Shimon Attie at Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street, New York, NY
Everything that occurs has a story.
A story is a narrative, a yarn, a tale, told in such a way that designs to inspire the viewer to grab on and become involved in the account before his eyes. Whether it is by Aeschylus or Hitchcock, truncated and amplified representations of life’s dramas take the most salient features, then hitch them together and present them in such a way in order to make sense to the individual observing it all.
At the dawn of the motion picture, imagine this, no one knew how to tell a story with moving pictures. The first reels projected before an audience presented bits of photographed reality, i.e. an oncoming train, a couple kissing, a vaudeville act. The Russians (Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov) figured this narrative puzzle out. Starting in the early 20s, they began utilizing a technique known as montage, which greatly improved the transmission of a narrative:
a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between those images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience.
If this works, and I believe it does when describing the language of cinema, then my question to Shimon Attie becomes: how do you succeed in achieving the above mentioned utilizing not only a different format but starting off from an entirely different set of prepositions?
I was smitten, captivated and confounded by Mr. Attie’s installation, Racing Clocks Run Slow: Archaeology of a Racetrack, a 3-panel video installation that utilizes only the most essential ingredients for presenting a tight story/history lesson. The piece opened on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Bridgehampton Auto Race Track. Mr. Attie has brought together individuals whose lives revolved around or were in some way connected to this racing landmark. This is an homage, but it is also a taut, super-distilled chronicle, minimalist, restrained, employing only the most essential of ingredients.
All the necessary elements are there, even the orchestral crescendos (built out of racetrack sounds: high-revving engines, the roar of passing cars, etc.) hit at seemingly perfect intervals. Watching it, my heart swelled. I was involved. The gallery and the rest of the audience around me melted away and disappeared. How did this happen? The above description of montage notwithstanding, Shimon Attie’s video installation contains not one iota of what most of us would think constitutes a flesh-and-blood story: there is no protagonist, no desire-line of protagonist and his goal, no logs-thrown-in-the-path, no love interest.
To clarify: although the above definition of montage describes merely a technique of storytelling, Shimon Attie’s Archaeology is said technique fleshed out and made living. There is no story, per se, but I react just as much as if I’m experiencing one.
The individuals presented here in their standard attire from the racetrack days are videotaped holding static poses. There are no digital effects employed, no photographic stills utilized. The only elements that move are the camera and sometimes the rotating platforms on which the actors stand.
Across the three screens we witness multiple variations of a tableaux vivant: in some instances each actor pans across all 3 screens, in other instances said models occupy a matrix across all three or a single screen, in still more instances the models occupy only a single screen. Of course many variations on these motifs are explored.
What Mr. Attie has performed so successfully is to have presented a narrative, sans narrative.
He has stripped the piece down to only the barest essentials, still successfully drawing the viewer in (like any good story must do) and yet, at the same time, presenting us with a finely-assembled piece which stands on its own as an object in a gallery. Mr. Attie has straddled the two distinct forms and has proven himself more than capable in the conveyance of the necessary ingredients essential to each.
Mr. Attie’s shortcut history is possibly a portent of things to come in narrative cinema and video art. If one looks around in the commercial world of the moving image (cinema, television, internet) one may notice a constant attempt at “shorthand” going on, a drive to squeeze the most amount of narrative thrust and character into the smallest amount of time. What Mr. Attie does is not only go one better by removing the usual narrative “fat” (read: obligatory emotional indulgence) from the piece and focusing on still-lifes, impressions, flashbulb-reality forever frozen, distant memories experienced in life’s twilight) but utilize the commercial process of “squeezing” (much like an MP3 using lots of compression) by packing only the necessary information into the piece. At the same time, he does away with the wretched excesses of sensory overindulgences. He removes almost everything else and lets the audience do the filling inand gives them the space to do so. It’s the moving image started off from an entirely different series of premises. It’s as if Mr. Attie has gone back to the late-teens/early-20s and asked the same questions the Russians were asking, but, leaping off from a starting point far away from where they were, he came to an entirely different set of conclusions.
Racing Clocks Run Slow: Archaeology of a Racetrack played September 4 through 20. The Attraction of Onlookers—Aberfan: an Anatomy of a Welsh Village plays September 23 through October 4.
 Mamet, David. On Directing Film. Penguin Books, New York, 1991.
Hans Michaud is a freelance journalist in New York.
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