The World in a Yellow Box

The exhibition Artists’ Film International: Language at Tromsø Kunstforening makes no attempt to mimic the cinema’s isolating darkness.

Artists’ Film International: Language, 2021. Installation view from Tromsø Kunstforening. Photo: Vsevolod Kovalevskij. 

Deep down in a dark limestone quarry, a computer-animated monkey appears. In fragmented close-ups, the limbs of a Bahamian carnival dancer float across the screen. Russian youths at a club shown in pixelated mobile video footage; the mad scientist Demikhov’s two-headed dog; appropriations of Yugoslav Black Wave film – the seventeen film and video works projected onto the walls of Tromsø Kunstforening, currently painted yellow, sweep across the international video art institution with all the focus and attention of a searchlight.

In other words, those who are looking for a break from the increasingly monotonous compulsive scrolling of everyday life – with one eye on the home cinema set-up, another on Instagram, and a third on your neighbour (is she complying with all infection control regulations?) – will not find much in terms of immediate peace and serenity in this instalment of the Artists’ Film International (AFI). The bright yellow walls – a yellow box? – insist on an intensified presence in the here and now, one where live images are projected side by side in continuous streams. It’s a conceptual approach that makes this world of images seem both inexhaustible and a bit two-dimensional.

Rhea Storr, Junkanoo Talk, 2017. Video still.

As a curatorial project, this event is a kind of democratic hybrid: the AFI network, initiated by London’s Whitechapel Gallery back in 2008, extends to a range of exhibition venues, now numbering in double digits, each of which annually selects a work from its region. Like a cross between a travelling exhibition kit and a video festival, this body of work circulates in whole or in part between the institutions, which include the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan in Kabul, Parasite in Hong Kong, and Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires. As one might imagine, the viewing conditions in the current cycle have been somewhat truncated. For example, Whitechapel has elected to show the works online, one at a time.

Bojan Fajfric, The Cause of Death, 2015. Video still.

In Tromsø, where even mutated viruses have to yield to the Arctic winds and the magic of the Northern Lights, the films are projected in a physical space, straight onto the walls. They have been divided into seven sub-programmes that are shown simultaneously – and side by side, as mentioned. It has become something of a rarity to see a video exhibition presented in this way, without any attempt to mimic the isolating darkness of a cinema. This is a refreshing move in itself, but it does create rather too ample opportunities for letting your eyes scroll horizontally between the films. Or maybe it’s just my attention-span that is suffering from an isolation-induced prolapse?

It all looks very nice and stylish, nonetheless, and if more of the videos had been distinctly visual or material in nature, the approach might have done them even greater justice. However, we find quite a few manifestations of an increasingly generic YouTube lingo: fragmented collages cobbled together out of low-resolution images, archival material, and quasi-poetic voice-overs. As in the TV department at an electronics store, all this triggers the Gestalt-psychological impulse to create connections between things, for example, the two-headed dog in Anastasia Sosunova’s Demikhov’s Dog (2017) and a theatrically severed head in Bojan Fajfric’s The Cause of Death (2015). The former is actually an inventive effort to regard cultural differences between neighbouring countries (Lithuania and Belarus) as a kind of controversial organ transplant. The head, taken from the Serbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev’s Mysteries of the Organism (1971), is a reference to socialism and the failure of revolutionary political ideas in Yugoslavia as portrayed by the so-called Black Wave directors of the 1960s and 70s. Here, revolutionaries usually suffer violent deaths, often laced with comedic aspects – in Makavejev’s film, the hero is beheaded with an ice skate. The Russian researcher Vladimir Demikhov’s dog, whose head was transplanted onto the back of a larger dog, lived and barked with both heads for three days – another victim of ideological distortion

Raqs Media Collective, Passwords for Time Travel, 2017. Video still.

