List Projects: Narrative Color at the MIT List Visual Arts Center
April 19 to May 22, 2016
Wiesner Building, 20 Ames Street (at Amherst Street)
Cambridge, MA, 617 253 4680
At the List Visual Arts Center’s exhibition “Narrative Color,” the first phrase that came to me while watching KP Brehmer’s three-minute film Ideale Lanschaft (Ideal Landscape) (1970), was “schizophrenic gardens,” but I corrected myself. The depicted gardens themselves were not disorderly — in fact, as English gardens, they were the pure image of order, “the triumph of sovereignty over nature,” as the narrator acutely described them. It was only their representations within the film that seemed fleeting, vibrant, paranoia-inducing. This, in itself, becomes a sort of theme within the show, where each of the five films, made by seven artists since the 1970s, deliberately refuses to be structured by a traditional narrative arc, instead using color to explore the construction and deconstruction of language. The show includes work by Brehmer, Bernadette Corporation, Mareike Bernien and Kerstin Schroedinger, Derek Jarman, and Bruce and Norman Yonemoto.
Scenes in Ideale Lanschaft move quickly: only a few scenes of some garden somewhere at a time, occasionally with a dancing man intervening, at first with German dialogue and captions, then interspersed with color blocks and corresponding names of colors. In a seconds-long take, a flowerbed is briefly framed and the camera moves on to a wall of foliage, which becomes a green streak across the screen. A man dancing in the garden appears as a vision when the camera quickly swoops away, as if running away from the image. The scenes become more like color fields, of skies and gardens, largely static but slightly wavering.
Fortuitously, the first headphones I used were apparently broken: the only soundtrack was heavy breathing in my left ear, which narrowed my focus to the film’s frantic visual scape and heightened the unsettling affect of the film. Watching again, this time with functioning headphones, I followed the dialogue more closely to understand how and why flashes of lush estates and near-stills of tonal skies were woven together. In German, with English subtitles, a male narrator argues quite calmly that we learn how to see, order, and assign color socially and that “Nature’s sphere of influence is determined by society.” The technical necessity of using subtitles for both spoken and unspoken text conveniently enhances the film’s argument that color is learned, for HORIZON BLUE reads as the consequence of “the desire to return to… nature.” The colors’ given names become more and more arcane, and because the subtitles labeling colors do not correspond to speech, the film becomes an exercise in divorcing visual from written and spoken languages. As curator Alise Upitis writes, how might color depend on language?
As the first film in the exhibition, Ideale Lanschaft necessarily colors the others, its arguments influencing the viewer’s impressions of the remaining films. “Narrative Color” must grapple with the very formation of human societies, some long event of conquering. The imposition of language upon color (and all else) is an imposition of power, just as (according to Ideale Lanschaft’s narrator) in Europe, “the ruling classes used laid-out greeneries to demonstrate their power.”
Another exploration of how color operates within society, Rainbow’s Gravity also complicates the plot of human conquest presented in Ideale Lanschaft. The film, directed and produced by Bernien and Schroedinger, is set around an Agfacolor Neu factory, where Nazi concentration camp workers produced color film. The title, Rainbow’s Gravity, alludes to Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel, also set during World War II. As the film opens, a woman narrates what one sees on screen: several women sitting in a dark room where the only light source is a projector that begins to play a film. The speaking woman sits in this room, her voice wavering and self-conscious. Until now, it has not been clear what this projected film is, but as the camera shifts to show a scene of several women dancing, it is revealed as Veit Harlan’s propagandizing Opfergang (The Great Sacrifice) (1944). “Do you remember the colors?” another woman asks in the dark. “My memory is in black and white,” the first answers. “Spielberg said, ‘I think black and white stands for reality. I don’t think color is real,'” she continues. “I think certainly color is certainly to the people who survived the Holocaust.” The women, actors, describe what it must have been like to manufacture color film during the Holocaust, when film was used to propagandize on behalf of the regime that enslaved them.
Bernadette Corporation’s Hell Frozen Over (2001) delves deeper into the linguistic complexities of negation — where the negation of color might be black and white or the active addition and removal of colors. The film opens with several scenes shot against the sublime white of a frozen lake, showing the semiotician Sylvère Lotringer giving an excursus on poet Stéphane Mallarmé, explaining that “‘nothing’ for Mallarmé is very positive… there are four different ways of saying nothing. Each word is saying something.” Interspersed with sparse shots of Lotringer are complex scenes of female models posing for an invisible camera alongside props and backdrops. The negation and assembling of color relationships are haltingly connected to fashion through this footage, as the models move, hide, or otherwise rearrange brightly colored consumer goods. In one segment, for example, a woman removes a red suitcase from underneath a couch and reaches for a series of thermoses perched on a reflective table. As she puts these yellow, blue, white, and black thermoses into the suitcase, one-by-one, the visual appeal of the scene incrementally melts away.