“The present could be the past; it is the past.”1
I was re-reading an old issue of ‘The Purple Journal’, a now sadly defunct magazine edited by Elein Fleiss and featuring articles from a variety of writers on art, travel, fashion, and so on, when I came across the name Manon de Boer. I recognised it instantly, as I clearly recalled visiting an exhibition by de Boer, a Brussels-based artist and filmmaker, at South London Gallery a few years ago. I opened my blog and looked for the post I knew I must have written about the exhibition, but a search for her name drew a blank. This puzzled me, as de Boer’s work had made a profound impression on me — I could still clearly recall her 16mm portrait of an actress, her collaboration with a dancer from the company Rosas, and the film about John Cage’s 4’33”, especially the ending when the camera zooms in while turning to look outwards through a window at some trees billowing silently in the wind.
In the middle of re-reading the journal, an email dropped into my inbox from a musician friend who’d been working on a few new projects, including a film soundtrack together with another composer. The film was by Cédrick Eymenier, with a text by Gaëlle Obiégly — a writer whose name I knew from ‘The Purple Journal’. Over the course of several emails, through which I was introduced to Eymenier, it transpired that he too had been a contributor to the journal, in fact that is how he first met Obiégly.
Anyway, I found the text I wrote about de Boer (it was for a university assignment), which I share for your reading pleasure below. Looking back, I think I overlooked the importance of memory and its role in the delivery and experience of performance to de Boer’s work. I hear she has another London show coming up at the well-regarded Cubitt Gallery in the summer, for those who are interested.
There’s a Garfield cartoon in which the eponymous cat is sat at a window teasing Odie the dog, who is stuck outside. Odie then licks Garfield through the window, revealing it to be open. “I thought that window looked clean,” Garfield mutters, dripping with dog saliva.
A similar confusion of vision is at work in Framed In An Open Window, the first UK solo exhibition by Dutch artist Manon de Boer. From 3rd December 2010 - 23rd January 2011 South London Gallery exhibited four films and one sound work from de Boer’s recent career, as well as hosting one-off screenings of three longer films. Her practice occupies an ambiguous border position between cinema and art film, and reflects her interests in sound, music, dance, and the socially engaged art of the 60s and 70s. However, the most striking recurring feature of de Boer’s work is the way in which everything turns out to be not quite what it initially seems, leaving the viewer wondering, like Garfield, whether the window is in fact open or closed.
Take Two Times 4’33” (2008), for example. In this film we first see pianist Jean-Luc Fafchamps performing John Cage’s ‘silent’ composition 4’33”, marking each of the three movements by striking a timer. The camera stays focused on the absorbed Fafchamps, while the live audience remain off-screen. After the first performance, we see the same room again, but this time the camera pans round to show the small audience listening intently, before zooming in and coming to rest on some bushes billowing in the wind outside the window.
But look and listen again. In the first performance we hear loud traffic noises, presumably coming from outside the room. We see rain beating on the windows, but we do not hear it, which is odd given how loud the traffic is. For the second performance (both performances took place on the same day), the soundtrack has been removed apart from the striking of the timer. The camera pans to show the audience, but if it is just a simple pan movement then they appear to be seated facing each other, rather than the piano. When the camera reaches the window it is completely dry.
What is going on here? Did the second ‘performance’ actually take place first, before it rained? Were the ambient noises of the first performance really recorded somewhere else? Are the audience only pretending to listen to a silent performance by an invisible performer? De Boer leaves these questions hanging, and by doing so blurs the lines between ‘performance’ and ‘reality’.
The same ambiguity is at work in Dissonant (2010), a film made with Cynthia Loemij from well-known Belgian dance company Rosas. We see Loemij listening intently to an excerpt from Eugène Ysaÿe’s Three Sonatas for Violin, as if trying to memorise each phrase. When the music stops, she begins to dance. The film is constructed so as to imply that Loemij is improvising a response to a piece of music she has only just heard — we see her occasionally pause and close her eyes, as if trying to remember a particular cadence, and even look up, and then adjust her position slightly, as if acting on some unheard off-screen advice. But upon repeated viewings, patterns emerge: choreographic phrases return again and again, and even the pauses to ‘remember’ and to look off-camera occur within the same sequence of predetermined movements upon each repetition. The camera operator knows exactly when to dip to catch a low movement, when to zoom in and out, suggesting pre-arranged cues.
“In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat,” writes Judith Butler in her 1989 work Gender Trouble. “‘[A]gency’, then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition.”
de Boer, Manon (2007). ‘Marseilles: At the Documentary Film Festival’. ‘The Purple Journal’ no.12, Fall/Winter 07/08: Paris. ↩︎