Penn to Union

The recent Philippe Parreno exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park contained four of the artist’s film works. The show was designed in such a way that the audience was led from room to room, watching one film then being given signals as to where to go in the building to catch the next screening – cues including musical ‘leaders’ fading into an adjacent space, lighting conditions changing as blinds closed automatically, etc. Given this structure and the specific manipulation of the audience, it was easy to think of the show as an ensemble piece and the separate works within it interrelated components of a whole. Yet this idea was not easy to reconcile with the experience of the show – no doubt there are interesting connections and echoes running through the pieces, but there are also vast differences between them which lead to a certain ambivalence about their relative strengths and weaknesses as self-contained works. A shorter piece from 1991, No More Reality, which was positioned closest to the gallery entrance (and which consisted of grainy digital video of schoolchildren repeatedly chanting the title) appeared irritatingly glib, even if it may have suggested a half-ironic ‘key phrase’ somehow relevant to the world of moving images you were about to be corralled through. Invisibleboy, a short film from 2001, was also strangely dissatisfying, with a series of spectral creatures etched into the film stock to illustrate an immigrant child’s fantasies and nightmares, all to a deliciously loud but nonetheless tedious soundtrack by God Speed You! Black Emperor. More interesting than either of these pieces was The Boy From Mars (2003), a beautifully photographed film documenting some kind of eco-greenhouse in Thailand, solely powered by a water buffalo. The slow pace, absence of human figures and ambiguous framing of the film set up parallel documentary and sci-fi themes, occasionally  producing a flash of otherworldly imagery that seemed closer to mythological drama or attempts at capturing an abstractly mesmeric rhythm – particularly the treatment of the buffalo, its isolation and physical suffering captured alternately in deep contrast and flashes of illumination. One particularly arresting shot captured a passing hoof pressing into the waterlogged mud, the camera holding position as the cloven impression rose back up, pushing the water back toward the moonlight.

Nonetheless, the most intriguing film in the exhibition was June 8, 1968 (2008). Taking inspiration from a series of photographs taken by Paul Fusco, a photographer who was working for Look Magazine, Parreno’s film recreates a train journey made on the title date from New York City’s Penn Station to Union Station in Washington DC. The train transported the body of the recently assassinated US senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Huge crowds lined the train tracks that Saturday, all the way along the 300-mile distance – either to pay their respects, to mourn lost hope, say goodbye or perhaps just to see. The usual four-hour journey took over eight hours to complete. Fusco’s original photographs are compelling, as is Parreno’s film in many ways, yet it is difficult not to have some reservations about the latter. [Apparently a film entitled Is Everybody Alright? – which takes its title from Kennedy’s last words before he lapsed into unconsciousness – is being made, based on Fusco’s book RFK Funeral Train. This would be an interesting point of comparison] I found myself wondering about the motivation behind the work and struggled with my response to the tone of the film. It put me in mind of some of the things I’d written and thought about in relation to re-enactment in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah – the ‘hallucinatory’ qualities described on by Jacques Rancière (in The Future of the Image) when a holocaust survivor is compelled to revisit places or ‘re-do’ actions that have profoundly traumatic associations for them. This is not quite what is going on in Parreno’s film, but it made me wonder about what such re-enactments can do. Parreno’s film is shot from the perspective of the train, observing the crowds of people lined up on the embankments, crossings and station platforms. Although it could be a reconstruction of the point of view of Fusco’s camera, it could also be that the film assumes the viewpoint of RFK’s body – the coffin was apparently not visible to onlookers until the pallbearers raised it by placing it on a few chairs. The ambiguity of viewpoints suggests that Parreno is at least aware of the possibility of it being understood as a retroactive, reconstructed embodiment of an impossible gesture of acknowledgment from a deceased ‘character’ to the crowds that came to watch him pass. The  reconstruction allows access to what Kennedy’s corpse might have seen, as if this might provide some kind of affirmation, or effectively tie off a loose end of patriotic emotion some 40 years later.

