Marijke Van Warmerdam
The film and video work of Marijke van Warmerdam occupies a hybrid position somewhere between film, installation, photography and sculpture. Her large scale projections are almost all made on film, but they are not films. They are loops, shown in the lit white space of the gallery; but they are not installations, since, with the exception of Kring, they do not enclose, or engage physical space. The film images have a richness of colour, texture and surface which allies them more with photography than with the diffused electronic surface of video. Yet the images are not photographic. Van Warmerdam’s apparently simple forms defy definition precisely because they operate in an ambiguous space, within which the distinctions between one formal structure and another, and between artifice and reality, are deliberately blurred.
Van Warmerdam’s film and video works use the strategies of looping and repetition to suggest that all is not what it appears. The moving image conventionally suggests a linear narrative progression, which the film loop’s repetition refuses. In doing so, each looped sequence draws attention to its own construction, whose simple form allows for a range of variations, much like a musical score. Repetition calls attention to the variation between sameness. We stare at van Warmerdam’s film loops not purely for the pleasure of experiencing a short sequence over and over again, but to find out whether what we are seeing is the same as what we have just seen. We cannot always be sure that this is the case. Careful editing often blurs the line between the ending of a loop and that of its sequence as it is filmed in real time.
In Handstand, the loop is so fluid that it is hard to discern how many handstands the young girl makes before the sequence is repeated. In Sprong, by contrast, the break between the end of one short sequence and the beginning of another is made clear through sharp edits and staccato sound. A single shot of a man performing a somersault is continuously repeated in both forward and reverse motion, drawing attention to the artificiality of the sequence. Some loops have sound; others are silent. Where sound is used, it is always as a rhythmic counterpoint to visual editing. Kring, Frame and Empty house are highly cinematic, evoking experimental film and expanded cinema, and adopting a less self-reflexive narrative. Other pieces (such as Voetbal) evoke the everyday, documentary quality of the video camera, or the short, witty statements of the television advertisement. Nearly all of them demonstrate the split between the impossibility of exact human repetition of an action for any length of time, on the one hand, and technology’s ability to do so, ad infinitum, on the other.
In Passage (1992), a single black square emerges from the center of a white background until it fills the entire screen, at which point the 5 minute sequence repeats again, with the black and white squares reversed. This continual promise of potential engulfment suggests infinity through endless repetition, or mirroring, evoking the early abstract film experiments of Marcel Duchamp and Hans Richter. Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1925) film and rotating discs engaged the viewer in an optical and physiological experience rather than a purely visual or narrative one. Van Warmerdam combines the mesmeric insistence of Duchampian’s opticality with Richter’s engagement with the film’s rectangle in black and white squares, to create kinetic movement, rhythm and depth.
If Passage creates a binary rhythm, Handstand is simplified to a single beat, repeated over and over again, whilst Sprong renders the rhythmic structure more complex, underlined by the use of sound. Its edited sequence uses the thud of the young man’s feet as they hit the floor after a somersault, to create a syncopated beat which appears to drive the sequence of one action following another. The use of sound to punctuate measurement evokes the video work of Bruce Nauman, whose early repetitive, performative videotapes all contained a strong rhythm, influenced by Terry Riley and the conceptual systems-based approach of new music.
In Rijst, a silent film loop of a girl repeatedly tossing rice up into the air from a large flat basket echoes the rhythmic structure of Handstand. In both cases, rhythm is expressed visually rather than aurally, through a single repeated movement performed for the camera. A more complex visual rhythm is established in Skytypers (1997), in which five aeroplanes move silently in and out of a fixed frame, tracing a latticed pattern of white lines across a blue sky. As in all van Warmerdam’s most conceptual film loops, the frame operates as a fixed proscenium structure in which elements enter and leave, evoking structural filmmaking, the minimal films of Andy Warhol, and their antecedents in the early film experiments of Edison. The focus on a single act executed over time achieves what Jonas Mekas describes, in discussing Warhol’s early films, as “a strange thing… The world becomes transposed, intensified, electrified. We see it sharper than before. Not in dramatic, rearranged contexts and meanings, not in the service of something else, but as pure as it is in itself: eating as eating, sleeping as sleeping, haircut as haircut.”
