first published in
A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue
- A Critical Reader
Spector Books,Leipzig, 2013.
keywords: formality, non-places, flexible installations, exoticism, life / art, displacement
Blurring the Boundaries
The underpinnings of Mario Pfeifer’s flexible installation
Amira Gad is Associate Curator at the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam and Contributing Editor for Ibraaz, an online publishing forum dedicated to art and visual culture in North
Africa and the Middle East.
A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue (2010)—as its title proclaims—assumes a premise of formality, though, as will become more evident, this is ultimately a red herring. The film, an investigation of present-day Mumbai and its greater areas, offers the viewer a look at a bustling contemporary metropolis, as it appears through the artist’s lens. In Pfeifer’s work, the sceneries appear as a site of sublimation, where the reality that is communicated through the film’s documentary style is at odds with the Bollywoodstyle love story that develops in it, constituting a narrative thread binding the episodes together but with an aesthetic thread also woven through them. In his work, the artist appropriates and plays with several stylistic genres, resulting in what could be argued for as an anthropological approach, one where the focus lies on the “bigger picture”, on the organization of human social and cultural relations. This emphasis at the heart of Pfeifer’s work is one that is strengthened through what could be described, and will be further elaborated on here, as a flexible installation in which the viewer traverses—in an exhibition space—a choreographed installation that frames, and is ultimately at the core of unpacking and reaching an understanding of, the underpinnings of his film. The film is formal in its construction, though this formality is just an illusion, one that invites a viewer’s attention with familiar characteristics as a way to draw them into the underlying issues that are unravelled in the work. The formal characteristics that transpire from the work relate to a definition of “formal” as relating to an established hierarchy or set of specific behaviours. These formal aspects in the film appear in two ways: as recurring aesthetic or visual devices and as the narrative of a love story between the two main protagonists (Nandani and Gopal), which unfolds through the episodes. Sound could also be understood as another formal element—throughout the film some sounds seem repetitive or recognizable as they function as a natural aspect emerging from the environment depicted. Perhaps coincidentally, some sounds appear to be functioning like another thread, particularly noticeable (at times) with the sound of barking dogs, which we hear as we move from one episode to another.
As for the visual aspect, there are some splashes of yellow that either appear on a protagonist’s head (e.g. in the haircut scene, cf. p. 288), or reappear in another episode in flowers and plants along his path, some blue from the barber’s shirt in the scenes shot in the ice factory (cf. p. 20), and a general sense of visuality deriving from the rich colourful fabric of the city. In addition to the sceneries represented, each episode is also announced with a title shot in Hindi only. The typography is transparent, allowing a view onto the setting of the episode, which is visible through the text. The title is thus enriched with the colour of the scene and yet it obstructs the reading of the text. As a result, the typography lays emphasis on visuality, setting the tone for a context of representation. The title page is such that it divides the audience between those familiar with Hindi and able to read it, and those who will stop at the first layer of what is presented, focusing on the visual aspect. This is almost a teaser and surely sets the tone for Pfeifer’s work, where the viewer’s reception is key and through which the artist’s consciousness is affected and altered by the audience’s perceptions and (pre)conceptions. Presented in an exhibition context, the footage of A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue is transferred into High Definition digital video and made part of an installation in which the episodes are dispersed throughout the gallery space using different projection screens and can be presented in any order or constellation (various constellations of episodes screened in combination at selected exhibitions discussed here are documented on pages 98–131). The work can be presented in a video installation with any number of screens on from two to nine channels. They can have different screen sizes, as well as varying levels of sound. The flexibility of the video installation creates a scenario for its viewer, a choreography in which he or she shuttles from one space or screen to another and hence participates in a process of reconstruction, in which the story line must be pieced together. Nevertheless, one could argue that this process and the supposed narrative thread are actually secondary, conscious, on the one hand, of the multiple ways of viewing the film and the possibilities of reception, and on the other, of the limits of representation.
