A mis-registering: There is a war… but now a green tractor crosses the town square from left to right.
There is a war… but it was a red tractor and it crosses the town square from right to left.
By around the age of seven, the distinctions between fiction and reality, lies and honesty, have been pretty comprehensively experienced and played with. We should therefore have grown out of thinking about Aernout Mik’s work within the dilemma of “is it real — like us — or is it not?” The works cause unease, but surely it is because of something else and we’re looking at it all from the wrong way round…?
However, I remember something like this: I’m sure he ended on the words “Completely vindicated!” Like a gleefully ecstatic six year old who has just won some playground contest, Andrew Marr, the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent, is gesticulating delightedly towards the doors of No.10 behind him. It is 9th April 2003. The image that precedes this is of a man stripped to the waist, spinning his shirt above his head. The shirt twirler was a player in a fantasy which also starred the victorious Coalition forces and the jubilant, emancipated, Iraqi people knocking down Saddam’s statue. Ignoring 40,000 deaths and any strangely intuitive misgivings about the quality of that crowd scene, Marr declared that Blair said that “they would take Baghdad without a blood bath and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both those points he has been conclusively proved right!”
In Control Room, a documentary about Al Jazeera made during this same period, Samir Khader, the station’s senior producer, looks at the same crowd footage from a different angle, smilingly referring to this US ‘media show’. The army marched on the square and “brought with them some people, supposedly Iraqis, cheering…These people are not Iraqis. I lived in Iraq. I was born there … I can recognise an Iraqi accent!”
And from another Al Jazeera journalist; “these teenage guys … if you notice they are all the same age. No women. And it was the same people in the square. How come one of them had the flag of Iraq before 1991 in their pocket? Had they just been waiting for 10 years, in that square? I think not.”
The western media could have created a more plausible crowd manoeuvre if it had got Gillo Pontecorvo in to direct. On the construction of ‘spontaneity’ in the riotous crowd scenes in his (‘documentary style’) film The Battle of Algiers (1966), Pontecorvo describes organising disorder in minute detail, using chalk marks to limit the movements of groups of extras; endless rehearsals; and even practicing the “movement of an eyebrow, which might seem ridiculous in such a complicated scene, but that gives the film the sense of reality”.
There are few leading eyebrows in Aernout Mik’s work. They are only raised in Raw Footage between gun-shots, in reassuring acknowledgement of the camera. In all his other work there is the sense that what you see is the practice, the dress rehearsal. Yet, despite the improvisational, speculative quality of the cast, the camera moves amongst it apparently invisibly, buoyant, like a ghost, or is capable of seeing from every angle simultaneously. The camera often appears to be looking for something else, equivocating, haunting a space, returning to it; it is unperturbed by the shell-shocked vacillations of its current occupants. In Scapegoats, at one point the camera is seduced into following the movements of a soldier who neatly vaults the backs of chairs, but then, embarrassed by its own enthusiasm, its gaze drifts off, as if to recompose its indifference and impartiality.
A fight breaks out, but instead of sating our curiosity, the camera wanders off in order to casually inspect a stove. The status of everything is equal.
A body, a chair: everything is “conclusively proved right!”
We expect to consume these dramas and we are used to seeing action that reciprocates, displaying its expectation to be consumed. But here, it is repeatedly being offered then thwarted, as if using a perverse inversion of the Dogma manifesto. Mik’s constructions playfully destabilise what we think we know about how these scenes should look, how the story goes, what the sound is like, and when the music should be
coming in. And it’s about time that someone in particular presented themselves, standing out from this crowd. Because isn’t that what we believe a crowd is for? To act as a background for the production of
Although there is evidence of dramatic action and turmoil, even the dirt seems too clean. The real action must be elsewhere, outside the frame. Perhaps it’s already happened or is going on in the distance? We’re in the wrong place, watching it from the wrong angle. We’re caught in an infinite mid-ground. Even in Raw Footage the material seems to know itself to be recording, ‘waiting-for-something-big-to-happen’, whilst also knowing that what it records might be the big event, the transitional moment, the annihilation or victory. This might be all there is, for ever.
