Published in The Brooklyn Rail, April 2017
GAVIN BROWN’S ENTERPRISE | FEBRUARY 25 – APRIL 30, 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.
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 .)
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.