Retake With Evidence, 2007
35mm colour film, duration: 46 minutes
Retake with Evidence is the first part of a three-part project, proposed as an allegory concerned with issues of judgement and social justice from the perspective of the defined “Western subject”. The first part is devoted to exploring the primal origins of Western thought in ancient Greece, sourcing its mythology and philosphy, theories of aesthetics and in particular jurisprudence. At documenta 12, the initial impression of the piece was through a large picture window in the center of a partition wall that enclosed the floor-to-ceiling projection in a wide, dark room. From the outside, through the glass pane, the projected image was seen without sound, spectators gathered on the floor inside. The entrances placed out of sight to either side, this “spatial introduction” functioned like a prologue for the ensuing experience. “Why are you here – blood of antiquity? What is the meaning of this gathering?” With these words, the actor Harvey Keitel breaks the silence, and, over the course of 46 minutes, we watch him slowly make his way through a sparse and dramatically lit set while reciting a text on guilt and governance, sightlessness and obilivion, retribution and beauty. The horizonless monochrome bareness of the film‟s setting is only interrupted by a number of architectural and sculptural elements; these are marked as theatrical props by the artificiality of their surrounding but appear perfectly realistic. We see the fragments of a temple, statues of a male youth and two horses, and a life-size painted scene of classical ruins popularly thought to capture a vision of lost Arcadia. We also see the actor crossing a vast burial ground, an excavation site, a scene of a horrifying crime with implements of war occasionally visible. He is in contemporary rehearsal attire – casual black clothes and sneakers – and conveys an aspect of a present-day figure presented with a hybrid of modern signifiers for ancient Greece. Stranded amidst a succession of stage sets he acts like someone compelled to make sense of the evidence of an archeological find.
Evidence, as referred to in the title, is central to the piece. Evidence is of great importance in every Western juridical trial scenario, but its conceptual origins date back much further. “Evidentia”, translated by Cicero from the Greek “enargeia” (clarity), played an especially important role in the Hellenistic period in crucial dialogues about how certainty of knowledge could be achieved, and whether it could be achieved at all. Epicurus used the term in relation to his basic doctrine that all sensations (in Greek “aisthêsis”, as in “aesthetics”) were truthful, whereas the Stoics believed that false appearances existed and that only the mind had the ability to distinguish a true representation of reality from one which was false. The struggle for a definition of evidence was essentially a struggle to make sense of the precarious relationship between the subject and its access to truth. This also makes apparent the inseparability of ethics, politics, and aesthetics that comprised Greek thought. An ethical challenge was always an aesthetic and political issue as well. Divisions came much later, initiated around the mid-1800s by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose most significant achievement was to produce a history of Greek art and of principles on which it seemed to him to be based. His fundamental idea was that the ends of art is beauty, neglecting its intertwinedness with ethics and politics. Retake with Evidence strips off Winckelmann et al.’s classicist layer and reminds us of the amalgam of politics and aesthetics that lies at the root of our knowledge. It shows evidence to be at the core of issues of representation.
A closer look at the set invites us to treat the architectural and sculptural elements as “protagonists” in their own right. The columns, for example, are exact replicas of columns found in Delos (said to be the birthplace of Apollo and site of an oracle second only to that of Delphi). And the statue is an authentic copy of the so-called Diadoumenos (“diadem-bearer”), a first-century Roman marble copy, also found at Delos, of a Greek bronze original. Depicting a youth tying a fillet around his head after a victory in an athletic contest, the sculpture is an allegory of competition, beauty, and celebration. Ancient literary accounts and numerous copies attest to the original bronze‟s importance, its rigorously calculated pose becoming a standard formula used in Greco-Roman and, later, Western European art. The marble used as a prototype for Retake with Evidence, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is shown here with visible fractures, alluding to the moment it was found in pieces. The knowledge of history we re-experience through excavation, it seems to say, can only be broken and fragmented.
Witnessing the solitary actor amidst this scenery of broken Greek statuary and skulls brings Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” to mind. Sophocles’ tragedy is devoted to the final phase of the story when, long after the crucial events have unfolded, Oedipus in the multiple role of judge, jury, and victim, unwittingly, puts himself on trial. Metaphors of vision and blindness make “Oedipus Rex” a tragedy of enlightenment, dramatizing the heroic attempts of reason to fix the identity of the subject. As current challenges to the hegemony of Western rationality intimate, fifth-century Athens and the theater of Sophocles are not the sole context of this fundamental problem. Freud’s interpretation of the life of Oedipus as a parable about desire and the unconscious has somewhat distorted our understanding of the story. Retake with Evidence, however, emphasizes a different aspect and embraces Sophocles’ play as Western civilization‟s founding instance of the relation between power and knowledge. In a corresponding argument, Michel Foucault considers “Oedipus Rex” the first example of Greek juridical practice to no longer focus on the archaic proof of truth, which is the test, but instead on evidence. Throughout the play, a shift takes place in the enunciation of truth – from prophecy to testimony, from the divine and magical to the worldly and empirical.
“No play”, writes Charles Segal, “is more about language than Oedipus Tyrannus […]. Human communication here parallels the communication by ritual and oracle between man and god. Continually breaking down, this communication either ceases prematurely because of fears, or knowledge that cannot be spoken or runs to excess because of passion and anger. Apollo’s oracles from above and the Sphinx’s riddle from below provide models for human discourse, but both also short circuit the significative function of language”. Divination with the Greek oracle was a complex and erratic procedure. Those who consulted it were often forced to reconsider their question. The investigator, so to speak, found himself put on the witness stand. World-weary chorus, oracle, and everyman at once, the actor in Retake with Evidence seems to represent the intricate relations between language and its source, the message and its bearer. From a certain perspective, the piece, in not answering our yearning to determine its sources and meaning, puts the spectator in a similar position. We have to go back and reconsider our questions.
Listening closely to the finely wrought Shakespearean diction of the actor Keitel’s recital, we become aware of a language that is “spatial”, nearly sculptural, much like the setting of the film. It is constructed in a way that makes it impossible to forget language’s physicality, its bodily provenance and delivery. At times, especially when breathing heavily, the actor almost appears like a machine producing words. He seems in a state of “post-performance”, speaking one thing and thinking another. His inaudible reflections and emotional responses, though, are at least as telling as the script he delivers. The scenes at the burial ground in particular, featuring long pauses and deep breathing, allow for introspection and reflection. More than anything else, the discomforting urgency of these images demands a thoughtful silence.
This text is itself an excavation triggered by the issues Retake with Evidence unearths and, even more so, by the way in which they are brought to light. The piece induces us to search for the historicity of definitions. It asks us to take off layer after layer until we reach the limits of knowledge, power, and judgement.