In light of this, it is useful to compare the three different contexts in which the work was presented, each time using a different flexible installation format taking into consideration and responding to the architectural settings of the space: in 2010, A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue was presented simultaneously at both the Zollamt MMK Frankfurt am Main and the Frankfurter Kunstverein; in 2011 at KOW in Berlin; and finally at MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main in 2012–13. The exhibition at MMK made use of the different spaces by distributing the episodes in a non-linear manner. Though dispersed, the episodes were carefully selected for the setting in which they were presented. This exhibition had a large projection screen in the museum’s gallery space and a second projection showing two episodes facing a window with a view onto the Frankfurt cityscape. The contrast between the natural light shining in through the window and the artificial light of the projection creates a particular ambiance. Here, Frankfurt is paralleled with Mumbai and becomes apparent through subtle details and the meticulousness in the selection of the specific episodes for this setting: on the one hand, the Mumbai skyline represented in the film with the Frankfurt one sees through the window; on the other, the everyday life actions seen both through the window and in the form of a documentation, or recording, in the film. Additionally, in one of these two episodes,
Nandani, who is getting henna done on her hand, is lying on a bed next to a window with a view onto Mumbai (cf. p. 24); this is correlated with the view of Frankfurt within the exhibition space. The other episode, when Gopal calls Nandani, shows a beehive (cf. p. 28), where the depicted suburban developments of Borivali are contrasted with a post-war domestic architecture, exemplary of Frankfurt’s city-centre. The globalized world we live in is introduced into this setting, enabling the viewer to see both worlds simultaneously, presenting urban design and our social fabric as a product to be showcased. As a witness to an increasingly developed economy, the cities depicted take on universal shapes where public space becomes more and more uniform. With this set-up, one is placed inbetween two worlds, India and Germany, creating an immediate point of comparison. This comparison is only one point of departure for the viewer, as the totality of the work was never presented all at once, particularly in the case of the simultaneous exhibitions at Zollamt MMK and the Frankfurter Kunstverein. Pfeifer’s installation was not only dispersed through the space, over several screens and rooms, but also over two discrete art spaces, the MMK Zollamt and Frankfurter Kunstverein, where the projection screen did not mirror a facing window but was rather reflected in the glass ceiling of the space. This meant that the viewer had to walk through public space and into another adjacent institution, a new space, in order to see—with some time delay—more episodes of the work, momentarily interrupted by reality. As such, the choreography of the flexible installation staged by the artist is one that also brings in the organic fabric of the city and the context in which the work is presented. It is also one where disruption is inherent to the work, further emphasizing the impossibility of achieving an encompassing, overarching view and disrupting any interpretation process.
The flexible installations that Pfeifer constructs, with their awareness of contextual and architectural settings, recall a notion of non-place as coined by Marc AugeÅL in his publication Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995) where he explicates the “non-place” as a term used to measure the social bonds and discursive and anthropological spheres as an approach or methodology for dealing with the binary of continuity and discontinuity in our globalized world. In that respect, and in relation to artistic practice, AugeÅL states: “The place / non-place pairing is an instrument for measuring the degree of sociality and symbolization of a given space1 … [An] example of our intellectual difficulty in thinking simultaneously about continuity and discontinuity, local and global, place and non-place, emerges in art and artistic creation in general. If the relation between artistic creation and our history is so difficult to pin down these days, it is precisely because time is accelerating and, as it were, evading us, and because the overlaying of temporal language by spatial language, the primacy of code, which prescribes behaviour, over the symbolic, which constructs relations, shapes the conditions of artistic creation.”2 In this sense, Pfeifer’s flexible installations are torn between installations that are strongly aware and implicate a context and architectural setting, all the while rendering this setting as a “non-space”, a neutral space where social bonds come to the foreground, making us conscious of our role within a collective and our relations to each other, regardless of settings.
Continuing with a certain consciousness of architectural settings, the exhibition at KOW in Berlin was also spread out over three different floors and corners of the space. There, the viewer undergoes what could de described as a “transcendence” through the space, by going upwards, up different flights of stairs, to see the different episodes. KOW’s exhibition had the title A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue announced in Hindi on the rough concrete walls of the space, while also including on a monitor Louis Malle’s noted documentary series Phantom India (1969). The exhibition space seemed to blend in more and more with Pfeifer’s work: this many-layered installation on several floors, an additional architectural setting created by hanging thick cotton grey-coloured fabrics to increase the number of darkened rooms and, more importantly, to extend the viewer’s navigation path through the layered space. The grey fabric blended in with the colour of the walls, while also adding a new texture. All the spaces were designed to be semi-dark, allowing just enough daylight into the space to maintain the visibility of its architecture. The fabric reached from the ceiling to the ground, hanging free with some small gaps between it and the actual architecture, vertically and horizontally—this increased the disruptive tendency already inherent in the work by further disrupting the visibility of the work as one walked through the space. The display was also visible from the outside, through the window, in the gallery’s backspace. Entry into Pfeifer’s constructed realm is obstructed and layered. KOW’s tall window, reaching from street level to ceiling, also plays an important role in establishing a parallelism between life outside with the passers-by on the street and the scenes from Mumbai depicted in the film. The mirroring of sceneries is a reflection on daily life, where the viewer is positioned between fiction and reality and where one starts looking at the city one is in through one’s own anthropological filmic lens. From the outset, the artist dismantles any illusion a cinematic fantasy could offer by turning the visible display mechanisms inside out.
