Something else, something more than exhibition and cinema: the art of C.T. Jasper

relations-disrelations-Voorhies-250pxEssay for exhibition catalogue Relations Disrelations. Joanna Malinowska, C.T. Jasper published by Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, Łodzi, Poland

“Oh it’s so practical, everything’s connected,” says Mme. Arpel, a character in the 1958 film Mon Oncle (My Uncle) by French director Jacques Tati. Mme. Arpel escorts a visitor through her sparsely appointed, sleekly modern, highly automated and gadget-filled suburban home. It is equipped with switches, motion detectors, and brightly colored sofas intended to make domestic life simple, clean, comfortable, and easy. In another film by Tati, his 1967 Play Time, modernity has fully taken root. People are in constant motion using escalators, elevators, automobiles and buses as if they are on factory conveyer belts. They negotiate new automated doors, metal partitions, and glossy floors. Reflections in floor-to-ceiling glass walls confuse interior with exterior spaces in a bustling urban annexe of Paris. A hospital space is also an airport, and trade centers are barely distinguishable from offices.

In the installation PLAYTIME, C. T. Jasper adapts and conflates the iconic designs and colors of the unforgettable modernism found in Tati’s My Uncle and Play Time—excised, montaged, and fused into a singular physical space in the neo-Renaissance palace of the Poznański family that today is the Museum of Art (Muzeum Sztuki) in Łódź. In this roughly 35 square meter room with walls covered in fine rose-patterned fabric, ornamental architectural details and soaring ceilings meticulously painted, visitors encounter the austere aesthetic sensibilities akin to Tati’s cinematic environments. Here are the green kidney-shaped and tubular sofas like those in My Uncle and the quizzical black chairs that playfully return to shape in the film Play Time. A rather impractical, but ever-so modernist circular chair fitted with rope is in a corner. Is this furniture functional? Of course, exhibition visitors rest upon it. But, the characters—Mme. Arpel and Mr. Hulu—are absent. An opaque, translucent coating covers the windows, causing light to filter evenly into the space, further emphasizing a feeling of the controlled lighting of a film set. As we enter this room, which is the main entrance to the exhibition C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska. Relations Disrelations, the juxtaposition of modernist furniture in the grand nineteenth-century setting interrupts our expectations and sensibilities.

In a room adjacent to PLAYTIME, the windows are covered with an orange opaque coating that causes light to radiate a golden warmth. The light combines with the unmistakable sounds of a cinematic soundtrack—a deep bass often associated with dramatic scenes interspersed with the high pitched screech of piano or violin associated with moments of suspense. We hear these sounds but can’t detect their source. A large-scale sculpture dominates this 60 square meter room. The sculpture is a kind of nomadic dwelling made of sheepskin and disproportionally large for the room, almost projecting out of it and into PLAYTIME. The entire setting is alluring. As visitors walk around the sheepskin dwelling that has the rudimentary shape of a camera bellows, they discover a small tent-like opening in the walls through which they enter and crawl into yet another immersive and even more intimate domestic space than PLAYTIME. The floor is additionally covered with sheepskins reminiscent of distant Mongolian nomads. Instead of the bright colors and slick design of the modernist aesthetic experienced in PLAYTIME, spectators fall into what feels like an ancient sleeping quarter. They literally lie on the floor before a film projecting scenes from yet another distant time and landscape: eleventh century B.C. Egypt. This film is the source of the sounds.

