2.21 / Review

Architecture of Narrative

By Patricia Maloney July 12, 2011

Four video installations comprise Architecture of Narrative, the exhibition of work by Belgian artist David Claerbout, currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition’s title underscores the presiding concerns in Claerbout’s study of cinema; he strips his videos of conventions such as plot, character development, and in some cases, action and instead places emphasis on light, sound, and setting. He juxtaposes chronological time against cinematic time, freezing and repeating a single moment so that a scene progresses through a series of vantage points but never forward. In three of the videos, individuals are arrested in position and held captive in a Sisyphean interlude, while space, sound, and time slip past them. More significant than the dissection of cinematic conventions, however, are the negotiations with power that Claerbout creates for viewers.

Claerbout does not forego the assumption that the camera’s gaze translates into a viewer’s gaze. By multiplying the vantage points from which one perceives the scene at hand, or by granting the camera the freedom to move in space unrestricted by obstacles, he alternately bestows a sense of omnipresence or alienation on viewers; though we can see from every angle, we are resolutely outsiders. Sections of a Happy Moment (2007) and The American Room (2009-10) each depict a single moment repeatedly over the course of approximately twenty-five minutes. But while the former grants power to the viewer, the latter seems to rob it. 

In The American Room, we see an audience assembled for a recital in a wood-paneled room. The mostly white members are well-coiffed and conservatively dressed in formal attire; Secret Service agents in suits and earpieces guard the door, suggesting that those gathered are individuals in power. The camera moves among, around, and past the room’s occupants, alternately zooming in on one person or panning several, occasionally taking in the whole room at a glance. As the shots compile, we realize that no one has changed position or expression; everyone is inert. Rather than perceiving cinematic time through the movement of individuals, we perceive real time through the accumulation of images.

David Claerbout the American Room

The American Room (still), 2009–10; single-channel video projection, dolby digital encoded surround 5.1 channels; 24:29 min. Courtesy of the Artist and galleries Yvon Lambert, Micheline Szwajcer, and Hauser & Wirth. © 2011 David Claerbout.

Claerbout created this video by filming each person individually with a 360-degree blue screen and then carefully stitching them into the recital room of the film. Despite the camera’s unfettered movement and the intimacy it has with its subjects, it is difficult to resist the logic that the camera’s gaze is a proxy for our presence, especially in moments when the camera apprehends the space between the frozen actors, mimicking a wandering gaze. But the longer we linger with The American Room, the more the actors’ unnerving stillness disrupts that logic, and the more alienated and voyeuristic we become.  

The same act of viewing becomes one of surveillance in Sections of a Happy Moment, a single-channel video projection that depicts a Chinese family standing in the plaza of a complex of tall apartment buildings. In a series of black-and-white stills, members of the family surround a youngboy tossing a ball and a young girl with hands futilely outstretched to grasp it. We see this moment over and over from different vantage points. As viewers, we are also surveyors, spying on an elderly couple, scoping out the entire area from an overhead position, and intruding on the conversation of two girls passing by. We swoop in close on one child’s look of pleasure, eyes transfixed on the ball.

David Claerbout Sections of a Happy Moment

Sections of A Happy Moment (still), 2007; single-channel video projection with stereo sound; 25:57 min. Collection of Aaron and Barbara Levine. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © 2011 David Claerbout.

In a sense, we taunt these children with our understanding that they’ll never get to complete their game. More important than what is happening is our ability to take in what is happening from any perspective. We derive satisfaction not from their joy, but from our sense of having fully surveyed the event. Despite the obvious pleasures of the scene, our perceived omnipresence, imbued to us from the camera’s perspective, carries the dark undertones of surveillance as a means to secure knowledge, and therefore power. These undertones carry over to Kindergarten Antonio Sant'Elia 1932 (1998), an earlier and far more understated work that also relies on a frozen moment. Here, too, children are arrested in the middle of play; while the leaves of a tree flutter from the wind—the movement connecting the scene to the present moment—the children are fixed as if statues, monuments to a loss of innocence with the pending rise of fascism in Italy.

The same uneasiness with surveillance is amplified in White House, in which a violent struggle between two individuals is resolved by the death of one. The scene repeats with slight variations, but it isn’t looped; Claerbout filmed the thirteen-and-a-half-hour video seventy-three times over the course of a midwinter day. He intended for the scene’s repetition and the absence of any exposition or progression to enervate the impact of the violence, prompting contemplation of the shifting light and the lengthening shadows on the walls of the ruined house instead. But the scene’s sounds continue to disturb on repeat viewings. Each time I watched, I took off the headphones at the moments in which one character brings the rock down to crush the other’s skull. The gurgling sounds emitting from the brutally injured man made it easy to anticipate the sounds of the rock smashing the bones of his covered face without having to listen.

Violent noises rupture the landscape of White House; in The American Room, piano music surrounds the audience similarly to the way in which the camera moves through the room, not front to back or across, but everywhere, all at once. Stillness does not equate to silence in Claerbout’s work; sound is a cinematic convention that he employs as an arbiter in our negotiations with what we experience visually. It stitches together the fissure between cinematic and chronological time that the absence of movement creates, an absence that also distances us as viewers from what we are seeing and makes us more conscious of our role as voyeur or surveyor. Consequently, sound supersedes our sense of control or alienation and restores to us the role of audience. If we cannot be not fully passive as viewers, we are at least receptive as listeners.



David Claerbout: Architecture of Narrative is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through September 6, 2011.

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