Contrary to popular interpretations of van Warmerdam’s work as purely circular in structure, from 1996 onwards her conceptual loops are interspersed with semi-narrative pieces which evoke both artists’ video and avant-garde film. Two transitional pieces, Voetbal (1995) and Chasing colours (1996), shift the single fixed-frame loop format into a more open structure, using real time and edited forward movement respectively. In Voetbal, one of four video works by van Warmerdam, a single shot lasting nine minutes follows a black child, standing in a schoolyard in a Dutch town, as he balances a football on his head, moving carefully to ensure that it does not fall. As time passes, the ambient background noises of the city contrast with the anticipatory silence in the schoolyard as the child sustains a balance, displaying both concentration, determination and physical fatigue. Occasional wobbles heighten the suspense. The piece ends when, after nine minutes, the spell is finally broken and the football slips off the boy’s head and bounces onto the ground below. As in Douche, the central focus of Voetbal is physical duration, but here it has both a linear structure and a dramatic resolution, presenting a single act from beginning to end in a real time spectacle.
Chasing colours belongs to a group of formal, non-performative works by van Warmerdam which also includes Passage and Skytypers. As in all van Warmerdam’s film and video pieces, parallels can be drawn with her work in other media made during the same period. The binary rhythm and use of colour in Chasing colours, for example, can also be found in the installation Good days, bad days (1996), in which a series of rectangular posters in different colours show two phrases, “Good days” and “Bad days” at the top and bottom respectively. The repetition of the same phrases in different coloured rectangles across several walls of the gallery echoes the circular and binary rhythms of Chasing colours, in a clear reference to Bruce Nauman’s reductive, dialectical use of language to describe emotional polarities in pieces such as Good Boy/Bad Boy (1985).
Scopophilia and the act of observation have formed the central core of van Warmerdam’s film and video work since her first film loop, Kring (1992), from which Frame directly emerges. In Kring, her most spatially complex film loop, the dynamic between observer and observed is made explicit. Van Warmerdam filmed a group of people in a market square in Marrakesh, gathered in a circle around her, watching her self-consciously as she moves the camera round each one of them in turn, in one circular panning shot. The film is projected around the walls of the gallery in a continuous loop, rotated around the darkened space. Folding one public space inside another, van Warmerdam literalises the relationship between observer and observed, in filmic terms. As the camera moves around the circle of people, exposing them section by section, each part of the group appears, then disappears as the camera moves away from them again, in a continuous sweeping movement which exposes the same group of people to the viewer over and over again. Kring, van Warmerdam’s first figurative film work, established the circular structure which underpins many of her subsequent film loops, presenting a single repeated action, here fused in both temporal and spatial contiguity.
The anti-cinematic structure of Kring, which refuses to allow the viewer to become absorbed by a single, frontal image, evokes Gary Hills video installation Viewer (1996), in which a group of Seattle workers stand in an impassive row in a single horizontal frontal projection, as well as Dan Graham’s circular, performative film installations Body Press (1972) and Helix Spiral (1970-73), as well as Robert Morris’ circular film installation Finch College Project (1967). Whilst Graham’s pieces deal with observer and observed by setting up a dynamic between two people, both filming each other, in Morris’ installation, as in Kring, the audience becomes the subject. Morris filmed a crowd of people in the gallery, then projected the film in the same space, rotating the image slowly around the walls. In both Kring and Finch College Project the film projector is a clearly visible presence, placed in the middle of the room on a circular motorized plinth, as though standing in for the artist’s original bodily presence, just as the film image records his or her movement with the camera.
The implications of Kring’s circular space are taken into a new, more psychologically charged territory in Empty house, and heightened further in van Warmerdam’s most recent, silent film loop, Weather forecast, in which an overflowing bathtub in the middle of an otherwise empty, pink room takes the viewer into a highly surrealistic, dreamlike symbolic space.
In Weather forecast, reality is replaced by a highly fictionalized image, in which a shaft of light appears as mist clears from the room, and the freestanding bath overflows with water, which spills onto the wooden floor. As the room darkens, the bath glows and lightning flashes, in a pastiche of a Hollywood B movie. The surface of the overflowing bath dances with raindrops, until it is broken by an unseen object which lands in the bath with a large splash.
Chrissie Iles, “The Magic of the Unreal”, in Marijke van Warmerdam. It Crossed My Mind, Oktagon Press, 2000 (excerpt)