Citizens and Subjects: Aernout Mik
The at the 52nd Biennale di Venezia
Among the seventy-six countries participating in the ongoing 2007 Biennale in Venice, The Netherlands were not one to be left out. Aernout Mik, a native of Groningen who currently lives and works in Amsterdam, represent his country in the Dutch Pavilion, one of many art spaces – or villas, really – that are scattered throughout the picturesque Giardini on the island’s eastern tip. Mik, who has worked in the past with diverse media including sculpture, installation, and projections, created a new video installation for the Biennale. His project, a set of multi-channel videos, is the first of three parts that constitute “Citizens and Subjects.” The two other components include a book (creatively referred to as a ‘critical reader’), and an extension of the Dutch Pavilion exhibition that is to take place in the this coming fall.
Mik’s new creation for the 2007 exhibition consists of three separate video presentations, entitled Training Ground, Convergencies, and Mock Up. These titles reflect the subject of the videos, namely the mock-emergencies that military and police personnel stage regularly in order to train their responses to immigration-, border patrol- and terrorism-related crises. However, despite the incredibly large screens that host these videos, my attention was captured first by the setting around these screens – or, rather, the absence of it. Mik decorated the Dutch Pavilion to resemble the stark interior of an immigration detention center. Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by an interrogation desk, a glistening metal urinal, and bunk-beds with standard-issue vinyl mattresses. The assistants staffing the Dutch Pavilion are dressed up as detention center employees and their blue uniforms enhance the bleak atmosphere.
By the time a viewer reaches the video screens, a noticeable level of discomfort has almost certainly built up inside him. Splayed out on several screens, each of the three video installations depicts a seemingly monotonous sequence of uniformed officials questioning, searching, and holding detainees. The cameras jump arbitrarily from object to object, sometimes focusing on the strained face of an obviously worried detainee, other times following the barrel of a guard’s rifle. At times, the camera allows us to stand witness to a thorough search as detainees are groped relentlessly at train stations, on highways, and in the middle of vast abandoned landscapes.
The flyer that accompanies each exhibit states that the videos are a mixture of training mock-ups and actual footage, but without this external information it is difficult to tell what exactly is going on. The viewer is bombarded with the repetitive activities that constitute today’s “security measures,” and the absence of distinct dialogue, context (the footage comes from many different countries), or any correlation between the multiple screens further detracts from the purpose of the activities depicted onscreen. Instead of orderly, logical actions, the security-dictated searches become aimless, repetitive exercises entirely devoid of meaning.
Somewhere in the detention sequence of Training Ground, an entire scene is filmed from behind an unidentified van, such that the vehicle’s roof obscures the shot. The top of the van is studded with colorful toy action-figurines, and these plastic heroes steal the viewer’s attention away from the ongoing searches taking place in the far off distance. Try as he might to decipher the detention scene in the background, the viewer’s focus is forced back onto the miniature toys, and along with it goes his sense of reality. As a result of Mik’s clever camerawork, the plastic figurines become more real to the viewer than the officers and detainees in the background, whose obscure, repetitive actions make them seem more like drones than people. The viewer can’t help but contrast the undeniable heroism of Superman and his crew with the inexplicable, cyclic activities of the officers, and the detention scene suffers greatly from this comparison. By blurring the particular facts of the taped scenes, Mik emphasizes the absurd repetition embedded in each detention exercise and casts doubt on the purpose – and the significance – of these routines.
In the flyer, Mik is said to “question the simplified distinction between subjects and citizens today, asking, aren’t we all actually subjected in the same way to this disquieting reality?” and to “undermine the distinction and clear separation between subjection and possible liberation.” In the context of this exhibit – where “Citizens” of a country are entitled to the full rights and privileges while “Subjects” are made vulnerable (for example, to searches) through their allegiance to that country – the message surfaces easily: are we imprisoned more by the modern threats associated with immigration (such as terrorism), or by the fear and paralysis that we impose upon ourselves in the never-ending battle for security? Are we all not deeply affected by the searches, interrogations, and detentions that take place every day throughout the western world? It may seem that these far-away matters are of no concern to an ordinary citizen – they are mere images on the nightly news, in the magazines, on Mik’s gigantic video screens. But every semblance of distance melts away when the viewer takes his eyes off the screen and realizes that he is surrounded by prison-like guards, bunk-beds, and interrogation desks. Even as viewers, we are already trapped by the effects of what we see onscreen: we are detainees in Mik’s makeshift detention center; we are the prisoners of our own fear and the meaningless emergency-response routines that are constantly re-developed and practiced by our government agencies; we are, Mik says, Subjects.
Citizens and Subjects: Aernout Mik
La Biennale di Venezia: 52nd International Art Exhibition
Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense.
June 10 – November 21, 2007
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Anna Shifrin studied biology as an undergrad at Harvard but
decided she can't stay away from writing. She splits her time between
Boston and Amsterdam and her focus between science and art.