In the Shallow End of the Pool

Cécile B. Evans’s biennial work is even more splendid in Aarhus than in Berlin, but in a way this also accentuates the video’s strange sense of treading water.

Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016. Still from HD video.

It is a difficult work, this piece by Belgian-American artist Cécile B. Evans. The simplicity of the title itself, What the Heart Wants, is not immediately reflected in the work itself. The forty-minute film plays like a visual and textual epic poem in which images and texts alike are fragmentary. Just as you are about to latch on to a given scene it is interrupted by another. This leaves you with the sense that something deeper is at play below the surface of the work – that there is some subtext or intention that does not easily reveal itself, but which requires you to delve deep into and underneath the work if you want to discover it. But is there anything to discover?

Let us delve down elsewhere first, into the actual physical installation of the work. For, more than anything else, the work that can currently be experienced at Kunsthal Aarhus attracts attention due to its installation set-up. When it was presented at the ninth Berlin biennial in the summer of 2016, the work had a very prominent position in the large, atrium-like space in the lower floor of Kunst-Werke, which had been transformed into a huge pool of dark water. This is repeated in Aarhus. Located in a central position at the end of boardwalk that resembles a pier or catwalk, the HD projection is placed so that it is reflected in the impressive and brutal darkness of a pool of water.

This installation is bringing to life of one of the greatest challenges – and greatest clichés – of the CGI world: reflective water and waves. Being able to animate water and how it moves has – as is evident in Harun Farocki’s work Parallel I–IV (2012–14) – been a central feature of animation technology’s progression towards densely compressed files and representations of reality.

Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016. Installed at Kunsthal Aarhus. Photo: Kåre Viemose.

Evans’s installation extends the digital image of a rippling, hyper-reflective body of water out into real-life space. The work constitutes a spatial expansion of the “space” of the video work itself – a trait it shares with works such as Hito Steyerl’s Venice biennial contribution Factory of the Sun, which is currently on view at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen: a huge spatial production as an extension and expansion of the screen-bound properties of the video, creating a total immersive experience.

Evans’s installation works much better in Aarhus than in Berlin because it reveals itself as a fantastic and architectural doubling of the space here. In this setting the water is much more than a screen surface. But is it truly the artist’s intention to make the exhibition space and the physical world look like a 3D-generated interface? If so, it (paradoxically) seems as if the artist is challenged by the fact that pixels don’t get dirty and that 3D-animated people cannot feel cold, heat or pain. In short, the art production is caught up in the stupid, heavy world of gravity where unsuspecting exhibition visitors fall into the water and lose their glasses or phones. Even so, these productions are giant in scale – the touring Broadway musicals of the art world.

Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016. Still from the HD video.

But while the water in Aarhus creates an amazing sense of spatial depth, I am still looking for depth in the video itself.

Texts, images and music want to take me simultaneously to the future with taking cells, to the past before Internet, to outer space with Laika the space dog, into scripted dialogues with Carl Sagan and Steven Hawkins and elegant parodies of advertisements for e.g. Paper Tiger cream cheese with an instrumental cover of Drake’s Hotline Bling as its soundtrack and the slogan “It’s Not Possible. It’s Real”.

The video is so fragmented, treading water between all sorts of fashionable semi-sci-fi and semi-scientific references that any proper utterance gets lost. At the same time the video is not carried by abstraction to such a degree that this loss seems like a point in itself. Rather, it appears as if the film has acted as a repository of leftover materials for the artist – in terms of research, but also in terms of actual video and animation materials. Exactly what “the heart wants” never becomes entirely clear, but remains merely a pseudo-poetic exercise.

In fact, the interaction between the video and the huge installation may even be realising its own criticism: it is not possible, it’s real! Anything is possible on the screen, and by any means possible that must also be true of the physical exhibition space – even if this means filling it with several cubic metres of water and creating a huge installation set-up around a work whose depths are difficult to make out. It is thus quite difficult to relate to the work in itself, partly because it is all so sleekly pleasing, but also because striving to find any depth here seems as futile as trying to find depth in the shallow end of the pool.

Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016. Still from the HD video.