It is time, then, for a short walk into the mid-ground of another town square in Bruegel’s Children’s Games (1560). As I emerge from the doorway, a girl is asking me something, sticking out her hand. Maybe she wants some money or is offering me something? Past her is a group of at least ten people sitting on the stairs watching a woman demonstrating a good way of carrying the man slumped on her back. Turning left into the town square I can see ahead of me three boys straddling a fence and chanting; and the backs of nine women in a procession following two girls with a basket. To their left is a man stooping to avoid being struck by a blindfolded man wielding a large stick. He’s next to someone who’s attempting to walk on stilts…and beyond them and all around me are over one hundred people, all playing with different activities of opposition
and conflict. And at this precise moment, which will last forever, I’m the only one in this space thinking about it, and therefore paralysed. Everyone else is consummately absorbed in collective diverse action. Despite the fixed civic architecture about us — this arena, this gallery — it is a space made indeterminable by a pre-social energy, a dynamism of bodies, unrestricted by codes of ‘behaviour’ or any need to determine one’s own, or anyone else’s, individuality.
Aernout Mik’s sculptures involve a cast of players — not ‘extras’, because they are not surplus to anyone — but players, meaning actors as well as participants in a game. But within the image these people are
also playing new roles; a crisis has transformed them from bakers and accountants into ‘soldiers’, ‘prisoners’, ‘the injured’. And from the state of the players, all action needs to be put into quotation marks, “fighting”, “waiting”, “sleeping”, “standing” … making it impossible to feel secure about what level we should meet it on — like a psychotherapeutic enactment for people with Munchausen’s syndrome.
A game of leapfrog takes place in the centre of Children’s Games, where the ‘frog’, after a leap, becomes a ‘jack’. This circular energy revolves hierarchies, infinitely. In Scapegoats one ‘guard’ loves to kick ‘prisoners’ in the arse. But soon he becomes a captive and the roles are reversed. Later, as the two oppositional lines face each other, the perceptible differences between victor and prisoner dissolve altogether. Twice, the sending of prisoners over a bridge outside returns them to the interior of the arena. The power relation is never set; it can be switchedat any minute when, concealed by the abyss of silence, a whistle must blow and it’s all change again.
In Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), a dinner party of the town’s social elite at the ‘time for coats’ finds the group mysteriously trapped for days in a state of collective decay, not by a physical barrier but by the inability to follow through a decision to leave. Self-imprisoned by their codes of behaviour, they become a ‘Raft of the Medusa’, a purgatory afloat in a smart dining room. One of them despairs: “I feel we’ve always been here and we’ll always be here!”
Buñuel’s intangible barrier is visualised as a vertical one — as ‘Society’. But Mik works with thin horizontal slivers of a similar material, subtly slipping them between our clichéd expectations about what we think behaviour should look like and, exceptionally, transferring this into a very physical experience for the viewer. The whole process of watching is akin to feeling the rubbery repulsion between like-magnets; trying to remember how something is we, the viewer, play “the dead trying to remember”.
2006 Raw Footage ⁄ Scapegoats ⁄ Training Ground
2005 Osmosis and Excess ⁄ Vacuum Room
2004 Dispersion Room ⁄ Refraction
2003 Pulverous ⁄ Parallel Corner
2002 Flock ⁄ Zone ⁄ Park
2001 Glutinosity ⁄ Reversal Room ⁄ Middlemen
2000 Organic Escalator ⁄ Lumber ⁄ Pneumatic Disguise
1999 Piñata ⁄ Territorium ⁄ Softer Catwalk in Collapsing Rooms ⁄ Swab
1998 3 laughing and 4 crying ⁄ A small group falling ⁄ Mob ⁄ Float ⁄
Hongkongoria (with Marjoleine Boonstra)
1997 Lick ⁄ Kitchen
1995 Suck ⁄ Stuffed, Weak and Filthy
Michael Taussig Aernout Mik Shifting Shifting
Camden Arts Centre, London, 2007 ISBN 9781900470636
Michael Taussig The Magic of the State Routledge, 1997 ISBN 100415917913
Elias Canetti Crowds and Power Farrar Straus Giroux,
1984 ISBN 10 0374518203
Ryszard Kapuscinski The Soccer War Granta, 1998 ISBN 101862071063
Jean Rouch (Dir.) Les Maîtres Fous (Mad Masters) (1954, 35 mins)
Robert Bresson (Dir.) L’Argent (1983, 80 mins)
Jackie Chan, Woo-ping Yuen (Dir.) Drunken Master (1978, 111 mins)
Aernout Mik was born in Groningen, the Netherlands in 1962. He lives and works in Amsterdam and has been showing his films over the past 12 years. He was awarded the Dutch National Heineken Art Prize (2002) and shortlisted for the Blue Orange Prize (2005). Aernout Mik represents The Netherlands at the 2007 Venice Biennale. His last exhibition in the UK was at the ICA, London in 2000, where he showed ‘3 Crowds’. Aernout Mik is represented by carlier | gebauer, Berlin.
Adam Chodzko is an artist based in Whitstable, Kent