But what about the way Parreno’s film was shot? For one thing, the location has been transferred from the East coast to the West (why not the same route?) – introducing sun-drenched landscapes, perfect blue skies,and a dreamlike solidity to the light. The trackside figures, all actors and extras decked out in suitable period costume and authentic accessories (bikes, cameras), are almost all stock-still, occasionally zoomed into, and revisited at different speeds. Does Parreno’s film camera attempt to move with a still photographer’s eye? As if looking for a suitable shot (an encapsulation of the mood, just one iconic image?) in the face of an excess of figures, faces, gestures – there is something of the saccadic selection of the eye, as well as indecision, in the camera’s movements, all the while bolstered by the sound of the engine and the relentless percussion of the tracks. There is an implied stillness to the images too, as if there was a desire to move through a precisely  preserved moment in time (i.e. a film winding through Fusco’s images, stretching out and filling the gaps between frames) – the result being that it resembles an orchestrated diorama in which figures have become oddly mortified. More disturbingly, however, certain set pieces – especially when photographed in incongruous, pseudo-nostalgic California weather – had the appearance of adverts: commercials for an historically acknowledged loss, accepted configurations of national grief, all bundled in with an affirmation of liberal American values that take little account of political realities – the moment when the dirty world of workaday politics becomes a ceremony that stands outside that discourse. In many places this technique was affecting, but it afterward it seemed dubious, as if it were as manipulative as the way the audience was directed around the gallery space.

Still, the strange melancholy disembodiment of the film, no doubt emphasised by Parreno’s choices, is accompanied by a stilted or deferred dramatic quality. Just as Fusco’s photographs contain almost surreal juxtapositions of odd figures – like troupes of archetypes often in abstract compositions, with costume sets and ‘back stories’ that could be filled in – Parreno’s images became emblematic of a wealth of unspoken material. The whole film is an address to silence in many ways – the idea that there is nothing to be said (or done) in the face of momentous events or the presence of emergent community; these figures see the train go by, not knowing what to do next, watching an recognisable character from the largely alien and impossibly corrupted political system ride by in a box, on a train. He has gone back to being inaccessible and is passing them by. But is Parreno’s film a reformatted paean to apathy or disillusionment? Why does he want to tap into June 8, 1968?

 

It’s also important to note that, whereas Fusco’s photos capture fleeting groups and constellations of people, he cannot purposely manufacture his focus like Parreno can. Through his reconstruction, Parreno’s is able to zero in on individuals he has specifically isolated from the crowd – an attention to the details of individuality and character that might have parallels with his feature film (co-directed with Douglas Gordon) following the minute details of Zinedine Zidane’s performance in a single football match. Yet for all the deliberately faked and dreamlike qualities in Parreno’s film (some of the camera movements reminded me of the odd Steadicam weave in Sokurov’s Russian Ark), the indications of drama just out of shot also suggest links to more conventional cinema. The first shot, as I recall, is of a view over a landscape of scrubby hills, dotted with electricity pylons. The camera surveys the scene patiently before switching to focus on waves of dust being moved about by the wind. The atmosphere is one of abandonment, but is loaded with genre-film significance in the police car sitting empty at the side of the track, its lights still on and the driver’s door left open. The scene could have been lifted from a Coen Brother’s film, with its effortless insinuation that something has just happened or was just about to. The sequence succeeded in immediately setting up the idea that a ‘halt’ had been called – one that affected a pause in public services, institutional hierarchies, routine protections, having affected an interruption of stories, etc.

But what Parreno’s staged re-enactment lacks is the ramshackle, improvised nature of the crowds in Fusco’s images – the unaffected way people are climbing onto objects to get a better view, the way they hold their bodies. As James Stevenson suggests, it is not only the faces and the clothes that catch the eye, it is the hands: “Reaching out, holding babies. Praying, biting nails, waving, covering mouths, holding hands, holding flags and flowers, clutching throat, folding arms.” Fusco’s images also gain power from their narrow depth of field – the people caught in a narrow band between blurred fore- and backgrounds. It is possible that Parreno is taking existing details from the photographic archive and ‘re-listing’ them according to a different register, yet it seemed that he was willing to intervene in the images, creating scenes of his own, even if they seemed incongruous. This seemed to be encapsulated by the appearance, some way into the middle of the film, of a long static shot of a young girl sat in a small boat, floating on still water, closely cropped to give no indication as to location and no obvious connection to the train that has been running through the images thus far. All there is is a atmosphere of being un-moored, abandoned, in a picture postcard world that does not exist now and surely did not then.