In this heady brew of impressions laced with theatrical gore, some relevant recontextualisations do emerge. This year’s overarching theme is language, which does, to varying degrees, serve as quite an accurate umbrella term. Naturally, it is interpreted in different ways. Language is semiotics in Yao Qingmei’s satirical Sanzu Ding and its Patterns: Hypotheses on the Origin of the Hammer – Sickle Sign (2013–ongoing). In a slightly fluffy parody of artistic research and scientific jargon, the artist conducts scholarly research on the meaning-laden hammer and sickle symbol, tracing its origins to a phallus-like jar that dates back thousands of years. Language is power in Lerato Shadi’s Mobogo Dinku (2019), where mysterious hand gestures and a song sung in the South African language of Setswana (with no subtitles) evoke the absence of adequate concepts for the oppression experienced during the apartheid regime. Language is a tool for imagining the future in New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective’s Passwords for Time Travel (2017), which launches synthesised neologisms for the future with finely honed precision: who would argue against ‘optimystery’ – as in “how she managed to keep her spirits in the darkest of days will always remain an optimystery” – being a particularly topical term from this visual dictionary?

Doing justice to an exhibition that encompasses seventeen video works and many hours’ worth of flickering images is quite a challenge, but one of the clear connecting threads manifesting here concerns the relationship between language, power, and geographical imagination. This triad converges in the most elegant way in Miguel Fernández de Castro’s conceptual remapping of the border region between the United States and Mexico in Grammar of Gates / Gramática de las puertas (2019). De Castro takes references to Geronimo Jones, an educational film from the 1970s about an Apache boy caught between life inside and outside the borders of his reservation, and combines them with drone footage from the highly politicised and weaponised Sonoran Desert. The border areas around Arizona are known for routes used by smugglers and refugees alike, but were originally the home of the Tohono O’odham, an Indigenous People now confined to a reservation. On the soundtrack, an expressionless voice recites words from A Practical Spanish Grammar for Border Patrol Officers, a handbook published in 1949 by the United States government. The voice speaks with increasing authority and a thick American accent, and all the while this verbal insistence on boundary setting is contrasted and almost ridiculed by the wide-open natural vistas presented in the footage.

Miguel Fernandez De Castro, A Grammar of Gates / Una Gramática de las puertas, 2019. Video still.

Daisuke Kosugi’s A False Weight (2019), the work chosen by Tromsø Kunstforening, also condenses big themes in small gestures, creating afterimages that lingered in my mind as I headed home. Filmed with a static camera and long shots, the film follows the everyday routines of an ageing man who is gradually losing control of his own body. It’s impossible not to think of Chantal Akerman’s iconic chamber play Jeanne Dielman (1975), and, since we are in Japan, of the stylised family scenes of Yasujirō Ozu. The film’s repetitiveness charges our expectations, and its simplicity accommodates complexity. Consider, for example, the numerous operations involved in preparing a lunch. At forty-eight minutes, Kosugi’s film is the exhibition’s most meditative work, and probably its most finely tuned. Here, our mortality is portrayed neither heroically nor sentimentally, but rather as a material condition we need to conform to and accept. It is about as far as you can get from the wallowing in misery that we are usually subjected to in works on the theme of ageing and decay (Michael Haneke’s 2012 film Amour, for instance). Instead, Kosugi’s work offers a low-key commentary on late capitalist ideas of productivity and the human as machine.

With one’s attention span recalibrated, it is easier to land back in the anthropocene, where we find Lisa Tan’s My Pictures of You (2017–19) and Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s Inscriptions (One Here Now) (2018). One features images of Mars as a kind of death mask for the Earth’s future, the other is immersed in a limestone quarry where the delineation of sedimentary layers created over thousands of years compete with violent markings made by modern machines to pose as the dominant narrative.

It is perhaps not surprising that the works which seek to anchor local and material expressions in grand geopolitical narratives about migration, the anthropocene, or deep time are the ones that work best in this exhibition, which even at a curatorial level signals a kind of desire to consolidate a global, not to say planetary, awareness. As a concept, AFI and its distributed curation constitutes an interesting challenge to the power structures within the art world. Since the project is so likeable, it is easier to accept that this time, the great experiences reside more in the individual works than in the totality

Daisuke Kosugi, A False Weight, 2019. Video still.