German artist Bjørn Melhus doesn’t so much exhibit video as invade New York with three new shows. In his first U.S. solo show at Roebling Hall, Melhus presents three small videos and a large video installation that transport the viewer into the strange yet familiar worlds populated by the artist. The exhibit should make Melhus a ubiquitous figure in New York.
While the territory of multiple selves on screen has been famously explored in Being John Malcovich or in the experimental work of Israeli artist Uri Katzenstein, Melhus apparently began to mine the rich terrain in 1991. His dead pan portrayal of characters lip synching sound bytes from trans-cultural film, television, and music sources explore a range of human emotions from humor to fear, often in the same video.
The large installation Sometimes is composed of four large video projections of the artist dressed androgynously in pajamas and dangling a stuffed animal. The projections surround a pile of televisions that seem to engage in a dialogue with the character(s) on the wall. The absurdity of the Melhus-child is contrasted with the ominous sounds of John Carpenter’s signature soundtracks (the relentless keening in every movie) and threatening dialogue from the horror/ sci-fi sub genre. The films that Melhus samples are decidedly pulp fare, Event Horizon, Prince of Darkness, The Bodysnatchers, but they are all films that explore notions of bodily takeover by malevolent forces, either demonic or alien. By appropriating American films, the installation feels culturally specific and appropriate for questioning notions of individuality and cloning.
The four characters are all variations of the same child, with slight changes. The artist’s voice is replaced with bits of dialogue from films, while the televisions flash colors when they "speak". The hypnotic looping of the foreboding dialogue and the flashing lights heighten the senses, while disrupting orientation. Melhus seems to want viewers to lose their sense of self and be absorbed by the situation. The staccato editing of the audio and video work to this end, despite the essential sameness of the video. The cacophony rises to fever pitch then recedes, and the child stands there listlessly. The humor and fear that the montage evokes is powerful, honing in the fear of loss of self, one of Capitalism’s weapons during the Cold War. Melhus is an astute observer, able to distill primitive emotions from the pop culture of America.
His three smaller works are no less powerful. Each video, part of a small edition, is shown on tiny LCD screens with headphones. The best video, and perhaps the best in the show, is The Oral Thing, where Melhus plays a cast of weird characters in a disturbing spiritual self-help parody using game and talk show sound bytes. The "host" offers redemption, while the "guests" confess terrible secrets in front of an "audience" of hooded clones. Melhus channels everything from Heaven’s Gate to The Running Man in this unsettling 8 minute Loop. The narrative is punctuated by pseudo commercial breaks where the show’s logo is redrawn on the screen and the set glides into view, all done in low grade computer graphics that don’t feel dated so much as completely alien. While the sound effects and voices sound familiar, they aren’t recognizable, which gives the strangeness of the videos authenticity.
While The Magic Glass (1991) is a self-reflexive melodrama, No Sunshine (1997) is a strangely beautiful music video. Both small videos find Melhus playing all the characters. The Magic Glass is the only video to use German sound bytes, indicating Melhus’s progressive shift in cultural perspective. In it a man begs a woman on a television screen to stay with him. The desperation for contact is palpable, here an early indicator of a reoccurring theme in Melhus’s work. No Sunshine is the least staccato of the works, with a melodic quality coming from the music. The soulful voices coming from the golden Melhus characters evoke a race consciousness that extends far beyond critique. The desire for connections between two people is again evidenced, while here it may involve a desire to cross racial barriers.
Melhus presents a wide array of work that defies easy understanding and demands the viewer’s undivided attention. It is worth every minute, as Melhus is generous with his visual presentation. The video is crisp and the lip-synching is perfect, allowing for a necessary suspension of disbelief. Melhus comes on like a revelation, despite the work of video artists like Omer Fast and Uri Katzenstien. He reshapes the familiar terrain of popular culture into alien worlds, where emotion is visible and audible.