Jasper’s Sunset of the Pharaohs is the combined dwelling-sculpture and a film projection. The film component departs from the iconic Polish film Faraon (Pharaoh) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Made in 1966, Faraon is about the struggles of a XXth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Rameses, who wants to wage war on the Phoenicians in order secure the borders of Egyptian kingdom; a choice that ultimately leads to the collapse of the thousand-years rule over Egypt’s New Kingdom. Jasper utilizes the entirety of Kawalerowicz’s film, 180 minutes in total, to remove all references to the characters. In other words, human figures and their voices are erased. We see doors open without the source of movement; a shroud covering the head of a figure glides through the air without support; oars paddle independently across water; a camera lens zooms quickly onto a bare wall because the subject has been removed. The erasure of characters also erases the ability to interpret the plot. Consequently, the scenery, landscape, musical score, and props take priority, accentuating and illustrating a catalog of cinematic techniques: panning shots, close-ups, tracking, and reverse camera angles. The structure of film is dissected, thus opening up the potential to make this familiar form something else. So as viewers sit inside the dwelling with golden light peaking through the opening, they are simultaneously removed from but absolutely integrated into the context of the existing film and the exhibition. They become actors who perform a particular role in a cinematic-cum-exhibition arena where Jasper invites them into a narrative constructed by him that inhabits both forms of film and exhibition.

Jasper’s decision to use the entire film is significant. The extended duration of the it eventually encourages viewers to abandon the need to reconstruct or figure out the intended narrative. And when they finally see an image of sheepskin in the film, visually connecting to the floor and appearing to melt with the physical reality of sheepskin on which they sit, two-dimensional filmic image binds with three-dimensional reality. It is now, at this moment, the cinematic experience becomes something completely new, completely different where our figure inhabiting the space is connected to the space of film. The narrative at stake is our own while the original need or desire to find the established narrative dissolves.

The exhibition site is indeed an integral catalyst that Jasper uses to implicate spectators in cinematic space and the power of these works is revealed precisely at the moment when exhibition and film collide. Spectators are engaged in a state of confusion and intrigue from the very moment they enter. That state of confusion and intrigue holds their attention, ushering forward a desire to complete the narrative. Because that’s what we do. But Jasper’s erasure of the characters brings to life the imagination of viewers and opens the potential to re-think cinema and involve exhibition spectators in moments that are both fictional and real, by presenting the familiar while withholding information—all while marching towards an expanded form of cinema within an exhibition context. Our inhabiting both the installation and filmic space unite to create this new cinema of exhibition.

This approach, conflating spaces of exhibition and film, is made with even more complexity in another work, Erased. Jasper draws on Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) to create two film projections. These are installed in one of three rooms adjacent to one another totalling more than 75 square meters. Upon entering Erased, visitors first encounter a simple wooden door, painted gray, like the kind in a 1960s middle-class urban apartment building. The number 710 is painted on an enamel plaque. After opening the door, they enter a room with four box speakers placed around it. A counter similar to that found in a doctor’s office or gallery is at the immediate right of the entrance with a computer monitor looping an excerpt from Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959). This room is dark except for the light coming in from an adjacent room. The entire floor is covered with a dark-blue carpet that extends well into the other rooms. The next room is small with only a simple kitchen cabinet, sink, and fluorescent light. Immediately next to it is a larger room with the two film projections, a dining table with glass top and four chairs, an empty bookcase, and a few basic wooden chairs painted white precariously stacked and supporting a projector. The two projections have scenes from The Tin Drum and Blue Velvet on intersecting walls, left and right respectively. The films are each 23 minutes long, synchronized and looped. As in Sunset of the Pharaohs all the original characters in both films have been removed from the footage.

The Tin Drum is a film adaptation of a 1959 German novel by Günter Grass. It is narrated by a character named Oskar, a patient in a mental hospital who recounts his life-long decision never to grow up. Repulsed by the childish contradictions and chaos of the adult world around him, Oskar vows to retain his immaturity even though he lives through World War II, several intimate relationships, fathering a child, and forming a jazz band. The toy tin drum given to him on his third birthday is a treasured possession as Oskar symbolically clings to childhood innocence in a world awash with inexplicable violence and madness. Blue Velvet chronicles the protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont, whose recovery of a severed ear in a vacant parking-lot leads him to the apartment of Dorothy Vallens whom he believes is involved with the mystery. The film takes us through a series of events that include the most unforgettable scene of Dorothy’s unexpected discovery of Jeffrey in her apartment, whom she subsequently hides in a closet when a visitor Frank Booth knocks on her door. After entering, Frank performs a series of sexual acts with Dorothy, whose husband and son he has kidnapped in order to seduce her. Jeffrey from inside the closet is a witness to Frank’s action.

