This isnt a movie, its a video installation, in a gallery. You can walk in and see it any time. Whats the difference? Movies, at least here and now, are usually striving to be seamless illusions, alternate worlds in which one disappears for an hour and a half. Thats often a wonderful experience, but its not one that Catherine Sullivan is trying to create.
The gallery at the Walker has eight different simultaneous projections going. They are populated with extravagantly dressed actors, playing out tableaus that are difficult to make sense of, therefore difficult to disappear into. You can see these actors from outside, notice the details of gesture and costume, which are often resonant, bringing up connections cultural and personal.
Not getting lost in these performances in some way means seeing their contours more clearlybut you have to hold yourself in place to do so. They lack a continuous storywhich usually functions as a kind of sorting device for whats seen in movies, a way to rationalize the images, make them familiar. These remain strange, which is how they perform their work.
Doryun Chong, the curator of this massively complex show, which was developed for the Walker, notes that Sullivan has constructed a willfully imperfect apparatus for understanding the world and its historical and social contingencies. This is film that presents its viewers with pieces. The connections between them arent always obvious; viewers will, perhaps, hunt down the connections, in history, in the social world, or in said viewers reveries or memories or dreams.
At the heart of the different strands of images are three locations (the Vizcaya Mansion, a Florida palace-of-excess built by the industrialist James Deering; a Chicago tenement that represents the dwellings of Deerings workers; and an ice rink where the extraordinary local skater Rohene Ward dances to a setting of Baudelaires wrenchingly beautiful poem Invitation to the Voyage.)
Whats the connection? There are lots of them available, but youll need to pull them out and try them on for yourself, and the obvious ones dont seem to be the important ones. The story is: theres a wealthy industrialist whos located the last two Neanderthals in the world. Hes brought them to his mansion and is trying to make them reproduce. Meanwhile, back in a crappy Chicago apartment, his workers are somehow involved in performing, or living, scenes from the silent films that the industrialist buys from Pathescope Films.
So the workers not only perform the labor that sustains the industrialist in his mansion; they also perform the dream-work that underlies the rising industry of film, the immensely lucrative and culturally influential force that will dominate the worlds consciousness of America all through the twentieth century which is just beginning, in this narrative. Sullivans not so subtle exposure of the industrial nature of film still manages to get in by the back door and insinuate this insight, rather than walking in the front and hitting you in the face.
But the fascination of the piece is less in the overarching storieseven though theyre witty in the ways that they play on more typical leadenfooted accounts of the rise of American industrial and cultural mightthan in the loving and almost frenetic inventiveness of the movement and sound of the work.
Dylan Skybrook is well known here for dance made through seeing human movement and capturing and elaborating aspects of it, aspects that through elaboration become both comic and tragic. Hes a kind of dandy of the everyday. In these films, this approach is given lots to work with: lots of bodies, costumes, colors; lots of music and sound.
The elaboration works. Watching the actors and dancers, what you think is, My god, that must have been so much fun to do! (Of course, thats what makes some people really mad at adventurous work like thisit almost always seems like the artists had way more fun making it than viewers can possibly get out of it. )
Theres tons more going on in these films. There are sections filmed by a Nollywood director (yes, folks, its Bollywood in Nigeria!). There is music written by Joachim Neander, the inoffensive but eccentric German cleric who gave his name to the valley (thal in German) that gave its name to the bones found there. Neander is thus a kind of unwitting godfather to the Neanderthals, the sort of inexorable and absurd relation that Sullivan seems to delight in. (Neander's music was pulled into a larger soundscape by Sean Griffin, who wrote the soundtrack.)
Theres an ice rink, and the amazing movement of Rohene Ward, a local figure skater, coming from outside the somewhat airless tradition of figure skating and putting the rigid proprieties of it to shame with his passionate invention. Theres an imagined language, Mousterian, supposedly spoken by these last Neanderthals, invented by Sean Griffin, another collaborator on the project.
All of these things have resonances that will spin out connections with the larger story if you let them. The key thing is to give the piece time. Be prepared to spend two hourscmon, its less than a Harry Potter film!relaxing into the spinning resonance of this big filmic playground. Its a whole new way of thinking movies.
Related Events: Sept 13, artist talk, Catherine Sullivan, Dylan Skybrook, Sean Griffin, 7 pm