Aernout Mik’s Survey at MoMA Replaces the Answers with Questions

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MoMA’s survey of Dutch artist Aernout Mik’s moving image installations keeps you waiting. Scattered in improbable places throughout the museum, his films often grab viewers with the same immediacy as news media footage. But after ten minutes, it becomes clear that no story will develop. His installations, suspended in time by perpetual loops, construct scenes that are bizarrely unaffected by their duration. Despite the occasional promise of action, Mik’s work is entirely devoid of narrative. While many of them deal with contemporary issues, none of them contribute judgment or interpretation. On the contrary, Mik’s work leaves its audience knowing far less than when they first encountered it.

Some are more effective than others. We were grateful when a reviewer for a prominent art magazine burst out laughing while watching the artist’s earliest installation, Fluff (1996). Unlike some of Mik’s films which implicitly encourage the audience to find a story where there is none, Fluff doesn’t contain even the suggestion of narrative. During the film, a group of men in what appears to be warehouse sit and stand, take off their pants and shirts, and put on a mask. Occasionally, some invisible force pelts them with greenish wads of what is presumably fluff. “Look at that guy,” the reviewer said, referring to one of the men in the video. “He’s trying so hard not to laugh.”

His newer works, however, deal with the absurd without descending into absurdity themselves. The footage in Scapegoats and Schoolyard, on the second floor, blur the boundary between documentary and fiction in a way that highlights the futility of seeking truth or even meaning in what we see. Both works draw on a collective consciousness familiar with images of brutality, strife, war and civic unrest. In fact, upon first glance either could be taken from newsreels of current events. (In fact, Raw Footage is the only piece edited from actual news documents.)

Scapegoats presents us with an undefined military operation in a sports arena where we immediately recognize the fatigues, the weapons, the world weary faces. Although our instinct is to discern the details, no further story develops. After a few minutes, our familiarity and understanding becomes ignorance and confusion. Not only does this removal from reality make us consider the events taking place on the screen differently, it also asks us to consider the way we perceive the screen.

While it can bewilder in some places, Mik’s work is notable for the way it asks its audience to question our notions of time, narrative, meaning and ultimately truth. Throughout the exhibit, we heard people grasping at ways to describe what they experienced — responses ranged from profoundly simple to maddeningly pretentious. One man tried to communicate his take on Schoolyard, saying, “It’s like the film is like removing my brain from reality.” The woman next to him turned around and said, “I don’t feel that way at all. I think he’s unintentionally mocking a Greek worship ritual.” We suspect this is exactly the type of discourse that Mik hopes to encourage.

MoMA hosts a Gallery Talks event on the Aernout Mik exhibit on May 15 at 11:30 a.m. Click here for more details.