Xanax Film Festival: Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys

Published in The Brooklyn Rail, April 2017


A lady died on a bridge in the countryside during a starry night.
A fool is about the cross the bridge. 
How did the lady die?

In the 2012 video Les énigmes de Saarlouis (The Riddles of Saarlouis), mannequins styled as identical twins named Kitty and Katty recite a series of riddles. Presented in French, in computerized voices, most of their enigmatic riddles are in fact impossible to solve. With a running time of eighteen minutes, the cadence of their voices—matched with the content and slow-moving camera shots—produces an effect that fluctuates between hypnotic and maddening.

The Riddles of Saarlouis is screening this month as part of Xanax Film Festival, an exhibition featuring films by Belgian artists Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys made between 1988 and 2015. On view at the Grand Street location of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the collection reveals the arc of a collaboration spanning nearly three decades since the two artists’ meeting in the late 1980s. A weekly schedule of films runs Wednesday through Sunday, and features a continuous loop of one to four films per day.

Located on the building’s third floor, the darkened and carpeted gallery features a projection screen flanked by two large speakers mounted on stands. With its clunky setup and small grid of folding chairs for the audience, the effect is underwhelming, and likely done so on purpose. Settling in for three films on the Thursday schedule, I start amidst The Curse (1999), a sixteen-minute video described as follows: “A woman marries the wrong man. They have a baby and the woman gets severe depression.” As I sit down, the woman in the film sits on a couch with a plaid blanket in an otherwise empty room, silently crying. It’s pretty much downhill from there.

Installation view: Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys,  Xanax Film Festival , Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York, February 25 – April 30, 2017. Courtesy Gavin Brown's enterprise.

Installation view: Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, Xanax Film Festival, Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York, February 25 – April 30, 2017. Courtesy Gavin Brown's enterprise.

The work of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys has been described as deadpan and hard to digest. In watching The Curse and the videos that follow, I interpret my discomfort as also part of the artists’ intentions. The experience of watching these works is marked by painfully long shots of nearly catatonic characters and banal objects, dreary interiors, and sound distortion caused by the grunts and “rawrs” of haphazard monsters. Looking at the settings of the videos themselves, it seems that the viewers are being placed in one as well. (There are exceptions to the rule here, as the spare environments also create some stunning shots with minimal affect in other films, such as Parallelogram [2000].)

The earlier works featured in the festival, such as Mime in the Videostudio (1988) and Chaplin (1992 – 96), feel more playful, reminiscent of early Bruce Nauman videos, though the press release also describes Mime as “a provocative statement against European society at the end of the Cold War.” Over the decades, the works become increasingly tragic, with a cast of characters that do not speak, per se. Instead, their exaggerated gestures are narrated by others in the form of voiceovers. They feel more mechanized and less human as a result. Conversely, extended shots of objects such as two chairs, a stepstool, and a mirror in The Spinning Wheel (2000)give the inanimate more weight as equal players in the absurdist narrative.

The effect of this work is a mix of agitation and stupefaction, arguably mirroring the frustrations of de Gruyter and Thys in response to the conventions and expectations of a modern society too programmed to notice. In one of their most recent and longest works, a fifty-five-minute film titled The Brown of Mechelen (2014), scenes in the city are paired with the monotone narration of a wandering mixture of recipes, travel logs, jokes, and personal interest stories—including that of a terminally ill woman traveling to Switzerland for her physician-assisted death. The monotonous delivery attempts to render all subjects equal, unsuccessfully. (Thankfully.)

In defiance of its namesake, the short-term effects of Xanax Film Festival are more disruptive than beneficial, and assuredly so. Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys are not (and, perhaps, have never been,) interested in relieving feelings of unease with their depictions of the human condition. Instead, they pose the riddle of cause and effect to each viewer, who is implicated by way of their participation in and acceptance of modern society. It is also fitting then that Xanax, a palindrome, reads as its own kind of riddle—without set beginning or end.

