by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Aernout Mik at Fruitmarket

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Aernout Mik’s four films ought to come with a health warning. Though their focus is on war and conflict, they do not contain scenes of great brutality or graphic violence, in fact, for the most part, they are, frankly rather dull. But Mik deals in at­mo­sphere, present­ing quietly unfolding, never resolving nar­rat­ives that provoke numb paranoia, listless anxiety and, ul­ti­m­ately, intense disquiet.

First comes Vacuum Room. The room in question is an assembly hall, par­li­a­ment or council chamber, and we see delegates going about their bur­eau­crat­ic business until they are in­ter­rup­ted by a group of pro­test­ers who, covering their faces with their shirts, stage a sit-in. With no soun­dtrack­, the piece is deeply ambiguous. At times the delegates ignore the invaders, handing notes to their clerks, or waiting passively. At one point, a group of pol­it­i­ci­ans applaud the in­ter­lop­ers, either with genuine feeling, or with a raised eyebrow. With no clues as to the purpose of the action, the viewer is presented with a dilemma: who to support? The pol­it­i­ci­ans might be propping up a brutal regime, or defending a fled­gel­ing democracy. The pro­test­ors could be freedom fighters, or they could be ter­ror­ists. This dilemma is re­in­for­ced by the films’ present­a­tion, with viewers given a choice of seating inside a hexagonal structure - hard-backed chairs to mirror the au­thor­it­ies, floor-cushions aligned with the dis­sid­ents. Mik is betraying his roots as a sculptor here, matching the space inside his film with the space in the gallery, turning the viewer into an un­con­s­cious actor. Whichever position you choose in the claus­tro­phobic in­stal­l­a­tion space, it is im­pos­s­ible to follow the action unfolding on the six screens in full, so that, in trying to grasp the situation you must twist and turn, wander from one seat to another, craning your neck in a bid to fully grasp the ///unfolding drama. Mik directed the per­formers in Vacuum Room via intercom from behind a two-way mirror, con­trol­ling his cameras remotely, and he directs his audience in absentia, too, provoking a sort of diluted panic to match the sense of impending threat onscreen.

In Scape­goats, Mik’s deft ma­n­ip­u­la­tion of gallery-goers continues, ex­chan­ging physical control for tricks of memory and as­so­ci­a­tion. In an empty stadium two groups, guards and prisoners this time, are, again, set in op­pos­i­tion. The guards are by turns rough, kicking prisoners to the floor, or kindly, offering ci­gar­et­tes. The setting is im­me­di­ately re­min­is­cent of the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while the con­flic­ted be­ha­vi­ours call to mind the first hours of the Stanford Prison Ex­per­i­ment. These allusions are indirect, though, providing a sense of false fa­m­il­i­ar­ity to draw the viewer into another ambiguous scenario, and act as ciphers, hinting that something very bad is happening, or about to happen, offering an in­tim­a­tion of the aftermath never shown on screen.

In the upstairs galleries, Mik changes tack once again. Raw Footage is just that, tele­vi­sion film shot in the war-torn former Yu­goslavia, but rejected by broad­casters as lacking in drama and tension. We are all too used to graphic scenes of in­di­vi­du­al suffering, and the clinical bomb’s eye views that pepper news broad­casts. Here we are shown a crowd waiting in a doorway, shel­ter­ing not from rain, but sniper fire. Nervous and bored, track­suited young men guard the shell-shocked animals in a dil­ap­id­ated zoo. Dogs, no longer pets, roam in packs. By homing in on the minutiae of a campaign fought on city streets, Mik forces us to re­con­sider­ our remote re­la­tion­ship with war.

Finally, Mik’s most recent work on film, Training Ground, returns to fiction, this time based on an an­thro­po­lo­gic­al study, Jean Rouch’s Mad Masters, which doc­u­men­ted the ce­r­e­mon­ies of an African religious sect. Like the tribesmen in Rouch’s 1954 film, the border guards and fleeing refugees of Training Ground carry wooden guns, and lapse into a trance state, prompted here by a cyclical rhythm of tense inaction and sudden violence, rather than religious ob­ser­v­ance.

This re­lo­c­a­tion and re-imagining of a religious ceremony points to what might be Mik’s central theme: the strate­gies, physical and mental, that men and women use to cope with the situ­a­tions they find them­selves in, familiar or un­fa­m­il­i­ar. This un­der­ly­ing concern is elo­quently expressed, too, in the space between the three fictional works and the fourth, firmly rooted in reality. Mik’s cho­reo­graphy and direction of his actors is always loose, never wholly didactic, so in the moments of en­gin­eer­ed crisis we are shown gestures and ex­pres­sions that are, es­sen­ti­ally, true responses to stress. Were it not for the note on the gallery wall, it would be hard to separate Raw Footage from the other pieces.

In the end, though, the strength of Mik’s work lies in the phsyical response he provokes - while these four films offer food for thought, and demand careful analysis, they are best un­der­stood by feeling.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 8th, 2007.