what the fuck art is about now. It doesn’t do anything. Like Malcolm X said, it’s like novocaine. It used to wake you up but now it puts you to sleep.”
At 22 minutes, Mika Rottenberg’s “NoNoseKnows” is the longest video in the show. Accompanied only by ambient sound, the work features a blonde woman moving through empty, corporate, white-walled hallways and small rooms in a series of absurd and disgusting scenes that channel artist Paul McCarthy, as well as Spike Jonz and Charlie Kaufman’s film Being John Malkovich. Her presence is juxtaposed with another set of small rooms, in which female Chinese workers make pearls. Settling for the majority of the film in a chair at a desk in a tiny room packed with plastic-wrapped flower arrangements, piles of leftover food, and a bowl of pearls with a pair of inverted feet inside it, the blonde woman sits before a fan that’s operated by one of the Chinese workers. Seemingly lured by the power or scent of the fan, the woman moves nearer and nearer to it as her nose becomes longer and longer; eventually it reaches Pinocchio length and becomes covered in red pustules.
Several times during the film, I wanted to avert my eyes from what I was seeing, and there were moments when I felt that the artist had gone too far. But these were visceral responses, and with more thought I realized that the absurdity of our culture — its excess, its unbridled capitalist desire for more, with very little concern for where the desired products come from — is equally as absurd as what’s portrayed in the film. The sections showing the workers performing mind-numbing tasks illuminates another kind of absurdity: why are some lives deemed worthy of desire while others are seen as expendable? Rottenberg demonstrates how the Chinese women workers remain a necessary force in the construction of an exclusive product that gains its worth vis-à-vis the invisibility of their labor.
Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death” consists of archival materials sampled into a seamless stream of powerful and moving images. The seven-minute film is set to Kanye West’s song “Ultralight Beam,” whose lyrics — “This is a God dream / This is a God dream / This is everything” — repeat throughout. Jafa splices footage of a black man being shot and killed by a police officer, a black woman being told to step out of her car with her two small children still inside, Barack Obama as he breaks into “Amazing Grace,” Beyoncé dancing in a sweatshirt on a balcony, and images from the civil rights movement. Added to all of this is a small black boy, his face contorted in terror as a disembodied voice speaks: “That’s what the police do to you. Put your hands up against the wall.”
The result is overwhelming. I left exhilarated by the film’s power while simultaneously depleted by the endless violence it touches upon. In just seven minutes, Jafa captures both the terrible history of injustice against African Americans as well as the beautiful legacy they’ve created — importantly, the film makes space for blackness. Though mainstream US society likes to take from black culture, it’s often at the expense of black Americans, as illuminated in Hammons’s work. This paradox is summed up in a small clip in Jafa’s film of a young black woman saying, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” This question recalls Rottenberg’s work and the issue of who gets to be seen and who’s forced to remain hidden.
The last film I viewed was Steve McQueen’s “Five Easy Pieces,” one of a trilogy of early works by the artist. The seven-minute work consists of a series meditations on black bodies in motion, conducted in black and white without sound. The camera follows a woman walking across a tightrope, men moving through space with hula hoops, a man standing alone, touching his body. The experience of being immersed in stillness, spatiality, and formal beauty was exactly what I needed following Jafa’s film. Influenced by the work of early modernists, McQueen’s photography is experiential and experimental. The camera films from various angles — above, across, and below — resulting in bodies that appear at times larger than life, at others celestial and at peace.
The Body Politic: Video from The Met Collection continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 3.