BESTS AND WORSTS
by Christy Lemaster
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
March 28 – October 4, 2015
Watching all nine of the video pieces currently on view at the Keren Cytter solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago would take you about as long as settling in for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but Keren Cytter probably would prefer you didn’t get too comfortable. Cytter is engaged in many different modes of contemporary entertainment and the works selected, while mostly videos, are exhibited in several different contexts, discouraging any one way of watching.
Like many artists working with the moving image, Cytter revels in an amateur production process. A prolific and self-sufficient maker, she sometimes completes works, from script to edit in a matter of days, shooting pieces with her friends in her own domestic spaces and blowing through many cinematic styles (Sirk-era melodrama, film noir, auteur art-house staples like Pasolini, Cassavetes, and Fassbinder) in her fifty-plus short videos. Cytter wields many tricks one might find in a George Kuchar movie: incidental footage, campy dialogue, genre play, mediocre special effects, shoddy sound recording. In constructing works that trade more in a fast-paced playful process than a perfectly finished product, she disrupts the highly manufactured language of Hollywood movies and simultaneously challenges the cognitive seduction of viewership.
This sensibility is present in Cytter’s work in other media as well. Along with practices in drawing, installation, and performance, she has written dozens of scripts for her videos and novels including The seven most exciting Hours of Mr. Trier’s life in twenty-four Chapters (2008), based on a fictional account of the hours leading up to the birth of Danish director Lars von Trier as seen through the eyes of his father. While her short videos may engage mainstream cinema directly, they are built to fit almost any viewing context. Most of her moving-image catalogue is freely available online: her Vimeo page boasts sixty-three videos, the latest released just weeks ago. The works are repetitive, absurd, disjointed almost-narratives that you can wander to and away from—very much the sort of work that lends itself to our distracted way of viewing work online, or installed in a museum exhibition.
Curator Naomi Beckwith and Cytter have incorporated this fluidity of screening contexts into the MCA’s exhibition architecture. The space is organized into a circular track that takes the viewer from carpeted living room environment, to art gallery white box, to cinema-style dark rooms, and then back again in reverse order. Sound from videos bleed between rooms, dividing the viewer’s attention and pulling them through the exhibition space.
Some of the exhibition’s strongest pieces are presented in dark rooms mimicking the traditional cinematic exhibition format—like Una Forza che Viene dal Passato (Force from the Past) (2008) and Alla Ricerca dei Fratelli (In Search for Brothers) (2008), both of which mimic the work of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Untitled (2009), Cytter’s take on John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1947), set in an amateur theater production in Berlin. In these pieces Cytter works an adept ability for parody. All three works formally draw out the auteurist moves of their art-house director referents—the unstable close-ups of Cassavetes’s cinematography and the taut sexualized dialogue of Pasolini—effortlessly and with humor.
The gallery-style rooms and domestic rooms of the exhibition also house two series of drawings. One set depicting Cytter’s domestic space which doubles as her production studio, and the other seemingly documenting her process. The first, drawn with brightly colored sharpie on vinyl, are large-scale Day-Glo abstractions of her apartment. The second are several small drawings that could be read as process-oriented—individual pages of a generative journal. In addition to being a practical part of her low-cost process, Cytter is clearly also interested in the domestic/personal realm as thematic space.
Also in these galleries are five more videos spanning work from 2006 to 2014. One of the most memorable is Video Art Manual (2011), a funny and dry compendium of video art’s formal tactics served alongside a quasi-cohesive narrative centered around solar activity. Cytter uses this loose narrative thread to illustrate the many possible relationships of onscreen subject to the viewer, jumping from actual news footage to images of a solo actor speaking in front of a green screen to stilted fictional scenes, all eventually incorporating some mention of the sun. Cytter further complicates the piece with the use of non-diegetic spoken narration and subtitles. During one job interview scene between characters credited as “Boss” and “Max,” subtitles inform us that “The performers aren’t concerned with their acting skills as they are representing familiar characters and situations.”
Video Art Manual’s humor is partially dependent on the self-reflexivity of its gallery setting and is indicative of Cytter’s somewhat antagonistic relationship with institutions. This tension is expanded in self-referential wall texts that include sentences such as:
This text functions mostly as an aesthetic element and less as a guide for the exhibition.
This sentence is repeated in another wall text.
Repetitions of structures in space disorient the visitor and create a familiar atmosphere at the same time.
And maybe the most illustrative example of this semi-combative relation is the exhibition catalogue, a heavy two-volume set titled The Best of Keren Cytter/The Worst of Keren Cytter. At the invitation of the artist, Beckwith and Jacob Fabricius of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg divided all of Cytter’s existing scripts into one of the two categories, judged as simply good or bad, and published them in their entirety. When asked about the publication, Beckwith admits, “Yeah, the joke is a little bit on us in that respect, but that’s okay. As a curator you go into these kinds of projects willingly. I was excited to hear her say, ‘I want you to take up a critical language of judgment.’ In the end she wanted a simple gesture of yes and no. I don’t think a lot of artists want to hear that.”
CHRISTY LEMASTER is the founder and director of Chicago's rough-and-ready microcinema, The Nightingale, and teaches Critical Studies at Columbia College, Chicago. She is currently programming events for TRACERS, Chances Dances 10th Anniversary Retrospective, and co-curating Run of Life, a documentary series for the Chicago experimental media venue Constellation.