O século

 

The best work of art in ‘The Ungovernables’ at The New Museum…

…is by Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado, and it is called O Século (The Century) (2011).  It’s a video, roughly ten-minutes long, and it shows a sun-raked, empty street, the kind you find at the edges or in the industrial zones of cities. Marcelle and Machado’s camera overlooks the street as if from a perch on an adjacent wall, so that what we see is only pavement, gutter, curb, sidewalk and a wall opposite the camera, all of which runs the length of the frame. The top of the wall is outside that frame, but we know that it is lined with concertina wire, because we can see its shadow on the sidewalk below.  There are sewer drains, just left of center.

Then the action begins.  From the right side of the frame, all manner of things are chucked into the scene: chairs, oil drums, car tires, slatted crates, hard hats, bicycle wheels, fluorescent light bulbs (these last are particularly satisfying to watch, given how they often disintegrate with a great “POP” when breaking against the rest of the junk).  Sometimes chunks of dried dirt that must have been stuck to one or another of the things vaporize into puffs of brown smoke when landing in the scrum.

The delivery is rapid-fire and comes from a number of different positions off to the right.  It builds quickly into a steady barrage, waxes and wanes a bit, and then begins to trail off, presumably as the hurlers begin to tire and their ammunition runs out.  At one point, the scene gets enveloped in white smoke, as if some larger collapse has occurred off screen.  Then it dissipates, and a final few things (some more fluorescent light bulbs, luckily) are thrown at and onto the pile.

It all takes about five minutes, at which point the video transitions back to the empty street, but now mirror-reversed.  The volleys begin again, the junk is hurled, but it is comes from the left.  Junk, smoke, smashing bulbs, it’s all there.

O Século is a powerful distillation of the kind of ballistics that have become so familiar to us in the age of filmed, televised, and streaming conflict. It would be a mistake to romanticize the action though.  The resistance fighter, the demonstrator and the protestor are here, but so too is the rioter, the looter, the vandal.  The act of throwing something about which one cares only that it hit its mark and do its damage, to person or property—or that it be seen to harbor this intention; so many times such throws are complete in and of themselves as acts, regardless of whether they hit anything at all—is a pure act of aggression.

This does not mean, however, that it is not historical.  As Marcelle and Machado’s title suggests, this act belongs to a period, and which period is given by what is thrown.  The light bulbs, the bicycle wheels, the hard hats, the oil drums, these are products of the Twentieth Century, as is their visibility as items in an arsenal of impromptu urban battles. That O Século was made in this, the twenty-first century, gives it a necessary ambiguity too. Will it memorialize the century just past?  Or is it prophetic for the century that has just begun?

As a work of art it is undoubtedly a product the 1900s.  Its formal rigor (the empty street is composed like a color field painting—think Kenneth Noland), its fixed-camera performance (a form that traces its genealogy back through Bruce Nauman to the films of Edison and the Lumieres), its dependence on gravity and accumulative spread (Jackson Pollock, Barry Le Va), its quotidian character (Duchamp), its mid-point mirror reversal (a hallmark of 1960s structural and materialist filmmaking), and so much more anchor O Século in twentieth-century art’s incessant, sometimes obsessive, concern with form.

In contrast to most everything else at The Ungovernables, which is almost singularly concerned with content, with what all this work is about and with what it all means, work which is in many cases seemingly wholly unaware of or willfully amnesiac about the art of the recent past, as if to suggest that its simply having been made is justification enough for our attending to it—in contrast to all of this, O Século is exceptional.

jonathantdneil.com

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