The masters of montage are notably present at the 2015 Venice Biennale. In Okwui Enwezor’s curatoral statement, both Walter Benjamin (who attempted to «carry over the principle of montage into history») and Sergei Eisenstein are invoked. The latter’s «idea of dialectical montage», Enwezor claims, inspired his curatorial strategy; yet the artworks – particularly in the Arsenale – are generally either neatly juxtaposed or politely sequestered. Sparks of insight or unexpected connections through dialectical clashes of content and form remain lacking. Additionally, films by Chris Marker, Harun Farocki and Alexander Kluge, are on show, although often presented in unexciting or clumsy ways.
Correspondingly, in the exhibition hand out for Lina Selander’s cinematic installation for the Swedish pavilion midway through the Arsenale, curator Lena Essling describes her presentational method as a form of «meta-montage». Titled Excavation of the Image: Imprint, Shadow, Spectre, Thought, Selander’s show is made up of works from 2011 to 2015, including a new film created for the Biennale. When entering the space, I was initially struck by the silence, which was punctuated by snatches of sound, music and voice, emanating from the different films on show. Not sealing the works off from one other, allowing both sound and image to leak, however, had a dissimilar effect to that of Enwezor’s. In Selander’s exhibition the works productively contaminate each other, performing an operation akin to what Farocki termed «soft-montage»: where images and sounds do not negate, but comment on each other, producing a cumulative effect.
The images first encountered in the show are immobile, enclosed within a glass vitrine table. A component of the 2011 film installation Lenin’s Lamp Glows in the Peasant’s Hut, the vitrine contains 22 amorphous radiographs on photographic paper, inscribing the insensible radiation of rocks containing uranium. A reference to the discovery of nuclear radiation by French scientist Antoine Henri Becquerel, the work embodies Selander’s fascination with the attempt to imprint the invisible or absent, as well as her fondness for objects which release different forms of energy – whether chemical or social. From the position of the table, the film section of the installation remains hidden behind a grey curtain. Yet the flickering of its images can be glimpsed in the reflections of a polished steel plaque, with an engraved diagram of the films elements. It is as if the reflecting surface inscribes the images, translating them into conceptual reflections. The film itself has multiple threads, the central two being Dziga Vertov’s 1928 film The Eleventh Year, about the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Dnieper, combined with contemporary footage from nearby Pripyat (a ghost town since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster). The title of the installation Lenin’s Lamp Glows in the Peasant’s Hut, borrowed from an intertitle in Vertov’s film, intimates both modernity’s utopian drive as well as enlightenment’s dialectical other: technological destruction and disaster.
Fossils appear throughout the exhibition as images and material artefacts, evidencing a layering of multiple temporalities at work: from the geological, to the filmic, to the generational (a term which marks not merely human, but technological generations to which humans are subjected). Selander deploys an image from The Eleventh Year of a skeleton introduced with the intertitle эхо [echo], with the subsequent explanation that this skeleton belongs to a 2000-year-old Scythian. Selander’s practice can be seen to build on this peculiar moment in Vertov’s constructivist method, with its fascinating attempt to construct an archaeological resonance between the past and present. There is also an echo here with Walter Benjamin’s interruptive atemporal temporality of the dialectical image where the «relation of the what-has-been to the now is…not temporal in nature but figural [bildlich]».
The fossil can also be read as a medium alongside text, photography, film and video, which are all translated or re-coded in Selander’s work, into the meta-medium of digital data. A reflection on the digital and antecedent media technologies is particularly present in the film Model of Continuation, 2013 (shown on a flat-screen monitor) and Working Archive, 2015 (a vitrine with artefacts and documents also containing a small screen showing titled Anteroom of the Real from 2011). The former film contains a scene where an image of digital camera being disassembled bit by bit in a studio, where the images have then been projected in the same studio and re-filmed from different angles, triggering a mise-en-abyme of sorts. As Peter Osborne notes in Anywhere or Not At All (2013) in the «digital image» time is «obliterated, in so far as any ontological significance of the physical contiguity of digital data is negated by the rupture in its visual form: its translation into binary code». Importantly, for Osborne, this creates the «potential of digitalized data to generate an in-principle-infinite multiplicity of forms of visualizations». Selander’s Working Archive represents in miniature the way that her work can be seen as a working archive; a digital constellation that can be returned to, re-montaged, and actualised in different forms and formats.
On a formal level, we can find an equivalent to the digital, for Osborne, in the abstraction of exchange value from use value, a «real abstraction», for Marx, that is embodied in money. Money and especially coinage is the central focus in Selanders most recent films (made in collaboration with Oscar Mangione): Silphium (2014) and The Offspring Resembles the Parent (2015) which are presented facing each other (our back turned to one, which we sometimes hear, when watching the other). Silphium is a now extinct medicinal herb once used on the ancient Greek colony of Cyrenaica, where it’s image was stamped on the reverse of their coins, documenting the plants disappearance, conceivably brought about by the advancement of coinage. In Silphium, the flatness of coins is juxtaposed with a shot of Hans Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors, searching for the angle in order to glimpse it’s anamorphic skull, which remains distorted when viewed frontally. It is in similar way that I retrospectively read Selander’s quoting of the whispering voices from Chris Marker’s La Jetée alongside the intertitle «after 14 minutes, images began to ooze, like confessions». Like the prisoner in La Jetée whose memory of an image allows him to discover a «loophole in time», Selander performs experiments on petrified objects and frozen images, in order to make obscure and enigmatic histories «ooze» from them.
The Offspring Resembles the Parent is striking for its colourful imagery – Selander’s palette is generally grey on grey. Yet colour here does not signify any tree of life, but banknotes decorated with intricate colonial and imperialist illustrations. A recurring image of a painting depicting a country landscape of colonial labourers digging, contains a large hill in the background, which has a section vertically cut from it, revealing its skeletons. «Letters were invented to express our ideas and money to express our desires», a Farocki-esque voice-over states: «Nowhere is their presence more painfully felt than in a world that cannot even conceive of them». Later in the film Selander quotes Farocki’s film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995): «You notice how they move, as if impelled by an invisible force. As if they had already lost too much time, as if they knew somewhere better to be.» This utopian «somewhere better to be» is contrasted with drawings of guide dogs for the war blind, a metaphor again for modernity’s hubristic and blind march into the future (All the World’s Futures is also the title for this years Biennale).
Images of Ancient Egyptian embalming, paired with a prostrate Lenin, suggest not a future utopia, for Selander, but one that lies sleeping in the past. For Benjamin, historical materialism was about expressing «solidarity with…dead brothers» through an image of «enslaved ancestors», rather than «the ideal image of liberated descendants». Selander too locates comrades in the distant past, such as an ancient Assyrian sculpture whose golden arm gestures the raised fist of solidarity and resistance. The numerous images of the owl of Minerva punched onto Ancient Greek coins, however, suggests an imbrication of reason and capitalist economy – reason’s instrumentalisation. The final image of an owl gazing off screen, before taking flight, suggest a «somewhere better to be» for Minerva to occupy. Yet it is not conceptual resolution (as in Hegel) that is Selander’s ideal «somewhere». Images and things, in her works, to borrow one of Kluge’s favourite words, remain obstinate to such a resolution. Her interest in what is leftover or escapes the domination of rationality is present in the proliferation of the word enigmatic throughout readings of her work. For Kluge, there is «third image», «a quiet ideal» that exists in the cut between two images. Excavation of the Image rendered these cuts – the silence and absence in the gaps between sound and image – audible and visible.
Alex Fletcher is an art critic and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University. His research is concerned with philosophies of time and history in the film and video essay.