ESSAYS Mousse 17
The Magical Bucket: Melvin Moti
by Andrea Lissioni
Dutch artist, Melvin Moti pits the visionary against the cache of clichés of contemporary “spectacular” visual culture, and imagination against images. Every video of his comes out of documentary-like research and a reinterpretation of history’s mechanisms, founded on a cinematic structure that marks the passage from realistic illusion to the intangible representation of the world, from trompe-l’oeil to magic. Here, in the bright phantasmagoria of an improbable hammam in Uzbekistan, along the Silk Road, the author bumps into the memory of the film The Prisoner’s Cinema (2008), the focus work in Moti’s solo show that just closed at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt. The piece is a study on the neurological effects of long periods without light or sensorial information, which, in Moti’s work, becomes a dizzying descent into the realms of memory, imagination and “virtual visibility”.
In the summer of 2008, I found myself in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The heat was unimaginable. That doesn’t mean it was unbearable. Just that it was a kind of heat never felt before: dry, enveloping, ceaselessly pushed against our bodies by a torrid wind that they told me came from Pakistan.
I have to admit that one of the reasons, maybe the main reason, that brought me to central Asia was purely cinematographic, as is often the case with me. I wanted to try to fill in one of the many blank, silent realms of my mental imagery. The only precedent (which at any rate did not solve the problem, but served, if anything, as a trigger) was the film made jointly by Philippe Parreno and Charles de Meaux, Le Pont du Trieur (2000). The film’s strange task was to try to reverberate an image of Pamir, an area of which, for a variety of reasons, there are almost no images. Le Pont du Trieur therefore serves like a radio station that broadcasts information about (and from) a place that is, in effect, invisible. And I was merely one of those who had tuned into those frequencies, more or less by chance. I was also, and especially, one who, out of those rare, shining, unlikely alignments between feeling, desire, chance and mental imagery, years later found myself in the areas from which they had been broadcast. Let’s get back to Bukhara. Here, where the point is not so much triumphant overturning of an embarrassing personal imagery of rugs and markets, and more, of course, the heat. A heat that can make a bar of chocolate fold over itself a mere five seconds after being taken out of the refrigerator. And, to continue with the clumsiest traveler stereotypes, a heat that made the sight of a hammam hidden under a portico seem the classic oasis in the desert. As much as it was all pretty disastrous, with massage sessions clearly inspired by a collection of insane action movie sequences (and so, it seems, extremely dangerous for already fatigued bodies), the hammam offered me the gift of one of the most moving, dazzling images of that time in my life. Each space was immersed in a light that went from red to blue to green. The floor was marked by four circular sunrays that cleaved the organ of my eye like a blue clover. Looking up at the ceiling, the mysterious figure proved to come from nothing more than a magical, yet totally ordinary, colored plastic bucket, with holes cut in the bottom, turned upside down, placed precisely in the center of a brick dome. How is it that a bucket could be magical? It’s a gesture, a manipulation of an assigned function; it is the invention of a vision. I feel the same. I really don’t like this word “esoteric”. It’s made to make a distinction between the “real” and… whatever else. I stick with Alejo Carpentier’s defence: “There is no such thing as magic realism … realism is always magical”. Or Estamira, a 63-year-old woman who’s the queen of a huge garbage dump of Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro: “Whatever you imagine, is real… did you know?” These words are from the visual artist Melvin Moti, here in conversation with Andrew Bonacina. And yes indeed, there was definitely a precedent to that phantasmagoric vision, wrapped in steam in one of the emblematic cities of the Khanates of Central Asia on the Silk Road, that exploded like one of Proust’s madeleines. It wasn’t in Sainte Chapelle in Paris, nor in a gothic cathedral; it was in The Prisoner’s Cinema (2008) by Melvin Moti, an incredible 35mm film, just over twenty minutes long. The film shows a beam of horizontal light, composite and colored, coming from the left, as in the tradition of history and art. The background is black. Slowly, a combination of the camera’s lateral movement, a slight shift of the light rays and the slightly uncertain zoom forward, bring the assumed rose window to the center of the image. Two voices off screen, a man and woman, converse. At times, their conversation seems to connect to the images. At other times, it strays somewhere totally different. Then silence opens every possibility to the viewer: meditation, ecstasy and, more than anything, imagination. You will never know what it’s about. As always in Melvin Moti’s films, you will have to try to retrace the paths that Moti took to give shape to his work, of course, you will make them banal. In The Prisoner’s Cinema, his research is on the possible states of aural and visual hallucinations, triggered by visual deprivation.
It was partly based on studies by John Lilly (1954) and partly on other earlier studies by Heinrich Kluver (1926), about sensory response in conditions of visual deprivation and on hallucinations and formalism, respectively. Cinema is the noisiest ghost behind The Prisoner’s Cinema and much of Moti’s work. For instance, there are works that are the most radical, yet the most pervaded by poetry, of that branch of experimental film that has been called structural, with the most shining example of Line Describing a Cone (1973) by Anthony McCall. Beyond the device that presents a vision, and simultaneously displays a projection of light in a projection hall, what we cannot forget about The Prisoner’s Cinema are the off-screen voices, the silence and the potential they activate in the person watching. Melvin Moti gives shape to works with an apparent disarming simplicity, within (and below) which run little streams that cross each other, merge and pour into the sea of the vision, ready to evaporate, condense and dissolve again in the work itself and in the imagery that it spreads. Not unlike Steve McQueen, Moti excavates the present, diving into the heart of darkness of modernity and coming back up with creations and biographies of seminal figures that have been followed little or not at all (The Black Room, 2005 and E.S.P., 2007), or rewriting anti-stories of histories and identities buried by colonialism (Stories from Surinam, 2002). This all fails to explain the almost disconcerting “plasticity” that inhabits each of his films, confirming art as the evident field and zone of his work, the cinematographic ghosts notwithstanding. The great floating bubble that takes almost the entire frame and vibrates iridescently, contorts, trembles and finally explodes after 18 minutes; yes, it is the wonder of filming technology that lets it stretch an 0.8-second event over time. It is also a sculpture that brings into play material, transparency, opacity, weight, movement and balance, the cornerstones of modern sculpture.
Moti is suggesting: everything is visible, even the invisible. This is why, almost inevitably, the off-screen voice in E.S.P.—an installation (or mono-channel video)—reads passages from the diaries of John William Dunne (1875-1949), an engineer, philosopher and visionary with astonishing clairvoyant abilities. “It’s hard to describe, you have to feel it”, says another off-screen voice in No Show (2004). It’s 1943 and the voice belongs to Pavel Gubchevsky, a former member of the Hermitage’s staff, forced by the war to lead soldiers on visits to the museum, guiding them through the sole power of his words and story as the masterpieces had been put in safe-keeping, only the frames remained on display. The video is a single sequence that shows, in real time, the filming of an interior. The corner of a room is in the frame. The space is bathed in dark ochre tones, as if it were the background of a 17th-century Flemish painting. As the sunlight from three windows diminishes, it slowly drops into darkness. The sound is ambient noise, steps and the voice/guide of Gubchevsky who tells and describes.
The image has and can have edges and frames, but in the end, it is these that remain suspended. That which always goes beyond its bounds, overflows and slips, unpredictable, sparking the imagination, is art. Until the point that, merging with reality, it rediscovers itself as a story and vision, where it was least expected. In an improbable hammam in Central Asia, on the Silk Road. Or, as Melvin Moti envisions, directly in the future. …The future is formed by our imagination and discoveries, so we’re on the good side of the story, since we’re busy with imagination and discovery…
Originally published on Mousse 17 (February-March 2009)