Finders Keepers

MoCA's film and video exhibit lifts found "artifacts" to the realm of visual art

For the dazzling new show "Cut: Film as Found Object," the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami has been transformed into a multiplex cinema of sorts. Emphasis on the of sorts.

There are 14 works in the exhibition, and thanks to MoCA's ever-versatile display space, each has been given its own special viewing area. Some of the lengthier pieces have their own little private theaters, cordoned off by thick black drapes and outfitted with modest seating. Other pieces are tucked away in partially isolated corners or alcoves. Three unrelated works have been intentionally placed in close proximity in the same medium-sized space so that their sights and sounds bleed into one another.

These films aren't really found objects -- not strictly speaking, anyway. A true objet trouvé, to quote my American Heritage dictionary, is "a natural object or an artifact not intended as art, found and given aesthetic value," as in the ordinary items Marcel Duchamp famously appropriated and declared art -- the urinal that became Fountain, for example. Most moviemakers, even schlockmeisters, ascribe an artistic dimension to their output.

Psycho, the really creepy version.
Psycho, the really creepy version.
Marclay's flat-out amazing Video Quartet.
Marclay's flat-out amazing Video Quartet.

Each of the source materials here is, however, an existing "artifact" that's presented in a radically altered context. As the exhibition's posted introduction points out, the artists have modified the footage they've chosen using one or more of eight "key gestures": to stretch, to remove, to arrange, to systematize, to erase, to repair, to continue, to match.

Perhaps the most dramatic installation is at the beginning of the show. A large space to the right just after the entrance is empty except for a big, double-sided screen suspended diagonally in the middle of the room. From up in a corner near the ceiling, a projector beams down Psycho, the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock shocker that presumably almost everyone has seen at least once. But as quickly becomes obvious, we've never seen it quite this way. Imagine watching an entire feature by using the frame-by-frame feature on your video player, and you get the picture, so to speak.

The artist, Douglas Gordon, has elongated the film, which in its original incarnation ran 109 minutes, so that its action takes place over the course of a full day. Hence the title of the piece, 24 Hour Psycho (1993). And unlike some of the more private "theaters," this one has been left largely open, with several points of access, so that viewers can come and go as they please, presumably to check on the progress of the picture. Since I arrived early in the day, I first saw portions of the scandalous (for the era) opening hotel-room scene, with the bra-clad Janet Leigh in the aftermath of a dalliance with John Gavin. On the way out, I caught some of the office sequence before Leigh absconds with the money and begins her ill-fated journey. I shudder to think what it might be like to see the notorious shower murder in such agonizing slow motion.

Intentionally or not, I think Gordon has addressed a dilemma peculiar to film and video art, which is the question of viewing time. Surely the artist doesn't expect anyone to watch 24 Hour Psycho in its entirety. I didn't, nor did I feel compelled to sit (or stand) through all of the other works in Cut from start to finish. One of the most exhilarating things about art based on film and/or video is that it's always, in a strange sense, a work in progress, complete and yet continuously unfolding in front of us.

Gordon also toys with time in Black and White (Babylon) (1996), an installation of two video monitors, one slightly larger than the other, sitting side by side on the floor. They appear to be showing the same footage of a woman's slow striptease, with that footage inverted on one screen. But somehow Gordon has manipulated the video so that it runs almost three seconds longer on one monitor than on the other. I didn't stick around to figure out exactly how or why, because the piece, in both versions, is more than 47 minutes long. Similarly, I soon wearied of Soliloquy Trilogy (2000), for which Candice Breitz has spliced together almost a jumpy half-hour's worth of Jack Nicholson's ranting and raving (the part I saw was from The Witches of Eastwick).

By my calculation, aside from the 24 Hour Psycho, it would take at least three hours to watch everything in Cut, and that's just counting the pieces that list running times (half a dozen don't even specify). The shortest work is Michael Joaquin Grey's The Blink (2000/2004), a sort of music video, three minutes and 45 seconds in length, that pairs Björk's rendition of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with clips of diving footage from Leni Riefenstahl's 1936 Olympia, edited in a style that suggests a video variant of scratch music.

Some pieces fascinate by virtue of the artists' virtuosity. For CNN Concatenated (2002), the aptly named Omer Fast has painstakingly extracted what must be hundreds of extremely brief snippets of talking heads from the cable channel, then edited them to form sentences. These comments address such weighty subjects as death ("You're afraid of dying alone, but you're even more afraid of dying in public") and consumerism ("If you could rise above the junk you've collected, you're convinced you could lead a more meaningful life"). But Fast leavens the mix by also splicing in lip-smacking pauses and sighs (Lou Dobbs comes across as especially ponderous) to create a rhythmic flow.

Pierre Huyghe constructs a different kind of narrative with L'Ellipse (1998), which is projected onto a trio of contiguous screens in a small auditorium. Using fragments of films featuring German actor Bruno Ganz, he creates a 13-minute vignette in which the action moves smoothly from one screen to another, with a clip from one movie feeding into a clip from another without disrupting the continuity of the story. A clip of Ganz stepping into an elevator on one screen, for instance, gives way to a clip of Ganz exiting an elevator on another screen -- and the clips are from two different films from two different eras.

Editing prowess is also the star of Christian Marclay's Telephones (1995). For this seven-and-a-half-minute montage, in which the history of Hollywood is encapsulated in a series of phone calls, the artist imposes order on a seemingly random sequence of clips. First we see person after person picking up a phone and dialing but not speaking, except for an occasional "Hello." Then we get people racing to answer ringing phones and engaging in increasingly complex exchanges. After a few longer takes of people listening with varying degrees of attention, we finally see a series of hangups and "Goodbye" moments.

While Telephones is clever and a great deal of fun, Marclay's other contribution to Cut, the 14-minute work Video Quartet (2002), is flat-out amazing to behold. It occupies the exhibition's grandest space, a large, dark auditorium that comes closest to re-creating the look and feel of an actual movie theater. There's only one bench, which is large enough to accommodate three or four people, but the walls and floors are jet-black, the better to focus your attention on four side-by-side screens, each eight feet by ten feet. Marclay has sifted through dozens and dozens -- maybe even hundreds -- of Hollywood movies, culling countless clips having to do with music, then reassembling them into a sort of cinematic fugue. The sounds and images (and movie stars) come and go, sometimes overlapping, sometimes synchronizing.

As if a keen artistic eye weren't enough, Marclay seems to possess the gift of perfect pitch. The disparate sounds he has collected slowly achieve something approaching harmony (in a loose sense of the term), then dissolve into cacophony before edging back toward resolution.

Again and again while watching and listening to this astonishing piece, which I did more than once, I thought of the great John Cage, the maverick American composer (and philosopher) who also dabbled in the visual arts and worked with the aural equivalent of found objects. Cage, who died in 1992, would have loved not only Video Quartet but also "Cut: Film as Found Object." If there's a greater compliment, it eludes me.

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