Essay by Jenny Nachtigall
If we can understand film and video as means by which ‘culture’ is translated into technologies of representation, we can potentially see, in Rey Chow's words, ‘how a culture is “originally” put together, in all its cruelty’.
Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography
Atiéna R. Kilfa’s exhibition The Unhomely continues the artist’s ongoing exploration into how the cultural patterns of perception and projection through which we read images, situations, or people belong to an intimate history of violence that keeps returning from the archives and afterlives of colonial modernity. Inscribed in the small, mundane and vernacular rather than in exceptional events, this history draws enemy lines through the bodies of your loved ones. In tracing these lines, The Unhomely brings violence close, as something that is not elsewhere or in the past but in you and me, here and now.2
Central to Kilfa’s concern with habits of perception and their cruelty are the mostly unconscious ways in which we animate images, assign roles and produce relations. The artist initially engaged with this narrative drivethrough a series of photographs including NM11 and You Look Lonely (both 2021), which depict black mannequins posed in domestic interiors. The scenes are generic, strangely familiar, yet not entirely definable. The photograph of a mannequin in front of an open refrigerator door, for instance, looks like a melancholic movie scene. Another series of a face with faux tears running down plastic cheeks appears disconcertingly genuine. The high definition of the photos adds to this impression of aliveness, making the mannequins look strangely vulnerable in their darkened and empty surroundings. In conjuring a sense of imminent threat, these images recall histories of the human avatar, from Fritz Lang’s female robot (Metropolis, 1927) and Ridley Scott’s replicant (Blade Runner, 1982) to more recent blockbuster television series like Westworld (2016) and the fate they all have in common. As liminal figures within the modern/colonial order of things, they embody a gendered and racialised fear of and attraction to contamination and boundary crossing. European cinema and popular culture have resolved such crises of division between life/death in a mostly uniform way: domestication or else destruction of the robot/avatar/replicant. With objects like 70E1 (2023) some parts of those discarded ordestroyed figures seem to return as Paul Thek-like reliquaries that assert their own material presence.
While this interest in the ambiguous role of human-like figures and fragments is in dialogue with earlier histories of what Mike Kelley, in his landmark exhibition The Uncanny (1992) called “mannequin art”,The Unhomely also signals a significant shift of focus.3 In place of the postmodern discourse of copies without originals, Kilfa’s vocabulary is rooted in a present in which technologies of image making, computation and circulation themselves produce narratives and entrench divisions of who counts as living and who or what is consigned to death. The artist thus draws our attention to how the technologically produced image type is refracted through and haunted by a history of the racial stereotype.4 Kilfa’s recent video tableaux Primitive Tales (Mother, Daughter) (2021) and The Landlords (2022) highlight this spectral sense of images as haunted by the undead, and the past.
Like Primitive Tales (Mother, Daughter), The Landlords presents a tableaux-like scene that is set in the sphere of the house and focused on the tension between a pair of figures whose relation remains ambiguous and fractured along lines of race, gender and age. The actors at the centre of The Landlords are loosely based on the protagonists of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s melodrama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), where an elderly cleaning lady of Polish descent and a Moroccan migrant worker fall unhappily in and out of love. The Landlords compresses this charged narrative of racism and romance into a minimal, highly edited vignette that runs in a claustrophobic loop. The video projection is life-size and shown on a screen that is integrated into the exhibition architecture. This set-up has the distinct effect of pulling the projected images into the space and very close to the viewing body. In The Unhomely it is difficult to be a distant observer. The exhibition places the viewer in multiple overlapping spaces – material, perceptual and historical – collapsing distinctions between the editing suite, the represented space and the gallery environment. This situation is heightened by the positioning of the video wall on an expansive wooden stage with concealed contact microphones to amplify the creaking of the boards. The viewer’s body is thus inscribed into the scene of The Landlords, disrupting cinema’s founding fiction: the suspension of disbelief. Suturing the fictional space of the video and the material space of the exhibition also works conversely in that the central setting of the scene, the staircase, is doubled in the gallery space, where it exists as an eerie maquette (Déjà-vu) that resonates with other staircases within the immediate environment of the gallery. In the video itself, this confusion of scale and space, of fiction and materiality plays out as a confusion between animation and stillness, subjecthood and objecthood – we are never quite sure whether we are really looking at actors or at an animation including mannequins or CGI or both.
