The White Building
In 1963, only a decade after Cambodia’s independence from France, the White Building in Phnom Penh was built in a style that combined Cambodian architecture with French Modernism. The project started full of hope for the future and expressed the country’s newborn independence, and its arrival on the international scene as a modern and innovative nation.
The White Building was not an isolated project that functioned as a landmark with a statement; it was part of a larger social plan. The residency was the centre of an infrastructure for a new society, where cultural activities were accessible to less wealthy residents. Payment plans were provided so they could become homeowners. The National Theatre and Exhibition hall were also part of the complex and many residents were performance artists themselves. This area was built upon a dream that faced many difficulties in the last decades. The tragedy of the recent history of Cambodia passed through the walls of the White Building. In 1975 the soldiers of Khmer Rouge occupied the city and its inhabitants start moving away. After that, 90% of all artists living in the area were executed, as the traditional performance art was seen as a symbol of the old regime. The fading of the ideal that once was the fundament for the construction of the White Building happened simultaneously with its aesthetic decay. Hsu Chia-Wei invited traditional performance artists that used to live in the building, to perform their different disciplines in the spaces that are marked by traces of fire, humidity and mould.
The sounds of every performance echo trough the spaces and are bounced back by the dirty walls. The movement of the dancers take up the space that the architecture left behind. Their play creates an illusion, an escape from daily reality. Their colourful masks and pure sounds clash with the history that is manifested in the decay of the building. They take up the space and appropriate it by transforming it temporarily into another dimension. A story, a dream, something that doesn’t necessarily has to be true. It connects the past to the present trough this part of Cambodian identity that survived and now shows its magical splendour in the White Building that is no longer white.
The Super 8-film footage that makes up the Film Métrage is unedited material that wasn’t selected in other works by Olivia Mihaltianu. The choice to show them now, within an elaborate installation, reveals the selection process that is linked inevitably to a creation of narrative by means of images. By using footage that is actually destined to disappear, she plays with the negatives of external stories.
A beautiful dialogue arises from the juxtaposition of the prevailing aesthetics of the Super 8-film and the content of the images. Its way of recording forms as a framed eye, where the laterals are black, and the film, marked by a blank spot of light, makes that all images bear like a stamp of identification. The loud noise the Super 8 projector makes, contributes to the dominant manner of showing the films that tries to deny any narrative. Content-wise the footage is shot over recent years and shows how our world is modernized by industrial and technical progress. It takes us to places where labour is taken over by machines; it shows monuments from the past and cities consisting of layers of history and modern expansion.
When an archive is shown with blank labels that say: ‘Identification Tag’, it seems as if the content of the film actually speaks to its form. It produces a metaphor of the intent to classify our own world and grasping the passing of time by images. Recognizing the blank spots of an archive relates to the choice of the footage that was also obliterated by a selection process.
Film Métrage plays with the expectation of seeing something dated that very subtly is challenged by the contemporary content of the images. It not only concerns how time is marked by the velocity of technical improvement but also what tools we have in order to look at our own world. How do we look at our changing city, our streets, our factories, our labour and craftsmanship, our traditions? The rapid developments of technique that change our daily lives become indicators of time when displayed in images. The way our world becomes perceived as dated and out-dated by the technical means that indicate what image belongs to our past, present or future. When technique is displayed by an image it immediately communicates a queue that indicates a certain period in (recent) history. Therefore, the film is a critical homage to cope with the overload of images that reflect our own world and how we are consuming and digesting them.
This two-channel video installation takes observation as its subject. One screen, a large 4:3 projection, shows portraits of people in a public space, who are filmed without being aware of the camera. It is clear that they are looking at something, but we don’t see what they are looking at. By removing the object of the gaze, the video tries to capture the act of looking itself. The selection of the people we see is wide. We see faces of people from all ages, different backgrounds and from many walks of life. All these faces are constituted by the same elements: two eyes, one nose, one mouth. But although every face shares this basic framework, there are few things as different as two faces.
The second screen, a television mounted on the wall, shows the origin of the soundtrack that dominates the installation: the hands of a percussionist playing timpani. The music is recorded in one take, and adds a layer of performativity to the installation that is reminiscent of the way silent movies used to be accompanied by a musician. The music gives a direction to the interpretation of the film, but is also clearly a separate element, and in the end the relationship between the soundtrack and the images remains ambiguous. At times, the blink of an eye coincides with a hit on a drum. Or the slow change of direction of a pair of eyes follows a drum roll evoking a feeling of anticipation. But at other moments, the music seems to follow its own course and logic independently from the film.
Looking Back has its roots in the performance How can we know the dancer from the dance? which took place for six months in the train station of Utrecht in 2016. This performance was a daily choreography in the train station, based on the behaviour, postures and gestures that people exhibit in such places. So, for this performance, the artists observed people, then, they created a work based on these observations; later, the people observed the piece, and at the same time, observed themselves. It is this specific gaze, this moment of stillness and concentration in the constant flux of a public transport hub that triggered the creation of Looking Back.