From May 21 through September 6, 2011, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present David Claerbout: Architecture of Narrative, an exhibition featuring a suite of four projected video works by the Belgian artist David Claerbout. Organized by Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA curator of media arts, the exhibition spans work from 1998 to the present, marking Claerbout’s first solo museum show on the West Coast and the U.S. premiere of his recent piece The American Room (2009–10).
Claerbout’s striking video installations address the complex relations between the genres of photography and cinema. His “architecture of narrative” is based on his meticulous work with digital photography and video to explore an understanding of time and space that the artist describes as “omni-directional.” The scenes evolve without traditional narrative direction, instead exploring temporality and the compression and suspension of a moment from a variety of perspectives.
The artist often depicts a single moment of action—seemingly frozen in time—in a slow succession of images in the format of a digital slideshow. Through a multitude of different angles and vantage points, the camera analyzes each digitally constructed scene and the motionless group of figures waiting in anticipation. Whether fictional or based on a found photograph, these subtle narratives reflect an attention to detail, emphasizing natural elements like daylight and shadows that suggest movement and the passage of time.
Claerbout also explores the characteristics of interior and exterior architectures. “The selected works in this presentation share an examination of the role of architecture and its political underpinnings—evocative of four different periods here—as part of the artist’s larger interest in issues of modernity and collective memory,” Frieling explains. “The works manifest an aesthetic as well as conceptual interest in the construction of perception.”
The American Room (2009–10) is Claerbout’s most technically ambitious work to date. In the piece, a group of people are seated at a musical recital for an American diplomat in an intimate, formal setting. The concert, however, is halted in time, with the singer forever about to sing as the camera slowly pans around the scene, zooming in and out and examining the audience from different vantage points. While the scene appears to take place in one room, each audience member was individually filmed against a blue screen and then painstakingly composited to form the assembled group. This method allowed for infinite camera movement through a three-dimensional composite space. Music figures prominently in the piece as well, with sound travelling spatially to reflect the position of the camera in the digitally constructed environment, further establishing cohesion between the composited parts while gradually allowing for a progressive understanding of the politically charged context.
In Sections of a Happy Moment (2007), Claerbout hones in on a Chinese family gathered around a ball suspended in midair. All of the family members’ faces are turned towards the ball, and they are smiling happily in the courtyard of a nondescript estate evocative of the optimistic programs of modernist housing in the 1960s. Over the course of 25 minutes, this moment in time is analyzed from a multitude of different angles and perspectives, allowing the viewer an omnipresence that is paradoxical. The fragmentation of time in this piece, through freeze-frames of the same moment, creates paradoxically a sense of cinematic continuity and duration. Like The American Room, underlying tensions build as the work progresses. Coupled with highly sentimental piano soundtracks, the artificiality of these moments gradually evokes a range of associations, from the history of cinema to the controlled imagery of propaganda and political surveillance.
In another work analyzing cinematic conventions, Claerbout’s White House from 2005 is an approximately 13-hour video projection made from 73 almost-identical, individually filmed short scenes of a dramatic fight between two men amidst an abandoned colonial-era building. Each take is about 10 minutes in length and grows progressively darker as the sun rises and falls both in the video and in the world outside of the museum where it is shown; the work is timed to the opening hours of the museum, starting with 11 a.m. As the viewer watches the narrative repeat with two different soundtracks—the dialogue is audible on headphones, and only ambient sounds play on the speakers—the setting takes center stage with its lighting and atmospheres. The artist is interested in what duration—the actual passing between sunrise and sunset—does to the gaze and how the gaze shifts between the film narrative at the foreground and the details of the architecture and landscape in the background.
Referencing Claerbout’s earlier, more minimalist work is a fourth, silent piece. Kindergarten Antonio Sant’Elia 1932 (1998) is based on a photograph at the opening of the new kindergarten in Como, Italy, dating from 1932, during the period of Italian Fascism. In the work, children play in the school’s functionalist garden designed by architect Giuseppe Terragni‑a quiet moment haunted by the knowledge of the impending repression and political turmoil these children were subjected to.
About the Artist
Claerbout was born in 1969 in Kortrijk, Belgium, and currently lives and works in Antwerp and Berlin. He studied at the Nationaal Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp from 1992 to 1995 and originally trained as a painter but soon ventured into photography and video. Since 1996 he has been featured in many solo and group shows around the world, including the retrospective David Claerbout: the time that remains currently at the WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Belgium and a major international touring project titled The Shape of Time, which travelled between 2007 and 2009 to the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Massachusetts; the Kunstmuseum St.Gallen in Switzerland; the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver; the De Pont Museum for Contemporary Art in the Netherlands; and the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. He has also had solo shows at Yvon Lambert in New York (2008), Lenbachhaus, Munich (2007), the NCA Gallery in Tokyo (2006), and the DIA Center for the Arts, New York (2000).