Appearing simultaneously at the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale and this fall at Paula Cooper Gallery, Christian Marclay’s 48 War Movies (2019) and an accompanying series of woodblock prints called “Screams” (all 2018 or 2019) testify to the strangely complex relationship we have with war and its imagery. When I arrived, a woman stood outside taking selfies through the window with Scream (Shaking Red). Arresting and strikingly large at ninety inches tall, the print mashes up Japanese and Western comic styles to develop a horrific anime meets Immortan Joe meets the double grimace of Willem de Kooning’s Woman and Bicycle (1952-3) image. No wonder it is ripe for the Instagram market.
On ViewPaula Cooper
September 12 – October 19, 2019
Sharing the window gallery with Scream (Shaking Red), Scream (Green Shrapnel) holds its own despite its significantly smaller size. Here, I felt the influence of Guernica’s (1937) monochromatic reportage and the manic intensity around the eyes of some of Katsura Yuki’s drawings. Printed in acidic and marine green hues, the print exploits the grains of the particle board from which it was pulled, using agitated lines and the crush of wood pieces to suggest an explosion and its immediate aftermath.
Other prints depend on the undulating visible grain of cheap plywood to suggest night terrors. Scream (Dark Colored Echoes) roughly lines up four crying mouths, which shatter into multiple foreheads. Roiling around this figure, the impressions taken from the butterflied pieces of wood become psychedelic paisleys. Similarly, Scream (Big Mouth Sliced) depicts a head materializing amid the churning knots of the wooden ground. One wooden whorl abuts the figure’s drawn eye while others metastasize into its flowing hair, the carving visually rhyming with its medium.
The soundtrack for 48 War Movies can be heard rumbling as one approaches the back gallery. Made up of the overlapping sound scores for the films, it is a jumble of guns firing, shell casings dropping, bombs exploding, people screaming, protesters yelling, and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” playing. After reading about how overbearingly loud it was in Venice, I was surprised to find myself thinking that it wasn’t quite loud enough. Surely war is noisier than this?
48 War Movies layers the found war films one over another, leaving just a few outer inches of the edge of each screen visible. The layered screens get smaller and smaller until the innermost film, shown in its entirety, is so pixelated as to be impossible to read up close. With the narratives of the films thus rendered unwatchable, the viewer scans the screen(s) and picks up moments of recognition: an American flag, what looks like Arabic, hats that must be meant to suggest Vietnam, words in English. I was surprised to see a college football game being played in one frame; I thought of the age of the soldiers we deploy and the ways that football, like war, can be used as entertainment for the majority of spectators. Another brief moment, eighteen panels in, showed the made-up eyes and hairstyles worn by women from a different era. These eyes gazed at each other across the span of the thirty remaining rectangles and looked at something in the middle, a man or men presumably, that had been covered over by dozens more films representing other wars.
That we are only permitted to see the edges does two things. First, it enables us to recognize which films use the entirety of the screen and which concentrate the action in the center or margins of the projection. The outermost rectangle houses the most recently released film, Dunkirk (2017), which essentially serves as a liquid, sandy, or occasionally fiery frame for the rest of the enterprise. The women’s eyes may tell us something about the role women play in whatever movie those actors appeared in. But the viewing of films as remnants forces us to recognize something about 48 War Movies, too. It is abstract to the point of being nearly ornamental. Marclay is a diligent artist, so I think that this must be deliberate on his part. His overlapping rectangles, in stills, resemble nothing so much as Frank Stella “Scramble” paintings, in which the smaller, inner squares manage to avoid seeming distant by dint of their stronger or brighter colors—Marclay’s inner rectangles achieve that with explosions. But the filmic rectangles might also call to mind levels of hell, the logic of one war generating the next ad infinitum, or, to use John Broughton’s term, the trailing into a bomb’s or drone’s-eye view. That view does not end nowhere. Instead, it is witnessed by the devastated faces we see hanging in the galleries outside the video installation. “Why did you wait?” an impatient commander-in-chief recently asked of a drone strike delayed so that people might move out of harm’s way. The sights of 48 War Films and the shrieking “Scream” prints suggest an answer.