The Beauty of the Moment

Rutten, Bart
2000

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Only seldom do you come across work that speaks for itself so strongly and needs so little explanation. At first sight, that is. The work of Sophie Whetnall (1973) is one of those exceptions of contemporary art that knows how to touch you deeply on first impressions, without making use of explicit, ‘taboo-breaking’ subjects. The images filmed are far from spectacular, and yet, her video installations manage to evoke an almost physical experience. The subject matter is commonplace, whether it concerns a trip across Africa or a Portuguese motorway at night. She knows how to capture the beauty of the moment, and to convey this to her audience.

In the work Montagne de Buren, Montée-Descente, this yearning for the physical experience is probably the most extreme. The installation consists of two video projections placed opposite one another. Both of them show steps on the slope of a mountain. In the one, the direction is uphill, in the other, we can ‘share in’ the way down. The images are filmed in ‘real time’, with the camera on the shoulder, just as a tourist would do. The heavy breathing of the woman on the steps is clearly audible, as if you were close on her heels (or rather: in her skin). As visitor, you have to choose your side of the installation: either walking uphill or downhill with her. When you stand in the middle and try to combine both sides out of the corners of your eyes, you are overcome by nausea. The schizophrenic information you are being offered via your eyes and ears confuses your body. This space has been made tangibly impassable.

In this connection, Sophie Whetnall said: “What my installations bring within the spaces is a sort of hypnotic situation. How, on the basis of observation, your mind leaves reality, how while you are watching and experiencing you step into the landscape. So in fact, how your mind leaves your body. Despite the fact that you are then strongly oriented towards the outside, you also experience an introspective moment. This state of mind fascinates me. It is an ‘in-between situation’.”

This ‘in-between situation’ also recurs in her use of the medium video, which goes beyond transforming spaces merely for the sake of a confrontational effect. Those who take the time to let the images sink in and try to look through the performance, will discover a subtle game in which the representational quality of video is being pushed to its own limits. The limits of the representation are tested by the ‘low fi’ character of the material, so that the performance always leans towards abstraction.

In Homme Debout, for example, where the contours of the black man on the bow of the small boat are in sharp contrast to the hazy landscape. At first it seems as if the man is posing against the background of a video projection; so strong is the light contrast. The wildly flapping trousers of the boatman are a beautiful sight. Otherwise there is not much change as the video loop progresses, so that it seems as if you are looking at a moving painting where motion and stillness are harmoniously combined.

Black proves to be an awkward colour to register on video. The black of the boatman’s trousers is identical to the black of his hair. Not even the slightest difference in tint can be seen, and, due to the back light and the limitations of the video camera, even the difference in structure between the frizzy hair and the trousers is indiscernible. The silhouette transcends the level of reality represented. It looks flatter and less realistic. Now and then the back light is so bright that it shines over the man’s shoulder, momentarily hiding his neck from view. Like an abstracted figure, he regally sails through the monotonous landscape. Until the boatman uses his pole to give the boat more speed, then turns around for a moment and almost looks at you. You have returned to the ‘illusionary’ reality of video. (And at that very moment, the passenger in the boat waves away her own illusion).

The video images in the installation Road Stretch even more emphatically stand midway between abstraction and reality. Two video loops are projected at right angles to each other in the corner of a room. Both projections are short loops, once again filmed in ‘real time’, from a moving car. On the right we can see images of a crash barrier, standing out in contrast to the green of grass, while on the left, through the palings of a fence, we can see a landscape full of depth. The speed of the car made it impossible to record everything in focus on video. It is as if you were screwing up your eyes and looking through your lashes at the landscape flying past; contours fade, colours almost seem to be registered schematically. The monotonous drone of the car engine underlines how fleeting the images are. Despite the movement, the images are perhaps most reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s ‘scraping paintings’. But rather than creating illusion/space out of abstraction, Whetnall has abstracted the illusionary, representational video image. And again and again, the depth of the landscape looms up out of this abstraction. It is a hallucinating spectacle of nearby/flatness versus faraway/depth, a constant alternation of the vertical structure of the palings versus the crash barrier shooting past and the expanding horizon(s) of the landscape. Or from ‘optical space’ to ‘haptic space’ and from ‘smooth space’ to ‘striated space’ (from: The Aesthetic Model: Nomad Art, in Deleuze/Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus).

In the monumental work Scène d’Attente, the abstraction is coopted into the work in a totally different manner. With the help of sheets of white paper, Whetnall lifts/spotlights a number of persons from the anonymity of the mass audience. The three recordings of the audience shuffling in, waiting, clapping and leaving again (not necessarily in that order, this is the only work in which Whetnall has emphatically manipulated the course of time) are projected onto red walls, which tones down the light reflection from the video beams. Whetnall has placed the rectangular sheets of paper (A4), which reflect the light more strongly than the red wall, in such a way that a number of people in the crowd attract attention. By means of the direct intervention of the artist, most of the illusion of the installation and the ‘mirror function’ (visitors to the gallery mounting the platform to be looked at themselves) is abolished. A compositional intervention which perhaps betrays her training as a painter. In her own words about her background as painter: “I still have the feeling that I think in paintings”.

Because of her use of material and treatment of space, you would be inclined to approach her work from a formal perspective. She herself sees her work as strongly autobiographical. For example, the singling out of the portraits in Scène d’Attente is based on her childhood memories: “As a child, I often went to concerts with my parents. I always found myself becoming fascinated by a number of faces that, for me, stood out in the crowd for no apparent reason, and that I could watch for a long time”. Many of her works are about, or originate from, travelling. “Ever since I was a child, I have travelled a lot. Those experiences have now been absorbed, and I can confront myself with them in my works. But even nowadays I try to move about a lot. I consider myself a nomadic person. This was also one of the reasons why I stopped painting and concentrated more on video. It also gave me the chance to work on the road, in a direct way”.

Whetnall never works with a pre-planned concept, but rather, completely on impulse. She shoots many hours of material, which she processes later. But the ‘footage’ will remain unpolished and raw, so that the link with the beauty of the moment of recording remains strong. In Road Stretch, for example, red shadows flash through an image that is otherwise predominantly blue/green. You know straight away that these people are walkers dressed in red, although you hardly get a glimpse of them. However abstract the images may be, when faced with video, you long to interpret them and once more relate them to the reality of the moment of recording. The ‘truthfulness’ of the recordings is convincing from the point of view of realism and brings the viewer close to the moment of filming, while the illusion is less strong precisely because things seem less ‘real’. As if in witness, we relive these moments with her. In this sense, too, the work is autobiographical, and aims at a physical experience.

Whetnall knows how to use the inherent oppositions of the medium in her work without actually becoming formal. She creates a hybrid form of realism and abstraction, representation and creation, movement and stillness. The simplicity of her works is purely an illusion.