The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
September 3 – December 18, 2016
About four minutes into Camille Henrot’s short film Grosse Fatigue (2013), a small popup computer window hovers over others in the center of the screen. In this window, we see a video of a laptop playing a film. Within that, a man wearing a dark suit and tie with a salmon shirt stumbles down a coldly lit institutional hallway. He falls heavily against one wall, then against the other, and trying to maintain balance, quickly topples to the ground. Though this particular film on the laptop is “found,” the footage of it is Henrot’s, as we see the world surrounding the laptop in soft focus. After a moment, the man in the film falls back up against the wall of the corridor, rolls his body against it, and takes a few steps backwards as we watch the movie play in reverse.
The moment is from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 sci-fi thriller World on a Wire. In the film, Stiller, the main character depicted, struggles to keep his sanity as the web of worlds within worlds deepens and the border between reality and simulacra thins. Trying desperately to hold on to memories and to create them, Stiller is up against a kind of double-erasure, working against both an overabundance and absence of information. The same could be said of Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue, whose dazzlingly associative structure moves effortlessly across centuries, images, religions, and troves of metonymic links connecting esoteric references with the utterly mundane.
A wonderfully labyrinthine vessel, where the viewer experiences some of the same vertigo that afflicts Stiller in his search for knowledge and reality, Grosse Fatigue riffs on imagistic forms and ideas almost incessantly. Take the sequence surrounding the just described scene; leading up to it, we see an Apple desktop wallpaper background composed of smooth gray oval rocks, but catch only a glimpse before a window pops open depicting hands drawing a large circle with a brush and black ink on wet, white paper. Then a new window, echoing the circular form with an image of a man’s balding head, and another, with pictures of a round sun behind clouds. Just seconds before the laptop with Fassbinder’s film appears, a new window shows a fabric earth swinging like a pendulum from a thin wire; then the same female hands that drew the circle, but with different colored nail polish, appear in yet another window opening a Delta airlines SkyMall magazine over a light blue background—the infamous E.T. shot of the moon on its cover.
Dizzying but strangely freeing, the imaginative leaps have a levity to them that keeps Grosse Fatigue’s huge subjects—knowledge, knowledge production, and knowledge acquisition—buoyant and not overly serious. By not privileging any one means of gathering data and information over another, the film levels a playing field for: Wikipedia search results; drawers full of exquisitely preserved birds; hands sorting through microfilm, AA batteries, glass eyeballs, marbles, and a SkyMall magazine; images of a muscular male torso showering, a female torso covered in soapsuds, and various historic statues’ torsos from across cultures and time; desktop wallpapers echoing animal skins; actual animal skins; maps; turtles eating; stingrays swimming; birthday balloons in the Smithsonian offices, et al. Footage throughout observes employees of the Smithsonian Institution (where Henrot created this work through an Artist Research Fellowship) showing the camera the remarkable and varied archiving systems throughout the Institution. Tighter shots of female hands reappear constantly giving a different sort of demonstration: rolling an orange, throwing marbles, drawing, or presenting items for display à la Home Shopping Network or a home-grown magic show.
At a certain point one has to resign oneself to being carried along by the current, reveling in the quick links made between images, and between image and spoken word. It’s all very fugue-like. The narrator says “arboreal primates” and a YouTube video of “poor space monkey” pops up; we hear “the gods split humans in two, making them search for their lost half,” and two hands place two statuettes in frame against a blue background, immediately layered with additional windows and information. Henrot’s images have an almost pitch-perfect synchronization with the texts of slam poet Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh whose spoken-word poetry provides the rich voice-over.
In 1825, Beethoven composed one of his final works, Opus 133—the famous Grosse Fugue—a gargantuan single work for a string quartet that was originally intended as the last movement of his Quartet no. 13, Opus 130. Almost universally panned by critics, it is now one of the most revered chamber music works ever written. One can’t help but think that Grosse Fatigue’s mammoth fugal movements and contents draw something from the composer’s piece (and title). One could imagine Fassbinder’s Stiller drowning in the infinite rearrangements within both, stumbling down black holes of repetitions, patterns, and associations, and mirror images of worlds within worlds.
In an age where hoarding information electronically is limited only by a person’s need to sleep, eat, work, and the size of one’s hard drive, Grosse Fatigue is both a reminder of the inexhaustibility and the impossibility of comprehending all of the worlds within worlds that potentially exist virtually and historically. Yet it’s also a reminder that despite its impossibility, knowing is still the best fugue we have. Gathering, collecting, securing, and clinging to mountains of knowledge, futile as it is, allows us to build all kinds of imaginary, Borgesian nodes of connectivity. Better lost there than in ignorance. Maybe the internet will be our best fugue—if Google and Wikipedia can make a hoarder out of all of us, then some of our best fugues are still to be made.