Video vérité

By GREG COOK  |  April 1, 2009

They add their impressions of being blind. "One night I go to sleep, then I wake up the next morning and I can't see anything. The reason? Nobody knows." "There's no concept of light and dark. . . . Some people want their sight back; I don't want it because I don't want to learn a whole new way of living again." "It's like looking through the windshield of a car in fog."

The voice-overs are interesting, but it all comes down to the elephant. I mean, much of the power of this video comes down to Téllez's budget — get a big enough grant (he was commissioned by New York's Creative Time) and you can rent your very own elephant. Some might complain that you're resorting to easy special effects. But if that's the way you're going to go, you might as well go for the elephant.

There's a magic and majesty and poetry to the animal. Watching Letter on the Blind, you imagine yourself in the subjects' place, your hand feeling that wrinkly skin.

British artist Phil Collins (not the pop star) embraces the artificiality of this sort of staged situation in his eight-minute recap of a laughing competition (who can laugh longest) that he organized, with about a half-dozen contestants laughing all at once. One by one the contestants drop out. The laughs start out goofy but become inane, absurd, and finally creepy. A 16-year-old blonde triumphs by laughing for an hour and 44 minutes.

The remaining videos are more political. Swedish artist Johanna Billing takes just six minutes to document how she gathered a group of Croatian children to cover the psychedelic '68 pop song Magical World by the American band Rotary Connection. "I live in a magical world," a boy sings. "Why do you want to wake me from such a beautiful dream?" The camera cuts between indoor shots of the kids singing and outdoor shots of a car, a bike, a street. It's the Langly Schools Music Project re-created with the idea of saying something about the post-war rebuilding of the former Yugoslavia, but the place and the war and the rebuilding aren't apparent in the video. Even if they were, the contrast between the song and the rebuilding would be too simplistic.

Israeli artist Yael Bartana's seven-minute video shows Israeli teens who refused mandatory military service playing a game called "The Evacuation of Gilad's Settlement." They cling to one another on the ground like protesting settlers while others pretending to be soldiers try to drag them away. The sound goes in and out, with translations projected onto the gallery wall: "Let go of my leg." "Soldier I love you." "If you rip my shirt I'll kill you." "I'm dying." "Police state." "I surrender." The way the teens wrestle is viscerally affecting, but Bartana's video, like Billing's, feels like a shortcut to something big and important. It's as if the artists hadn't invested enough time watching, listening, asking questions.

Artur Zmijewski's 27-minute Them (Sie) is a more unsettling exploration of politics. He brings together a group of nationalist Polish youths, elderly Catholics, lefties, and Jewish activists to paint pictures representing their beliefs and then to comment on the others' paintings by reworking them. This activity quickly spirals into a hate fest, with everyone vandalizing everybody else's paintings and calling everybody else Nazis and cutting off their shirts and even setting the paintings on fire.

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Related: Smoke and mirrors (and elephants) at the ICA, Slideshow: Chunky Move at ICA, Slideshow: Experiment dance night at ICA, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Entertainment, Artur Zmijewski, Eileen Quinlan,  More more >
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