Lewis Klahr lifts the heavy, creaking door behind his Los Feliz house, flooding a cluttered garage with afternoon light. “It’s like It Happened One Night,” he says. “Janie [Geiser, his wife] works over there, where it’s neater, and I work over here.” He gestures toward an old Steenbeck flatbed editing table, and beyond it, to a tripod standing amid teetering piles of books, magazines and papers. He pulls a bicycle out of the way to make more room, and begins threading a 16mm projector. There’s just enough room for a small screen, and one chair. Ready, he closes the garage door, and the projector flickers on, illuminating his latest project, a trio of gorgeous animated shorts titled The Two Minutes to Zero Trilogy.
Klahr’s trilogy is just one of several artworks by Los Angeles–based artists featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial, which opened March 2 and runs through May 28. Curated by Chrissie Iles, the Whitney’s film and video curator, and Philippe Vergne, senior curator of visual arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this year’s show bears a title for the first time — “Day for Night,” the term for the process by which filmmakers create the illusion of darkness while shooting during the day. The term serves two functions: It unites the disparate works of dozens of artists under the theme “illusion,” and it underscores the art world’s continued embrace of cinema and its provocative tropes.
And it prompts a question: How is it that artists working in the heart of Hollywood came to figure in the Whitney Biennial? In some ways, Klahr’s work is emblematic of at least one facet that unites several L.A. artists, namely a return to cinema and its apparent contradictions or duplicities. Indeed, several of the selected filmmakers, some of whom have been featured in past biennials, have films this year that reference “structural filmmaking” and its focus on the cinema’s underlying form and materials.
Klahr, for example, experiments with narrative in his trilogy. To make it, he reinvented the stories and images from four issues of a 1960s comic book called 77 Sunset Strip. “I was interested in the narrative structure and in the act of essentializing something that is already essentialized,” he says. Using only close-up and medium shots of details from the comic books, Klahr’s three films tell the same tale of money, lust and violence. In the first version, the elliptical story spins with detail after detail; the camera seems to careen through it, hunting frenetically for clarity. But, of course, appearances can be deceiving. “It seems like there’s this moving, very aggressive camera,” explains Klahr, “but, in fact, the camera never moves. It’s the comic book that moves.”
By the end of the film, we’re left swimming in colors, gestures and clues. The second version is shorter, and becomes slightly clearer. The final version, just one minute in length and accompanied by a segment of percussive music by Glenn Branca, is very clear — and yet, as the story suddenly snaps into focus in its concise form, viewers find themselves taking details from the first film in order to fill out the third. The story expands and shrinks like an accordion in our imagination, and we see a little bit of how storytelling functions. Klahr notes that his trilogy, which makes motion out of stasis, features a formal displacement that essentially lies about how the film was created. “I like those aspects of it, and the way it matches the genre,” he says. “There’s a duplicity.”
James Benning mines that sense of duplicity as well in his film 27 Years Later, for which he returned to Milwaukee and restaged every shot from his 1977 film One Way Boogie Woogie, which itself was a collection of 60 one-minute portraits of the city. The newer film offers a visceral and often amusing chronicle of the ravages of time, but it’s also very much about remembering the previous film. Benning, who says he’s participated “in four or five biennials,” will also show his 2005 film 13 Lakes, a beautiful, contemplative work comprising 13 shots of lakes from around the country, which, again, is about studying the frame and subtle shifts in color and texture.
Christopher Williams taps into structural film, too, in his biennial contribution. The artist, who works in a variety of media, including photography, film, performance, sculpture, graphic design and video, has curated a minifestival of films that have influenced him, and relate to his photography in the Biennial. One of the films is L.A.-based Morgan Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes (1973), in which Fisher, seated at a desk, describes the various possible combinations of sound and image in cinema, while the film deploys the options as they’re spoken. Again, the structures of film are revealed and explained, the illusion shattered and yet re-imagined.
The structural trend continues in T. Kelly Mason and Diana Thater’s collaborative film Jump, which features a band (headed by Mason) playing Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in 16 different musical styles while a group of teens jumps rope. Different versions of the song are treated with different editing styles, creating a surprisingly captivating meditation on montage. And there’s more — the text on the kids’ T-shirts. Thater explains: “One of the T-shirts says, ‘This machine kills fascists,’ which is what Woody Guthrie (who was Bob Dylan’s hero) had written on his guitar. And then another shirt says, ‘What machine kills fascism now?’ It’s highly referential and political commentary.” Adds Mason, “The text you see is like a Mallarmé poem, and it’s spread across a bunch of people who are in this ‘machine’ that allows them to do stuff, and it allows viewers to look at it in a way that’s not overly didactic.”
Among the other filmmakers included in the biennial are icon Kenneth Anger, represented with his new video Mouse Heaven along with several of his earlier films; Cameron Jamie (see box); and a newer L.A. resident, Ryan Trecartin, who is showing his dazzling video A Family Finds Entertainment (which was reputedly found on friendster.com and eventually made its way into the hands of the curators). Other L.A.-based artists include photographer Florian Maier-Alchen; sculptor Liz Larner; painters Monica Majoli, JP Munro and Mark Grotjahn; Matthew Monahan, whose diverse work includes drawings and sculptures; Mark Bradford, known for his collages, paintings and video work; and the ubiquitous Center for Land Use Interpretation.
Challenged and in some ways surpassed by digital media and a flurry of new technologies, film and the entire cinematic apparatus nevertheless continue to offer artists a productive model for exploring ideas of illusion and revelation. Cinema is nothing if not a series of contradictions through which reality is faked or, alternately, the fake is made real. And during an era rife with political lies masking an elusive truth — when, in a sense, we’re shooting day for night — that fluidity resonates powerfully for filmmakers and artists alike.
WHITNEY BIENNIAL 2006: “Day for Night” | Whitney Museum of American Art | 945 Madison Ave., New York | Through May 28