The Renaissance Society, Chicago
December 7, 2014 – February 8, 2015
Mathias Poledna’s 35mm film about a watch has no meaning. No clues are planted in our path to prompt the busywork of iconographic analysis. No personal mythology is affixed to the watch. It lacks a narrator to instruct us. The gold wristwatch is shown against a black backdrop, a figure without a ground, leaving no possibility for analogy within the space of the film. It appears that Poledna has surgically extracted all stimuli that might incite habitual hermeneutic responses.
The piece opens with an electronic dance beat that ricochets through the towering space of the Renaissance Society while we negotiate absolute darkness. The pulsating sound overtakes the rhythm of our own heart, and synchs us to a communal beat that could be the tick of a clock. When the projection booth sends an old-fashioned signal to the screen, we begin a sci-fi voyage, drifting in a haze of optical phenomena, jellyfish, and golden blur. A minute later, the voyage stops. The screen goes black—a quick blink. Our next stop is in a landscape blanketed by fog and prismatic aberrations. It’s the machine’s abstraction forged from gold and glass. Another blink, and we know these gaps of unfixed duration will continue to segment the film into chapters.
Chapter 3 pulls us through a microscope, to see a crisp full-screen image of the number 28, boxed in genuine gold, while a translucent second-hand sweeps by. At this range, the number appears strangely handmade as if constructed from torn paper. The camera has superseded our eyesight, making familiar phenomenon alien.
Chapters 4 – 6 The second-hand now fills a third of the screen and the word, MONDAY, has been shattered. Each of the three close-up details, however, definitively reads as a watch. When the solid gold melts down and multiplies we must compress the layers to hold on to its form.
Chapter 7 With a sharply focused aerial view over the dial, we discover odd flubs, scraped metal, and dust particles on the mechanical parts. This is an unexpected disclosure; the luxury watch has dirty hands. Down a level, below the spotted glass ceiling are more signs of age and imperfection. It is here that the film breaks from allusions to advertising. The camera’s persistent refusal to create desire, frame after frame, in effect slowly decontaminates the luxury watch from its own connotations, each filmic sweep removing another layer of our relation to it. In the next moment, however, the camera slowly pans out and the words on the watch face come into view, scrolling, like film credits:
Last on the list, with the cameraman sustaining an impassive and sober pace, the brand name is slowly unveiled leaving it vulnerable to burlesque reformulation: ROLEX! Big tits! The lights are cut. Big deal, a gold watch. It’s Monday the 28th.
Chapter 8 So far we have glimpsed mere fragments. The camera now approximating normal vision, shows us the whole 18k gold wristwatch, entering stage left. So this is what we have been looking at all the while. This is where our 20/20 vision takes us: to things. The thing begins to leave us, floating off into the distance, ever smaller, in a galaxy of black. When light strikes the crystal, it obscures the hands; we can no longer reassure ourselves that the future becomes our present with every increment of measured time. We turn to the facts:
Oyster Perpetual is set just shy of 10:07 on the clock face; this is more or less the dial setting advertisers have used since 1926. Poledna’s film matches up, clocking in at six minutes, forty seconds, making sense of the :07. There are various speculations about why this numeric is so strictly adhered to. The explanation set forth by advertisers is that with the hands at 10 and 2, the V formation frames the brand; it’s all about not blocking the logo. And the smile formed by the V is not an insignificant design bonus. Advertisers like psychology.
The wall text, written by Poledna, explains it all. It doesn’t burden us with adjectives, context, process, or the subjective. It is breathtakingly economical and directs our attention, without chatter, to the interior space of the piece, situating us among the watch’s 26 jewels, adjusted to five positions. It is an inventory of parts that leaves us to wander freely. Here we might consider questions such as how luxury materials can have mechanical functions; how analog is dying while the wristwatch lies in our future; and how the most accurate clock has no effect on time. This is his list, written like poetry, with commas to create cadence and mark divisions. He takes the watch apart, leaving evidence of his cognitive process, and the psych-neutral gears of his mind. We are experiencing one highly complex set of parts and labor in terms of another.
Poledna doesn’t mention the “property” described is a Rolex. His omission saves us from reciting a commodified conversation about commodity culture. The Rolex, in fact, along with so many other 20th-century artifacts, resides inside of us as a dispassionate Screen Burn, a permanent discolored spot on our collective display, rising above consumer specifics. It is the mark of a branding iron left in place too long. We all have been marked by the same things.
It is what it is. A watch. With nothing piled on to make it look like art, we drop out of the performance of “looking at art” and quit our routine methods of breaking code. In this evacuated space we are allowed to think rather than repeat what we’ve memorized. The artist has left us alone to ruminate about the facts we’ve observed. Remaining absent is the most rigorous performance an artist can undertake.
When we view film as a group, we share time together—time measured by the film itself, marked in frames per second. This film, in fact, is a watch, and the Rolex Oyster Perpetual it presents is the town square clock, a familiar timepiece around which we’ve gathered for half a century. The gothic tower in which the Renaissance Society resides—a space formerly branded by an oven-rack fragment of modern adornment—plays the transient role of a clocktower, now that Poledna has evicted its false ceiling. The removal, a permanent absence arranged by the artist as part of the installation, liberates the gallery and the new director from a burdensome mark.
Poledna is brilliant. He knows exactly what he is doing and does what’s necessary. But if we were to ask him to expound, he might say, “No comment” or “You go first.”
ContributorAren K. Yama