|Shot from the film Murmur.|
“Cinema without the camera.” That’s how Dutch artist Gabriel Lester describes his oeuvre, which includes music, installation, performance, sculpture, architecture, photography and prose. Lester does also produce films, and the author had the chance to view them at the exhibition “Gabriel Lester’s Unresolved Extravaganza” at De Appel Art Centre, as well as an event with the artist in person at the EYE Film Institute.
De Appel presented a selection of Lester’s artworks from the last two decades, including the short film Murmur (2015). In the film, a string quartet plays a classical composition from within a wall. Holes have been carved into the wall, such that only the musicians’ hands and instruments are visible to the audience. (As such, the title of the film is particularly apt, as mur is French for “wall”.)
Behind the wall, as they play, the musicians are carrying on a heated, whispered debate. Slowly, the viewer gathers that their debate is about their condition, as artists in the contemporary world. One musician asks, forcefully, “You think it’s normal? To be force-fed, stuffed and restuffed…” Another claims that “they treat us like marionettes, like prostitutes”. As a result, Murmur condemns the art world, and a society that, as a whole, “plucks the fruit of the arts, but refuses to water their roots”.
This message is underscored by the staging of the scene, which serves as a surreal visual metaphor for the institutionalization of the arts. As the musicians discuss the rigidity and bureaucracy of the art world, they are physically trapped in the white plaster wall. They are immobilized within the wall of the institute, as it were -- the confrontational mise-en-scene points out the role of bureaucrats and conservatives in stifling artistic work. One gets the sense that the musicians are only playing the parts that the institution has deigned to give them. There are four holes, one for each part (first violin, second violin, viola, and cello), uniquely shaped so that they can just hold their instrument outside of the wall to play. The holes cut a stark figure, appearing as amorphous black splotches against a pure white background, out of which arms and legs emerge clutching string instruments. Moreover, the music that the musicians play contributes to the feeling of an oppressive bureaucracy; it is slow, staid, and restrained, and the musicians do not appear to be paying attention to their craft whilst they argue amongst themselves. One gets the sense that they are dispassionate about the deeply conventional chamber piece that they have been told to perform.
The audience remains oblivious to the energetic conversation taking place behind the wall. Instead, they hold up their smartphones to film the performance. The exhibition brochure claims that this is part of a commentary on “the current popular cult of personality and constant management of our public profile, in contrast to the invisible life of hidden and imprisoned characters.” The audience only sees the public profile of the artists, unaware of their invisible struggles. Moreover, through filming the musical performance on their phones (possibly for putting up on Facebook or Instagram later), they are contributing towards their own online self-representation, as a connoisseur of the arts. The viewer is led to question whether art is truly a form of creative self-expression, or a product to be consumed and regurgitated, or a reflection of the consumer’s own vanity.
The visuals of the film demonstrate Lester’s skills as a filmmaker. While not always employing film or video, his oeuvre is concerned with narratives, and the construction of environments that support those narratives or invite their own narrative interpretation. During his talk, Lester mentioned his interest in “spatial editing,” or using shots to create film space, and the use of spatial editing comes through in Murmur, as the relations between the shots work to construct the entire environment: the gallery room, and the space behind one wall of the gallery. The film mostly utilizes two types of shots: behind the wall, the camera is used to create close-up, claustrophobic, moving shots of the musicians’ faces as they carry on their conversation, and in the gallery room the camera pans to the same medium, static shot of the wall. The film alternates between these two types of shots, occasionally interjected with shots of the audience. As such, the sequencing works to create a strong sense of space; in addition, through use of different field sizes, Lester shows that the gallery room is meant to be understood as public space, whereas the darkness just behind the gallery wall is private and intimate. As a result, Lester’s concern for the architectural quality of his work ensures that the set’s staging supports its narrative, and his understanding of film techniques ensures that the cinematography contributes to the thematic heart of the film, which is an examination of the relationship of the artist to the wider world.
After the exposition, the plot does not progress much further throughout the film. There is no “climax” in any traditional sense of the term, or a conclusion. Rather, Lester introduces a problem, examines and dissects it; the musicians’ argument is a collection of varied thoughts on the power relationships between artist, audience, and society. To avoid seeming steady or unchanging, the film employs the music to create a sense of mood progression; the music ebbs and swells, creating tension.
The musicians’ personalities become apparent: the Conformist, the Revolutionary, the Coward, and the Joker (the last being a woman, who makes clicking sounds and other noises with her tongue in possible mockery of her colleagues’ self-important delusions). Lester’s thesis is complicated when the Conformist asks, “Who says we are stuck? We are integrated, bound into the system,” implying that perhaps artists themselves have created the structures in which they now operate. For example, perhaps the network of collectors, dealers, galleries and museums that characterizes the visual arts world is the result of natural processes which have created a system uniquely suited to the visual artist’s practice; they are not “stuck,” but “integrated.” He also points out that the current situation is “at least, improvements from Soviet times”; much greater political repression has existed in the past, such as when Soviet artists were obligated to produce paintings in the glorified style of Socialist realism. Thus, Lester introduces these additional considerations, but does not completely resolve the differing viewpoints of his characters.
During his talk, Lester said that while the visual arts, such as spatial installations, direct the gaze outwards, cinema works to direct the gaze inwards. In his films, we observe people who are observing themselves; as such, in Murmur, we observe musicians who interrogate their positions in the world, and the inner workings of the relationships that exist between art, culture and politics. In the end, as the title of the exhibition indicates, the problem remains unresolved, and the viewer is left to contemplate the absurdity of a culture that, broadly, is concerned more with commercial success and promoting one’s public profile than deep and meaningful cultivation of the arts -- as Lester concludes, “a civilization can be understood by entering one of its prisons.”