Aernout Mik's video installation at the Cleveland Museum of Art isn't a crowd-pleaser -- at least not one recent afternoon. Initially lured by the show's big screens and luscious colors, youngsters fled within seconds, complaining of nausea and dizziness. Parents quickly followed, griping that the art wasn't art. Few stuck around for more than 30 seconds. Too bad. Like most worthwhile art, Mik's videos don't provide the quick buzz-hits of shock or beauty or humor we've been conditioned to expect. They reveal themselves through the lingering look, and they reward the patient eye.
Aernout Mik, the Amsterdam artist's mesmerizing American solo-exhibition debut, features two videos that defy most cinematic conventions. "Pulverous" (2003) and "Park" (2002) have no story line or plot, no beginning or end, no dialogue or sound, and, most frustrating of all, no resolution. Mik's viewing screens also defy convention. Each video is projected on a specially created wall that alters visual perception and forces viewers to take part in the videos' strange happenings. This forced participation -- and zooming camera shots -- results in the physical disorientation that repels kids like Brussels sprouts. It's the content, however, that vexes their parents.
"Pulverous" is a video loop depicting a group of adults -- from twentysomethings in Levi's to polyester-clad septuagenarians -- trashing a small, well-stocked grocery store. No information is given about when or why the event began. Amid bashed-in brick walls and overturned carts, an old man smooshes rice cakes into a hill of crumbs. Another sits lifelessly on the edge of a free-standing freezer, holding a package of crackers. Yet another plays with wads of margarine, while a seated lady rips toilet paper into tiny pieces and corrals them into a pile. No one interacts, except two guys who roam the store, toppling shelves and bashing cans and bottles against walls. Everyone else is absorbed in their destructive (or playful?) tasks.
Mik's video room for "Pulverous" features an expansive screening wall (5 feet high and 20 feet long) that provides a panoramic view of the grocery store. Almost life-sized images place the viewer at the periphery of the action. The wall, however, is not the flat movie-theater projection screen we expect. Instead, it's positioned on a diagonal, so the room becomes much narrower on the right side. The Pepto-Bismol moment comes courtesy of this funhouse effect, as well as the swirling camera shots that pan from one side of the store to the other.
Now, in a sort of Gestalt-inspired approach, Mik's art involves the viewer's mind and body. Throughout "Pulverous," the camera taunts viewers by revisiting untouched tins of olive oil stacked near the edge of the action. Mik compels viewers to question their own reactions to the instinctive, primal power of the herd: Doesn't anyone see the oil? They've attacked everything else -- why not the oil?
He also raises questions about how individuals respond to social norms by creating a perception of expected behavior (ripping, up and smashing packages of food) and then showing how certain characters deviate from the norm, from the languid man leaning against the freezer to the roving duo pushing over shelves.
Then there's the association of nausea with brightly colored packages of Lay's Potato Chips and Cheetos Snack Mix (product placement in an art video?). Talk about gut-wrenching commentary on gluttonous consumerism.
"Park" raises similar questions about social dynamics, but is staged in a small patch of a verdant, wooded park. Action is divided into three planes, like a traditional painting: In the background, a couple dozen ecstatic people jump up and down near a patch of trees, stopping intermittently to rest. As in "Pulverous," we don't know who these people are, where they came from, or why they're at the park. Nor do we understand why they're crammed into such a small area, when the boundless outdoors is at their disposal. The middle ground is a constantly shifting jumble of people who have paused to catch their breath. The foreground is defined by a stone fence, around which a group of men are engaged in some mysterious activity; their actions are obscured from the camera by a man's back. Well-groomed dogs traipse about. One man lies on the ground reading a newspaper, oblivious to the chaos around him, much like the detached man in "Pulverous."
"Park" appears on a 6-by-9-foot screening wall that's slanted inward like that of "Pulverous," but in the wide-open gallery rather than a tapered room. The camera moves more slowly, following the jumpers in dream-like vertical rises. The physical sensation here is not nausea, but the claustrophobic feeling of being thrust into the crowded, surreal scene and compelled to jump. But what's all the jumping about? Is it a mosh pit? A primal play scene? Posters with a close-up photo of a young man's face, tacked to a tree and a fence, enhance the mystery. Is the jumping a shamanic dance to cure his ills or to memorialize his death? Questions, not dogma, prevail.
Mik's videos invite viewers to think about perceptions of physical space and their movements within it. "Park" depicts up-and-down movement in an ironically cramped area; "Pulverous" feels more spacious, despite being filmed indoors, and its motion flows from side to side.
Aernout Mik is the second exhibition in the museum's fledgling Project 244 series, which is devoted to bringing cutting-edge work by living artists to Cleveland. It's a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in contemporary art.
In a visually saturated world, Mik has concocted a smart new way to get our attention -- though perhaps it's not as pleasurable as an MTV video. Listen to his work with your body and eyes. He has something interesting to say, but it'll take more than 30 seconds to get the message.
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