The Landlords opens with the camera lingering on the ornamental iron railing of a staircase, slowly descending towards the figure of a seated white woman with downcast eyes. A drone-like white noise accompanies the scene, pierced by the familiar sound of a 1970s landline phone ringing, birds singing, a key turning in a lock, which taken together produce the dissonant, unsettling sense of being in two places, past and present, at the same time. No one speaks. Nothing happens, but the scene is full of drama. Versed in the language of 1970s experimental cinema and in its intense forms of duration – think Andy Warhol or Chantal Akerman’s endlessly long scenes of quotidian routine – Kilfa intensifies this stillpoint of narration to such a degree that it becomes equally eloquent and loud.5 The idiom in which it speaks is no longer melodramatic but more akin to the temporality of horror that is charged with a violence to come and with the violence long past.6 As the camera follows the woman’s gaze further down the staircase, there is a shot in which her face is surrounded by the railing’s curling shapes, making her look, if only for an instant, like a modern-day Medusa. Medusa is Greek mythology’s character of monstrous femininity and emblem of fear of the living image, petrifying those who dare look her in the face. The camera then proceeds to glide towards the figure of a black man positioned on the stairs, moving sideways across his face. For a fleeting moment only the whites of his eyes are visible, making him look as if possessed, zombie-like – until the camera reveals his human or almost human face. The figure’s skin is a confusing surface that alternates between waxen complexion and degrees of smoothness that reflect light in a highly artificial way that makes you doubt that he exists as anything but a CGI animation. Who is alive and who is dead in The Landlords?
Actor, mannequin, projection, memory image, animation – in drawing together these different roles and registers, Kilfa not so much invents a scene but narrates a latent history that runs through Surrealism, 1970s experimental cinema and the installation art of the 1990s into the present. Its starting point is somewhere in the nineteenth century, when life-sized dummies of black and brown bodies appeared in staged tableaux and ethnographic dioramas at world exhibitions, ethnographic museums or Surrealist magazines. These inanimate scenes of ‘primitive life’ made from papier-maché, plaster or wax were soon replaced by living people from European colonies, who were put on view in zoo-like displays for the profit and pleasure of ethnographers, film-makers, children and adults on their days off work.7 If The Unhomely draws attention to the afterlives of such scenes of subjection in the technologies and vernaculars of our visual vocabularies now, it also holds space for afterlives in a more literal sense: for those who come after life, the ghosts of the past who have escaped the museums and dioramas and now return the gaze – as actors, material agents or zombies, depending on how you look.
‘The guest knows that host logic
And I will cut off the energy
To your life.’
Jenny Nachtigall is a lecturer in History of Art at University College, London.
The exhibition The Unhomely by Atiéna R. Kilfa is co-produced in partnership with KW Institute for Contemporary in Berlin, where an iteration of the exhibition was staged from 22 October 2022 until 15 January 2023. We are grateful to our co-producers, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin and to all those who have generously supported our exhibition.
Supported by Goethe-Institut London, Fluxus Art Projects and the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. With special thanks to Neue Alte Brücke, Frankfurt am Main, and Cabinet gallery, London, TFA London, LakesWoodWork and NTS Radio.
Atiéna R. Kilfa (b.1990, France), currently lives and works in Frankfurt am Main where she recently graduated from Staedelschule. In her practice, Kilfa uses photography, sculpture, video, and installations to explore how personal and cultural memories tend to conflict and overlap. The Unhomely at Camden Art Centre marks the first institutional solo exhibition by the artist in the UK.
1 Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography (Durham, N.C: Duke
University Press, 1999), 23.
2 As Sexton and Martinot argue, ‘racism is a mundane affair […] Spectacle is a form of camouflage. It does not conceal any- thing; it simply renders it unrecognisable.’ Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot, ‘The Avant-garde of White Supremacy’, Social Identities, Vol. 9, no. 2, 2003: 173–74.
3 Mike Kelley, ‘Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny’, in Mike Kelley. The Uncanny (Cologne: Walther Koenig 2004), pp. 24-38.
4 For a history of this relation see Louis Chude-Sokei, The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics (Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 2015).
5 See Ivone Margulie, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2012).
6 See Cassandra Press Reader on ‘Whiteness, Dissonance and Horror’ https://cassandrapress.org/Reader-on-Whiteness-Dissonance-and-Horror.
7 See Raymond Corbey, ‘Ethnographic Showcases, 1870–1930’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 8, no. 3 (1993): 338–69.
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