Shorts... Cut

By Metin Alsanjak

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A recent international gallery commission put the acceleration into artists’ film


GERMANY. FRANKFURT. THE SCHIRN GALLERY. AN EXHIBITION. 3”.  

Three curators commissioned a series of ten artists’ films. Backed by a mobile communications giant, each film had a budget of 25,000 euros. The central rule: each work was to be no more than 3 minutes long.

This was an exhibition of artists’ films where the entire show lasted 30 minutes, where you didn’t wander in and out of rooms dependent on whether you liked the piece, where you just waited for the next one, where the gallery was a cinema playing a short-film programme on a loop, where the 21st century attention span is catered for and fed. Watching the exhibition, the single most powerful sentiment was that three minutes of moving image can be made to feel like a day, 30 minutes or three seconds.

This was indeed part of the idea behind the 3” exhibition at Frankfurt’s SCHIRN Gallery, according to curators Max Hollein, Martina Weinhart and Hans Ulrich Obrist, particularly when they were choosing which artists to commission. “We knew that Jonas Akerlund would produce a very different work to Anri Sala, that each artist would produce very different work from one another,” says Martina Weinhart. Sala, whose work inspired Time Zones: Recent Film and Video at Tate Modern last Autumn, and Jonas Akerlund, a feature filmmaker and music video director, represent two extremes of the three minute project.  

Akerlund’s micro-documentary Turn the Page pushes at the absolute outer limit of how quickly a person can comprehend conventional film narration. The Swedish film-maker takes the rapid-fire editing of a promo, a soundtrack made up of several songs from the same band (Metallica) and gives us a fictional documentary about the challenging life of an erotic dancer where we can’t tell where reality begins and ends. The result is three minutes where we experience all the emotional impact of a conventional movie or documentary with a beginning, an end, a high and a low.

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Turn the Page is not therefore paced like a conventional short, ending with the classic twist-in-the-tale that so many employ. It is not an advert for a larger project – it is the project (albeit a shorter take on Akerlund’s original 14 minute version). It does not follow most experimental or artists’ films in challenging the norms of visual communication. It just takes the form we have become most accustomed to and condenses it into an instant bite size chunk of compacted feature film. Mesmerising our senses with the simplest possible way of telling a story, Akerlund’s work represents something outside of the trailer, the artists’ film and even the short film genres.

In complete contrast Anri Sala’s silent Cymbal shows light reflecting off a cymbal in darkness. The cymbal is hit by a black gloved hand throwing shimmering beams of bright white light into the audience as it sways on its stand. The audience registers the experience of what they see very quickly, becoming aware that what they will see for the next three minutes is not going to change. The camera is static, the gloved hand goes on hitting the cymbal, we go on hearing nothing, experiencing only flashes of light. The audience’s three minutes is spent thinking about how they are experiencing what they see, much like they were absorbing a painting of a single object or a song with one note. It goes without saying that the light flashes stand in brilliantly for the great sonic volume we never hear.

Most of the other artists in the exhibition fall in between these extremes, but that is not to say that the works resemble one another. The experiences the artists are able to produce within the time are genuinely diverse. They are also helpfully indicative of the effect limited duration has on our experience of the moving image.

Marcus Schinwald, whose choreography-based piece has a dancing woman shaking and destroying her Viennese apartment, which also appears to be destroying itself, seeks to make the audience feel vast waves of time pass by and engulf the lives of his characters. His slow-tempo, crackly soundtrack, which sounds like a lesson narrated on a radio, gives off an atmosphere of slow decay, and the whole work offers an experience apparently much longer than its actual running time.

Meanwhile, Doug Aitken’s The Moment addresses these questions of perceived time with a sophisticated melding of footage; of people dreaming and exterior environments. There is a real immediacy to the work as the images flash dreamily by, particularly as the pace builds to a crescendo and all the characters wake suddenly. Much like Schinwald, Aitken sets out to create a sensation of a different time scale and mood for his audience.

Similar in their ability to ‘lengthen’, while also questioning how we perceive the narrative, Yang Fudong, Philippe Parreno and duo Roth Stauffenberg play with the present-tense’s desire to guess what will happen according to genre experiences. Yang Fudong’s Lock Again involves a glamorous girl and two uniformed men who become hostages with blood on their face, then appear to be free, or hiding out. Fudong keeps any narrative resolution here tantalisingly out of reach.

Berlin filmmaking duo Roth Stauffenberg take this one step further and lead the viewer up a series of narrative dead ends. In particular they question how documentary has the ‘stigma’ of reality attached to it, and want to make explicit our often misleading assumptions of ‘reality’ versus fiction. “As soon as the camera is there it becomes fiction” says Christopher Roth. Chopping and changing the format, the characters, the setting and the scenes, their sophisticated stream of narrative is connected only through their very visible editing.

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Franz Stauffenberg was aware that the experience of seeing all the work in 30 minutes was very different to the typical use of moving image in the gallery space. “By showing everything in 3 minute form on a loop you are flattening the work. It’s not like you decide to watch a minute then watch the whole thing.”

Alexander Birchler of Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler also raises concerns about the 3” exhibitions format, questioning whether it may be “too easy”, although he also found that the time limit was a “healthy” factor too, making the work tighter and more economical.

Birchler and Stauffenberg raise the provocative question of whether 3” is yet another exercise in condensing the more complex and multi-layered strands of culture into something that can be spoon fed to a society ever more limited by time. Can 3” be taken as an example of what we now want from artists’ moving image? Something we can download on the internet, take home and watch on DVD, watch on our mobile phones? Are we yielding to commercial demands by making artists’ film less time consuming?

Some of the artists sought to offer an answer to these questions, in particular Philippe Parreno, who also helped develop the exhibition with Christopher Roth and the curators. In The Power Station, his static camera absorbs the lighting up of a distant tent in silence. In the first two minutes the audience have to guess what action there will be, if any, and where the landscape they are seeing could be. Soon after the tent’s lights go on, an American voice begins to sing a blues song. The viewer is immediately forced to jump to conclusions. Is the landscape in the US? Does the song signify the stories of men who work in the ‘power station’ of the title?

The reality is that the scene could be anywhere, that there is no way of getting the answers we are so desperate for. The shortness of the film compounds the problem, giving narrative questions a pressured urgency. Parreno and the other artists have, for the most part, only presented part of the story and, even when a short film like Jonas Akerlund’s successfully answers our narrative needs in three minutes, we are still left, naturally, wanting more.


The 3” exhibition catalogue, with texts in English and German, includes a DVD of all the short films and is available from www.schirn-kunsthalle.de

Metin Alsanjak is a London-based freelance writer and also works on this very publication.

Stills from the exhibition commissions.