Gut Feeling: Martha Friedman's Dancing Around Things

Published in The Brooklyn Rail, February 2017


In negotiating the space between body and object, we rely on the memory of use and familiar patterns in a world where binary assumptions are common: in versus out, hard versus soft, resistance versus flow. The structure of our internal worlds, in contrast, is a bewildering maze of guts and emotion. In her current exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery 2, Dancing Around Things, Brooklyn sculptor Martha Friedman continues her investigation of object and choreography in pursuit of a more permeable membrane between the industrial and the corporeal—punctuated with her unique brand of levity and a hint of perversity.

In Gallery 2’s entryway, a floor-to-ceiling panel of milky white rubber sways slightly. Projected onto the hanging panel is a video featuring dancer/choreographer Silas Riener as he interacts with a series of giant rubber bands installed in Friedman’s studio, knotted and strung floor-to-ceiling with a series of metal hooks. The two are familiar collaborators, previously working together to create the staging for Friedman’s 2015 Pore exhibition at Locust Projects in Miami,  an ambitious installation centered around a series of large-scale rubber pours connected to wearable sculptures activated by Riener.

Installation view: Martha Friedman,  Dancing Around Things , Andrea Rosen Gallery 2, February 10 – March 11, 2017

Installation view: Martha Friedman, Dancing Around Things, Andrea Rosen Gallery 2, February 10 – March 11, 2017

The edited compilation of movements in the video, Tangle (2017), feels both virtuosic and spontaneous. In one sequence, Riener’s footwork skillfully navigates the grid of hooks on the floor after detaching the bands, at turns wrapping himself up in and suspending himself from them. After detangling in another clip, his standing undulations seem to mimic the residual energy and reverberations of the rubber as it settles. Friedman also makes an appearance (as do her pets, occasionally strolling through the frame or lounging in the background), leaning into the bands as she talks to Riener off-screen. The video is without sound, yet clearly communicates their process as well as the play between body and material. The effect is soft and loose, sensual.

Stepping into the main gallery, the contrast is stark. A metal table bisected by a grid of cut steel pipes commands the center of the room. Rubber tubes of various colors perforate the latticed structure, also punctuated by clusters of long spikes sticking out one side. Next to the apparatus, a sole spike rests on the table; on its other side, a glass jar of lubricant. The colors of the tubes, a recurring theme in Friedman’s recent work, reference the four humors of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Reminiscent of a switchboard and charged with the ambiguous title Two Person Operating System (2016)the sculpture and its curious tools allude to both past and future. 

Behind, a series of four engineering prints hangs on one wall, documenting large blocks of welded steel pipes in Friedman’s studio. Portions of rubber tubes are pinned directly to each print, breaking the two-dimensional plane to emerge from or enter into the depicted pipes at unlikely angles. Yellow rubber appears to squeeze out of the pipes in one print as if from a tube of frosting, left to droop and gloop. Small rubber circles appear like blood cells on others, clustering.  Simulating organic material and function, the prints translate as blueprints for how the gallery’s central form might be activated.

Two Person Operating System was conceived in collaboration with choreographer and fellow Princeton faculty member Susan Marshall. After co-teaching a class titled “Body and Object,” in which students created dance works and sculptures to challenge boundaries between the two disciplines, the two sought to create a joint work exploring similar ideas. Marshall was drawn to Friedman’s Magician’s Assistant (2016)an imposing sculpture incorporating three separate blocks of dark metal connected by tubes of various colorsinspiring Friedman to create a partner piece in the form of a steel cross section with moveable parts. Originally installed at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts as part of an exhibition last fall, Two Person Operating System also served as focal point of a piece performed by Susan Marshall & Company.

Running in thirty-minute loops over the course of two hours, the first iteration of Marshall’s performance focused on two-person teams activating the sculpture and surrounding space with a sequence of tightly-choreographed actions. Binary assumptions returned with the introduction of each pair as they investigated the apparatus as form and tool: metal spikes sliding into various slots with audible effect, rubber tubes dropping from the steel table like coiled intestines, lubricated ends inserted with visible effort for stretching and weaving. Gendered sexual metaphors were confused as forceful movements were balanced with moments of humor and support, each pair enacting the same movements with slight but essential nuances. The performance’s second iteration will take place at Andrea Rosen Gallery 2 on February 18 and March 4.

Working in collaboration with Riener and Marshall, Friedman's sculptures become records of and catalysts for movement—yet most compelling is her defiance of stasis even as the objects stand alone.