Saturday 11 December 2010

Philippe Parreno at the Serpentine Gallery

Last Saturday after a day in the city, we went to the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park to see an exhibition by the Paris-based French-Algerian artist Philippe Parreno (b. 1964). The exhibition has been getting a lot of attention for its originality and skill and we were interested to see if it could live up to the hype.

The exhibit is made up of four video installations. While most video works presented in a gallery are continuously played on a loop, these four videos are projected in order and the viewers are led from room to room by lights turning on and off and blinds coming up and down. In this way, Parreno creates a unique gallery experience and forces viewers to follow a particular pattern and to watch the videos to their end and in sequence. This is in stark contrast to our normal experience of video art in which we may spend a moment or two in a darkened room before moving on to the rest of the exhibit. Fortunately, Parreno's works are much more skilful than most video installations (which often amount to little more than terrible movies) so you don't mind watching them through.

A still from "The Boy from Mars"
The artist may have wished that viewers begin with a particular video but the practicalities of running a permanent exhibit means that the cycle of four videos is being continuously run and therefore for the viewers the first film will be whichever one is playing when they enter the gallery. As it turned out, we first caught the end of "No More Reality" before moving onto "The Boy from Mars" (2003) and therefore for us, this was the first complete work in the sequence. "The Boy From Mars" is a film based on an eco-installation that Parreno created in Thailand. It involves a machine in a tent operated by water buffalos and in the video, this eco-installation becomes part of a mysterious landscape. The film records a day in the life of the area: it starts as night is falling and slowly each section of the tent and then streetlamps are illuminated. Then some mysterious lights also appear in the sky, accompanied by rumbling sounds reminiscent of airplanes or perhaps UFOs (later, the video reveals these to be candles). The rest of the work shows often disturbing and poetic images of the same region moving from morning until the next evening. At the heart of the region seems to be a glowing light on the side of a building which we can only assume is related to the boy from Mars. What we are exactly supposed to take away from all of this is uncertain, although the ambiguity in this case is not frustrating but contributes to the overall sense of mystery.

A still from "June 8, 1968"
The best of the four videos for me came next – "June 8, 1968" (2009). It opens with a jolting image of a train in mid-motion. Throughout the film, we see things from the perspective of someone on this moving train starting on the tracks but widening to show the surrounding landscape. Soon, silent and motionless people, dressed in 1960s style clothing, begin to appear along the tracks. They are all watching the train mournfully as it passes, yet we never know what they are watching. However, there is a clue in the title, as on this date a train carried Robert Kennedy's body from New York to Washington and almost a million people gathered on the route to pay their respects. Parreno's video is based on images from Paul Fusco, who was one of the people on that train. The effect is that we are in essence watching a funeral without knowing who the funeral is for. I am glad I did not know the significance of this date while watching the video and was free to form my own interpretation. For me, the train seems to symbolise the arrival of something imminent, perhaps bad news that could alter people's lives. The elegiac faces, I thought, were mourning the end of their current lifestyle. The fact that the gathering people were largely motionless also gave me the feeling that they were bound to where they were and therefore were sad to see the train pass them by, not bringing any one of them on board. Some of the images (they are all very beautiful): a girl on a floating boat on an empty lake, a boy holding the bars of his bicycle, African-American workers sitting on top of another static train, four people occupying different levels of a slope, etc., also encouraged me to construct stories about them. A thought-provoking seven minutes.

A still from "Invisibleboy"
The next video is also the artist's latest, "Invisibleboy" (2010). The boy in the title is an illegal Chinese immigrant hiding in what appears to Manhattan's Chinatown. When he awakes from his sleep in his junk-filled flat, there are no guardians around. They are presumably among the people we see working or playing mahjong in a restaurant. The boy is invisible in two ways, both to the authorities and to his elders. What makes the video interesting is the appearance of a number of creatures scratched onto the film stock—they are wandering on the streets, hiding in various domestic places and looking bored at a restaurant. These creatures add a kind of ghostly aura and a sense of doom to the film. The tension is further heightened by an instrumental score that grows more insistent as the film progresses. Although Parreno builds the tension as if moving towards a climax, the ending is deliberately unresolved. It is perhaps suggested that the invisible boy identifies with the scratched creatures, or perhaps they are authorities coming to take him away.

"No More Reality"
The final film "No More Reality" continues the themes of invisibility and uncertain reality that we encountered with the unseen Martian boy, the unknown cargo on the train and the Chinese boy. The work begins with children's chanting which you can hear in all the rooms in the gallery, creating a disorienting effect for viewers who are uncertain where the next video will be shown. When the video does appear, we see French children chanting and holding placards saying "No more reality". What does this protest signify about the reality of the images we have just experienced and their implications for the viewers and the work? Do these children, too, long to escape reality and become invisible?

The exhibition is on until 13 February, 2010. A shorter version of this review can be found here.

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