The fabric display did not obstruct the intended sound bleed in the space. In contrast to the exhibitions at MMK Zollamt and Frankfurter Kunstverein, here the viewer was able to watch two screens and listen to three different sound sources at the same time. The viewer is able to navigate through the space at random, each person finding their own path, similar to one’s wandering through the streets of an unfamiliar place where one’s trajectory is hesitant and where many sound sources are audible, reminiscent of a bustling city such as Mumbai. In addition to showing A Formal Film, Pfeifer chose to include Louis Malle’s documentary series Phantom India (1969), the latter, a six-hour documentary series, produced after a short, four-month stint in India and constituting thirty hours of original footage. Though Malle would assert a personal fascination with the pre-modern, he fell foul of the Indian government, who disliked his portrayal of the country and consequently banned the BBC from filming in India for several years. In Pfeifer’s exhibition, Malle’s documentary is not shown in its entirety all at once—one of the seven episodes was presented every week, in line with the idea of dispersion we find in his own work. One could also make a natural connection between Malle’s crude process and Pfeifer’s, both of whom focused on using original footage in their works. However, Phantom India includes commentary by Malle and is, as is typical for a documentary, conventionally subtitled to allow for increased clarity for its viewer. Pfeifer’s work, on the other hand, steps away from this stylistic convention and does not include commentaries by the artist, although it does include English subtitles that provide information on the conversations taking place in Hindi, as is seen in the episode where Gopal encounters a family in a small community off the beaten track in Greater Mumbai and asks them for advice on finding employment. These subtitles are actually not direct English translations of the dialogues but rather describe, in the third person, the scenario at hand. At other times, nevertheless, particularly in scenes that are more narrative, the dialogues are subtitled in a more conventional manner. One might suggest that the omitted commentary is to be added by the viewer. As with the format of a flexible installation, here the content, degrees of interpretation, understanding and reception are also flexible and can be adapted by each viewer as they bring their own perceptions into play. As such, Pfeifer breaks away from the informative, educational role that documentary films take upon themselves and makes way for observation, reflection and criticality as a way to provide adequate tools for us to then inform and construct our own knowledge of what is being presented to us. Indeed, unlike Malle, Pfeifer avoids overt representations and depictions of Mumbai. Instead, he presents to us situations, some excerpts and objects; he does not explain them or offer contextual information of what they could mean or represent. The viewer is either familiar with these depictions or they are not and, in any case, the film adopts the formal approach of remaining open for interpretation by the viewer, who may produce his or her own individual commentary. In other words, Pfeifer’s work emphasizes the experience over the fact of gaining any specific understanding.
The viewer is transported into another realm where he or she is, from the start, displaced, or simply placed in another context. The viewer is invited to watch autonomous sequences, while at the same time observing situations, objects, colours, sounds and actions that all appear in “local” settings that are comparatively unknown to a western viewer and diverge from the preconceived images one might have about India. His work is a window (also literally) that makes us gradually aware of its underpinnings, one of which is the question, “To what extent is our perception guided by a notion of the ‘exoticism’ of ‘the other’?” Or, as Marc AugeÅL fittingly puts it, an “exoticism, which was always an illusion, becomes doubly illusory the moment it is put on stage.”3 Pfeifer’s film emphasizes the gap between representation and reality, and connects—with the artist taking up the role of a moderator—the content of the film with its installation, introducing a socio-cultural context into the hermetic world of art. In other words, it operates on the boundary mediating art and life, art and politics, or art and theory. The film is one that prefers to position the viewer instead of positioning itself; it remains objective through the observational lens of the camera and the artist-moderator refrains from a subjective presentation of India by creating a distance in his role and position within this process. The role of the physical space, the context and the gallery space is incorporated into the fictional space of the film where the viewer is positioned within a non-place, or a more discursive one that would lend understanding to what is perceived. This understanding is a construction by the viewer, in which the artist acts as a moderator, challenging our conceptions and inviting us to formulate a more informed view by presenting a film with overtones of social realism that acts as a vehicle for education.
One might say that the setting created by the artist to accommodate such a process is an anthropological space where the empirical experience of the viewer is staged, further questioning the function of an exhibition space: can it truly be a non-space, a neutral one? When such a space is filled with an observation of life and one’s individual input, what does it become? Are we perhaps left with our own self-reflectivity and criticality, a moment of both intro- and extrospection where physicality is rendered secondary to our reflection, where one is asked to look at one’s surroundings and recalibrate one’s perception and preconceived notions from a new perspective? The displacement that is manifest both in the way the film has been constructed and the way it is presented suggests a view that is neither static nor defined but is continually changing according to given parameters and contexts. Just as life as a whole is unpredictable, the order and combination of these episodes are flexible, interchangeable, irregular and non-linear. In their totality they gesture towards a larger picture of a community, a city and its culture, motivating the viewer to find a position from which to look at them, combine them as they wish and draw conclusions based on their individual knowledge and understanding. Pfeifer’s flexible installations support the notion that an observation of life cannot adequately happen in a black box, or in a white cube, but ultimately happens when one is confronted by and made more conscious of one’s setting, context or environment. This observation, and the multiplicity of interpretations and individual subjectivities, occurs from different angles and perspectives represented by the variety of different screens used in the installations. It is fragmented, disrupted and non-chronological. In the end, this blurring of boundaries, as constructed by Pfeifer, enhances and focuses on the importance of nuance, the grey areas in our conceptions. These are flexible installations constituting different meeting points that ultimately reveal themselves as a non-place in which investigation and reflection are key.
Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of
Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995), p. viii
Ibid., pp. 17–18
Augé: Non-Places, p. 12