BABETTE MANGOLTE Presence, Movement and Stills

BROADWAY 1602 | JUNE 25 – AUGUST 20, 2010

(NOW) image is Frame enlargement from film by Babette Mangolte ©1976 BM
(NOW) image is Frame enlargement from film by Babette Mangolte ©1976 BM

Babette Mangolte, filmmaker and photographer, fled to New York from Paris in 1970 to be in a place where film authorship was not a gendered noun, and has been making experimental films and cinematographic collaborations ever since. On view at Broadway 1602 is Mangolte’s film installation, “Presence” (2008), previously shown at the 5th Berlin Biennale, and a body of work documenting the protean dance scene of the 70s downtown milieu.
“Presence” (2008), a two-channel film installation, is a thoughtful choreography of image sequences competing for the viewer’s attention. Mangolte’s lack of filmic over-styling serves the format well, as she alternates subject matter from one projection to the other. The footage, sourced from disparate times and places, is more or less narrative, shot in the studio and plein air. The differences vie for our eyes, compelling us to focus on one screen instead of the other. One projection shows a domestic interior opening onto the plush greenery of a neighborhood lawn, a little white dog in frame. Meanwhile, on the neighboring screen, a horse and female rider splash at water’s edge and trot across camera left to right. A lexical series of closeups of hundreds of desert cacti on one screen remains constant while we cycle through different image content on the adjacent screen.

A particular grouping of films, shot in studio, features a woman playing semiotic games. The woman carefully stacks silver cigarette boxes like a house of cards that are embossed with a red logo “now.” When they crash down she gives the camera a hapless smile. This, along with vignettes featuring close-ups of hands and playing cards, are of a more theatrical order and pull our attention away from the desert plant series for a time. The woman’s near-neutral address of the camera and the use of simple props in these episodes reflect a mildly absurdist sensibility played straight—a sensibility shared by Mangolte’s fellow artist, the late Stuart Sherman. Mangolte closes the sequence with a confluence of similar images—garden flowers and desert flowers—reminiscent of the children’s game “memory,” where the player must locate corresponding pictorial and word cards arranged face down. We, too, must cross-reference imagery from screen to screen.

The two projections of “Presence” pull our interest in opposing directions, forcing a more peripheral reading of one image field in order to permit a fuller experience of the other. Mangolte’s film installation exercises a clear relational and spatial directive: to pay close attention to the correspondences between screens rather than be passively immersed.

In the back room of the gallery, Mangolte’s keen documentations of dance performances choreographed by Trisha Brown (“Line-Up,” 1976, “Water Motor,” 1978, and “Opal Loop,” 1980), Lucinda Childs (“Calico Mingling,” 1973), David Gordon (“The Matter,” 1972), and Simone Forti with Steve Paxton, are a carefully composed ensemble of photographs, slides, and short films. Mangolte’s timing in recording the body at climactic moments and in punctuating key sequences is her own choreography—an equivalent study of movement based in the camera’s ability to hold its subject captive.

These documentations show Mangolte’s sensitivity to the particular aesthetics of each choreographer. One example, which is not the most singularly striking but perhaps the most conceptually sexy, is her use of a contact sheet to represent David Gordon’s dance, “The Matter,” which, Mangolte notes, originated in “the positions of Eadweard Muybridge’s Human Locomotion series,” (1887). A pioneer of stop-motion in the early decades of the medium of photography, it might be apt to cast Muybridge as a proto-conceptual artist for demonstrating the camera’s ability to index and segment continuous movement otherwise blended by the naked eye, to reveal the mechanics of time. Muybridge then reanimated the still images into a medium similar to film. Approximately one hundred years later, Gordon uses Muybridge’s frames to score a new, deconstructed modern dance aesthetic. Mangolte’s response as documenter of Gordon’s movements, and specifically her decision to represent them as a contact sheet, continues the process of physical interactions between the camera and the subject in motion. Her documentation is not secondary to the dance, but rather, a final step in a succession returning Gordon’s art back into the idiom of photography in which it is forever suspended. 

Mangolte’s documentations of makeshift happenings in lofts, rehearsals in Judson Church, and performances in the MoMA sculpture garden, among other locations, offer a parallel time capsule of the downtown scene of the 1970s and elevate the supposedly supporting role of performance documenter to cultural chronicler or anthropologist. Composing the frame and capturing what is often missed in simultaneous action, Mangolte’s quest for a filmic or photographic equivalent is much like Artaud’s theory of the mise-en-scène as a dignified element of theater, which forbids the “slavish obedience” to the source.


Cora Fisher


SEPT 2010

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