Untitled (Hypno Project), 2009
“True Stories” is a collection of short program and feature-length films, put together by Lilly Wei, a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes regularly for “Art in America”. The discussion of this review will be the exhibition’s short program films. The program featured nine short videos, creating two hours of watching time.
For viewing, the upstairs gallery at Locks was converted into something of a living-room theater with comfy couches and numerous pillows. The program was projected in “festival short-program style”, meaning one video after the other. This is important to note as a choice made by the curator, instead of choosing to show the works as isolated entities on different screens or viewing devices with head-phones or not with head-phones. This method of viewing lead me to think of the films as almost a whole, and I found myself looking forward to the transition of one work into the other and the remaining mental-overlap of one subject matter as it compared to the next–rather like one might think when listening to a mix of music. The order of viewing the films was thought about, the looped short program was advertised as being on a schedule of starting each day at 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm, making plans to see the program in order possible. It was a comfortable way to sit through two hours of shorts.
In this review I will use the words “film” and “video” interchangeably just to add variation to the text. I will not bother to use these words to discuss what format the film or video was originally filmed or video-taped on. Try not to get mad about it.
Warning: This may make no sense unless you are a Talking Heads fan
I found myself thinking of the short program as a an internationally-minded version of the 1986 movie of the same name directed, produced, written and acted in by David Byrne. In the Locks Gallery version Lilly Wei takes the David Byrne role, only she is invisible and not so eccentric, as she introduces us to the citizens of the world instead of the citizens from the fictional Virgil, Texas.
The illusion to the 1986 “True Stories” is not as silly as it may sound at first read, the over-arching theme explored in Wei’s short program, is, after all, the evolution of the documentary from strictly factual or objective work to something that works to tell an emotional or subjective story. Shorts like Amy Grappell’s 2009, “Quadrangle”, could almost fit into the campy Talking Head’s movie/music-video collection. “Quadrangle” uses a split-screen format to tell the story of the artist’s parent’s long-term partner-swap with another couple in 1969. On one screen (viewed at Locks on the same plane) the artist’s father talks, on the other, the artist’s mother. The film is confessional and even light-hearted. Ms. Grappell’s parents come across as lovable characters who just happened to have fallen into an abnormal love story. Tracy Emin’s story of her abortion in “How it Feels” (1996), is certainly not funny, but Emin herself absolutely comes across as a quirky mess-up that you want to root for, not unlike John Goodman’s Louis Fyne.
Wei’s “True Stories” goes a lot darker then Byrne’s, there were times when I was outright crying. Dor Guez’s “(Sa)Mira” (2009) seemed purposely designed to make the viewer cry along with Samira, a young Arab woman who could easily “pass” for Jewish, as she recounts the story of having being made to change her name to Mira, so costumers at the restaurant where she waitressed in Jerusalem would not know her true heritage and complain to the management. Samira shrugs off the story as unimportant at first but as the interview goes on she reveals how upset she is by the racism she has to deal with on a daily basis. As she breaks down into tears, I found myself doing the same. “(Sa)Mira” was followed immediately by “Questions For My Father” (2011), a film by Karl Haendel and Peter Ringbom which features a series of males who ask increasingly poignant questions to their fathers, who are absent from the film. The starkness of the film style (a face against a black background) allows the viewer to create a mental picture of the father-son relationships, which in all cases points to bleak and depressing.
Reprieve from darkness arrives just in time with the film “Tinica” (2004) by Fikret Atay, which portrays a moment of tense sun-filled creation as a young teenager sets up a junk drum-set atop a hill over-looking a generic housing project in Batman, Turkey near the Iraq border, a year after the United States invasion of Iraq. The teenager plays for awhile, and though it is musical, the sounds that are made are neither that talented or uplifting and the setting is unsettling although it is obviously a nice day. When “finished” playing, the teen kicks his impromptu drum-set off the hill towards the housing project. The viewer (if you are me) is unable to decide whether this was a light-hearted romp, something more sinister or just a snapshot of life in Batman. That uncertainly lead straight into a film that made me want to vomit. (This is not written as a critique of the work’s quality but to confess that it literally made me nauseous.)
Wang Qingsong’s “Iron Man” (2008) depicts the artist getting all of his hair yanked out as he is repeatedly punched in the face. I told myself that the actions weren’t real in order to sit through the film, and that this was simply one of those documentaries that “bur the divide between the objective and subjective”*, but it turns out that Wang really did submit himself to this kind of violence in order to provide us with “a socio-political metaphor for the rapid, disruptive social changes that have accompanied China’s rise to world prominence”*. The artist’s “defiant”* laugh ends the film, and it is at this moment that I stopped enjoying myself and thought about leaving with only three films to go.
A short film festival is always an endurance test, no matter how comfortable the chair. There will often be things you like mixed with things that try your patience and cause you to feel physically unwell. If you happen to be viewing a short film festival inside an art gallery you can usually be assured that the films you are going to see are not going to be easy to watch and there is a 99% chance that many of them will test you on purpose for the good of the greater metaphor. In a perfect world you perhaps should not subject yourself to more then four short-films at a time.
Following “Iron Man”, was “Working Day” (2009) by Fahed Halabi and Ala Farhat. Though only sixteen minutes in actual length, this was the first short that seemed long. The video opens with a construction sight and goes for an indeterminate length of time with nothing but footage of people working on the facade of a Georgian Synagogue in Ashod, Israel. For a person already thinking of leaving this seemed slightly intolerable, but with the construction work being oddly hypnotic, I trudged on. Lunch-time at the site causes chatter and it is then that a young worker of Gazan-Palestinian heritage begins to discuss friends of his that were killed in the recent war in Gaza. The man’s matter-of-fact way of discussing the situation is reminiscent of the way Samira discusses her troubles in Dor Guez’s video, only this young man never reveals that the situation is actually distressing.
With two films left to go I failed the endurance test and left. I had the clever idea that I would find the remaining two videos on the internet and watch them when I could attain a less cynical head-space. In fact, I was positive that I could re-create the entire program this way, but that idea was a fail as it seems the artists in “True Stories” have done a fair job of protecting their intellectual property. Sigh.
It is hard to say that you “like” what you admit to not being able to actually finish watching. I have a solid appreciation for Wei’s “True Stories” and was glad to get the chance to see the films I did. I have, however, watched David Byrne’s “True Stories” several times just for the pleasure of seeing it. I do not expect to say the same for Wei’s.
What it is possible to see from your internet-viewing machine
Tracey Emin, “How it Feels“, 1996 (22:33 min.) Not found in its entirety but found in a collection of Tracey Emin shorts on Ubu.
Amy Grappell, Quadrangle, 2009 (17 min.) Not found, but the video has won an entire host of awards, including an honorable mention at Sundance in 2010 and the work evidently once aired on HBO.
Dor Guez, “Sa(Mira)“, 2009 (13:40 min.) A clip on youtube.
Karl Haendel and Petter Ringbom, “Questions For My Father“, 2011 (11:17 min.) A preview is a available online.
Fikret Atay, “Tinica“, 2004 (7:32 min.) All there.
Wang Qingsong, “Iron Man“, 2008 (4 min.) All there.
Fahed Halabi and Ala Farhat, “Working Day“, 2009 (16 min.) Scroll down, the video is fully available in two parts.
Stefanos Tsivopoulos, “Untitled (The Remake)“, 2007 (14 min.) This is only a 3 min preview or clip
Doug Fishbone, “Untitled (Hypno Project)“, 2009 (12:55 min.) . This film is online in its entirety but is in two parts on youtube.
* Quoted text from Wei’s essay in the publication that accompanies the exhibition