It’s this pivotal and infamous moment in Blue Velvet that visitors witness in Erased. And while the characters Frank, Jeffrey and Dorothy are literally removed from the film, their traces remain. For example, we see Dorothy’s dark living room from Jeffrey’s perspective inside the closet. A table lamp suddenly illuminates without the figure of Isabella Rossellini. We witness the scene of an empty car parked in front of Dorothy’s apartment where Dennis Hopper is originally pictured. We see the long approach of a dark corridor with a door at the end—number 710. The rain falls rapidly; a knock at the door; the screech of a violin, breathing, and repeated tapping. Scenes from The Tin Drum are simultaneously projected near Blue Velvet where images of a pharmacy, severed heads of fish, sardines rammed into a tin, and the actual Tin Drum are juxtaposed with more sounds¾a baby crying, glass breaking, and an ethereal musical score accompanying a panning shot of a German town. We hear the sinister sounds of approaching footsteps, screeching sounds of violin connected to the quick movement of a closet door. And as we sit and watch the projections we hear the creak of a door accompanied by the visible opening of a door in the film—apartment number 710. These sounds¾although seemingly accompanying images in the projections—feel distant. The speakers in the other room are the source. The distance between image and sound contributes to an overall feeling of hyper-reality because sound travels between spaces, spectacularly unifying all the rooms into a singular experience of film and exhibition. It’s possible for spectators to hear the creak of a door in the film and in reality because the door through which they enter Erased also creaks. This subtle but beautifully powerful moment is not unlike that in Sunset of the Pharaohs when the sheepskin appears on the screen and we, the spectators, are involved in a narrative that is no longer filmic but one in which Jasper has fully implicated us.

We can turn to the French philosopher Jacques Rancière for help in thinking about the critical importance of Jasper’s works. There is an aesthetic assigned to everything that we experience in the world and over time we understand how we make sense of the world because of the way it looks¾its appearance. We understand how to interpret a film because of our lived sensory experiences of it. The same thing happens with exhibitions and museums. According to Rancière, the politics of aesthetics is the act of reframing the world of common experience determined by familiar forms that govern our senses in order to create something new. So, whatever the political might be in the original films by Tati, Lynch, Schlöndorff or Kramer, the political in Jasper’s work is actually achieved by creating a new sensory experience in the museum. This reframing takes place when we are confused about how easily to interpret a thing, situation or experience. PLAYTIME, Sunset of the Pharaohs and Erased all instigate on various levels a productive kind of strangeness and confusion that make it hard to classify what these works are. In defiance of categorization, they produce confusion because these works are not only cinema and not only exhibition. They are something else, something more. Jasper apprehends the attention of spectators because they are uncertain how to categorize or quickly interpret the works. That apprehension becomes a different kind of sensory experience that helps imbue the art with potential for seeing and experiencing things differently. Rancière writes that “The main enemy of artistic creativity as well as of political creativity is consensus—that is, inscription within given roles, possibilities, and competences.”1 Therefore, the politics of aesthetics is the act of reframing the world of common experience—such a film and exhibition—and releasing them from the shackles of historical determinism that govern our senses. These works by C.T. Jasper do that. They are exceptions to the common conception, production and exhibition of art. They are ruptures in both conventional artistic, cinematic and exhibition practices and these ruptures contribute to imagining new ways of engaging with spectators. They challenge consensus. As such, Jasper is critically reshaping the rote system of boundaries that inscribe ways of making both exhibitions and films.

And as we exit Erased returning to the space of the museum awash in bright light and out of the darkness of the work, we have renewed our perception about the possibilities for cinema and exhibition to unleash our imagination through sensual and sensorial experience because Jasper creates these atmospheres where filmic space becomes physical through our lived bodily experience of both cinema and exhibition.

1Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey, “Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Rancière.” Artforum, vol. 45, no. 7 (March 2007): 263.See also Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2010).