For this article, I thought I’d relax and watch some videos as opposed to the previous, ‘heavy’, mind-twisting conceptual installation art, but turns out these films by Aernout Mik are quite heavy in and of themselves. Although silent, they have layers of meaning hidden within, and combined with the way in which they are shown, where the projection screens blend seamlessly into the white gallery walls, produce quite an experience worthy of mention.
These films, except for Raw Footage (2006) which has been taken from archival news coverage of the Balkan war in the 1990s, are staged, with actors in a scene acting out what has been scripted. But, is it fictional? There is no beginning, no ending, no character development and no sound. Just commotion and resulting emotion from the scenes being played out. In Vacuum Room (2005) men in suits sitting behind a desk are trying to have some semblance of a meeting, to agree on something, possibly some legislation, while younger people in casual clothes, seem to be protesting something, and are intent on disrupting the meeting, a daily occurrence in many countries in this 21st century. But in Communitas (2010) its the opposite side of the political spectrum; people are taking over an old communist building in Poland and are holding votes and agreeing with one another in brotherhood and solidarity, if only temporal.
Tongues And Assistants (2013) takes it a step further; it is an actual documentary, shot inside a Brazilian pentacostal church service, so nobody should be acting. But as the video goes on, one wonders if they are really ‘being themselves’ and ‘free’, as many of the church goers seem to be ‘directed’ by their leader to do this or that. I should emphasize the word ‘seem’ here. Ambiguity is therefore a major theme of Aernout Mik’s work.
The contrast between normalcy and absurdity, prevalent in almost all of Mik’s films, is evident in Raw Footage (2006), which is composed of unaired news footage deemed ‘un-news-worthy’ by the media; how some human activities in one context can be totally normal, like kids playing with an AK-47, totally normal and logical in a war where your family might get killed in an instant by enemy troops, or in another context be quite absurd, like a soldier wearing shades and drinking pepsi as if he was at the beach, but surrounded by bombs, mortars and grenades.
In Osmosis And Excess (2005) a hillside full of parked cars, a pharmacy that’s bright and clean in one moment and transformed into a mess in another from a flood or some accident that happened, also display another of Mik’s stated concepts; that of ‘entropy’ – that things left alone will over time degenerate in disarray and ‘disappear back into the earth’.
In Shifting Sitting II (2011), a film about former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the trial for alleged corruption which took place while he was in office. As the film is devoid of sound and the whole film is about this one man, life-sized photos of Berlusconi’s face were used by actors to convey public displeasure of him and of the judiciary who found him guilty, but spared him from going to jail, opting instead for ‘community service’.
Visitors to the Dutch pavilion for the 2007 Biennale were ‘prepped’ with standard issue metal bunk beds, metal urinals, wash basins and the decoration of the whole gallery transformed into a European immigration detention center, before seeing 3 multi-channeled films Mockup (2007), Convergencies (2007) and Training Ground (2007) under the broad title Citizens And Subjects. These films, some of which contain actual footage of immigration exercises and operations, depict the roughness and ‘indignity’ in the treatment of refugees and illegal immigrants; body searches, herding them into groups, making them lie down face down on the ground and placing their bags on their backs, in accordance with today’s security measures. The fact that they put latex gloves on before performing a body search further accentuates the separation, alienation and hierarchy of power between the two groups of people.
The repetitiveness of these detention exercises is broken in Training Ground, when the detainees try to run away, are caught and sent back but subsequently manage to over-power the immigration police, their captors. Now the roles are reversed, with the detainees marching around with guns and performing arrest techniques on the police.
Touch Rise Fall (2008) is a film about the security measures put in place in airports of advanced countries, all in the name of keeping one ‘safe’; being told to stand in a particular way to facilitate a body and luggage search, is an uncanny reminder of the treatment of refugees and illegal immigrants in the 3 films of Citizens and Subjects, albeit with more dignity and less manhandling.
Seen in conjunction with Training Ground (2007) where the roles of the police, detainees and bystanding truckers were reversed and blurred, we find our assumed role as a ‘citizen’ and the supposed rights afforded are becoming blurred into that of a ‘subject’ in Touch Rise Fall (2008). Incidently even the meaning of the word ‘subject’ is an ambiguous one; it can mean someone who is a vassal, someone who is in a subservient position, or it can mean ‘one who lives in the territory of, enjoys the protection of, and owes allegiance to a monarch or sovereign state’.
So, is a ‘subject’, dealing only with persons here, a person who enjoys the rights and privileges of a citizen, or is he/she a vassal, someone who is subservient to the sovereign power or state? Assuming Mik didn’t intend Citizens and Subjects to actually mean Citizens and Citizens, Citizens and Subjects and Touch Rise Fall (2008) depicts the roles of citizens and the role of subjects, those who are refugees and illegal immigrants, becoming increasingly blurred. However one could see it as our rights as citizens being momentarily ‘bent’ or ‘skewed’ as we past through these security check points, and its all happiness once we get to the terminal waiting areas.
On the other hand, we are possibly the most human rights conscious we’ve ever been in the history of mankind; imagine what it would be like to live in the middle ages, or the 1950s, even if it has regressed a bit since september 11th terrorist attacks. But then again there are people blowing things up and killing innocent people and so governments worldwide have to put security measures in place, even if it looks like it is more of an annoyance.
Organic Escalator (2000) an obvious work of fiction, which shows people being crammed together on an escalator, is reminiscent of a scene in a Chinese shopping mall, but as caucasian and asian actors were used, expresses the view that it is an international phenomena. Plywood Dwelling (2009) on the other hand, which shows a scene in the living quarters of a Chinese factory, maybe ‘staged’ but looks convincingly real, and seen together these two films depict how people are beholden to the economics of survival in modern societies and are forced into such situations.
The other dimension to Mik’s films, the human participatory element, is firstly achieved by the blurring of the filmatic space and the real space where they are shown; as the frameless screens seem to rise up from the floor level, are straight, devoid of thickness, and float out from the free-standing white background walls, the films become ‘portals to another world’, that of which is shown in the films. When one is standing in front of these films, it really looks like the screens are actually holes in the wall, and the scenes being played out are happening in a space behind the wall.
While one cannot physically go into the films and change what is happening, one can move and watch another channel or watch another film altogether at will; the fact that there is no sound aids in this transition otherwise one could still be able to hear it, after he/she had walked away from a film. On the whole, one can alter the experience of these films by what he/she looks at and the duration, and so the overrall message received can be quite different from person to person.