Starfish, it was once thought, led a largely static and plant-like existence. Yet the advent of time-lapse photography in the 1950s unveiled their secret world: a rich, slow-motion society replete with many of the curious behaviors common to the rest of the biosphere.
David Claerbout also looks for secret motion in the static, and here his target is the ostensibly still photographic image. Hidden improbably amidst the Boijmans Van Beuningen’s daunting 18th and 19th century collection, the older of Claerbout’s two works here, Borculoseweg, Ruurlo, 1910, is a video projection of a found black & white photograph: a generic Dutch tableau replete with windmill and oak, itself a reference to the popular painted landscapes of the day (many of which inhabit the surrounding rooms). Yet we quickly notice the tree’s leaves fluttering gently, digitally, in blocky pixels that are anything but static. This fixed moment has been “reanimated,” unwittingly thrust into the here and now.
A second installation approaches this same effect more timelessly. The room that houses Venice Lightboxes is enveloped in a sickly Venetian heat that’s less Biennale 2003 than Thomas Mann 1912. With nowhere to sit, you grope through the darkened space hoping not to knock over anything expensive. Yet the “plays with notions of temporality” gimmick doesn’t jump out as eagerly as it does in Borculoseweg – here, it’s the slow processes of biology and physics, not ephemeral digital trickery, that allow the pictures to mutate, from imperceptible grey blobs to the outlines of Venice, which grow more lucid the longer you let your eyes adjust. This less literal explication is more effective, yet also more work, demanding not only your presence, but also your patience and sweat.
Though it takes effort to perceive, “timeless” artworks can and do change over time – through decay or shoddy stewardship, but also through cultural rehabilitation: Van Gogh, also well-represented in these halls, was a punch line in his day, and the Canalettos and Guardis featured here were once little more than Venetian postcards for the wealthy, long before that city had become touristic shorthand for high culture. Its ancient buildings would seem the epitome of stasis, but they too erode and decompose. Given time, trees move, kitsch turns sublime, and blurry becomes clear.
(Originally published in Flash Art in October 2003)