• Review

  • August 30th, 2013 08.30.2013

    MAC de Montréal: Eve Sussman // whiteonwhite


    The highly stylized and meticulously crafted exhibition whiteonwhite begins before we even realize. In the hall that connects the three current exhibitions at the Musée l’Art Contemporain in Montréal hangs two color photographs. The photographs portray the same room—an office with a pristine desk, chairs, carpet, and wall map. In Jeff in Yuri’s Office, a man stands with his back to us, one hand in pocket, a briefcase in the other, as he stares out into the glowing sheer curtains of a window to his right side. Beside it hangs Lera in Yuri’s Office; a woman stands with her body angled away from the camera, holding a leather bag at her side, and a knee bent as though she is mid-step.  At first glance, one may note the mid-century elegance of the furnishings, the drama of stillness in the pose, and the silver space shuttle sculpture upon the desk. What one might not note immediately is the brick wall looming above and behind the office, hinting at limits of a constructed set, and the brief case in the man’s hand that quietly reappears, tucked beside a chair in the image of the woman.

    Eve Sussman, along with photographer Simon Lee and the Rufus Corporation simultaneously propose and deconstruct an elaborate narrative for their viewers. Text on the wall scratches the surface of the intensive research behind the exhibition: Sussman and her crew’s journey through Russia and Central Asia, the transcendentalist writings and work of Suprematist painter Kasmir Malevich, and an investigation of the Soviet space program.

    One is constantly disoriented and reoriented when walking through the spaces that compose whiteonwhite. The exhibition is continuously references itself, revealing itself, and in some ways, re-contextualizing itself. Each element exists autonomously, like singular and personal reactions to the artists’ travels. Yet together, the works produce a vague and surreal archive. They propose a fiction while drawing heavily from what is concrete.  The display has two beginnings (or two ends), both with identical wall text to introduce the works. At one end stands a quarter section of an office, fastidiously recreated from a photograph Sussman took of an actual office while visiting Star City, the training center of Russia’s space program since the 1960s. The light of day is fabricated behind the curtains of the windows, the paper wall map is damaged just so, with such specificity that it creates a sense of disquiet; this is the backdrop of the original two photographs in the hall. This is also the office of the first man to enter space, Yuri Gagarin. The print of Gagarin’s words is softly lit on the wall to the left, “On the twelfth of April, 1961, a Soviet space craft called ‘Vostok’ was put into orbit around earth; and I was aboard.” The words and office together are, upon first impressions, uncomplicated and detached. But in this void, in the absence of a man behind the desk, one is allowed the space to reflect on memories (whether real or re-imagined) of nationalist fervor, the seemingly endless potential of space-travel, and of hope. But the weight of this momentous event, a single man reaching distances never before thought possible, might be the same alone in his shuttle or alone in his office.

    The sound of the exhibition’s centerpiece, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, perforates the surrounding space, installed around the viewing room that contains the film are various pieces of the whole. The reconstruction of Gagarin’s office, a storyboard display of cards with text and photographs, three HD videos of apartment balconies entitled Winter Garden, and a row of HD video projections of footage taken through train windows, titled How to Tell the Future from the Past v.2, which was collected over the 72 hours of the filmmakers’ journey from Kazakh to the Chinese border.


    The second entrance brings one into a room of Simon Lee’s digital c-print photographs. The series Where the Future Throws a Shadow Over the Land contains seven photographs, each all simply titled Carousel, Pond, etc. Lee has manipulated these ominous landscapes to physically produce the shadow that falls over the land. They hang in white frames, nearly dwarfed by the large walls, like fragments of a discontinuous landscape. The series is a candid representation of a sensation that hovers above the entire exhibition. It is a dark and ominous meeting of nostalgia and anxiety – a sentiment normally reserved for what is to come. What follows are two rooms, each with a single channel high definition video projection on large flat screen monitors. The first, Balcony, is a six-minute loop of collaged footage of windows and balconies, overlaid into a nearly uniform texture of stained stone and activity. Sussman and Lee have included the white noise of the street to place you, the viewer, at the foot of this architectural assemblage as though it were real. The editing is revealed in the transitions of new balconies and windows over the existing fabric.

    The second, Seitenflügel, is a 28-minute loop depicting the view of an apartment building’s façade. A grid of windows depict activity, or a lack there of, in each apartment. A young woman searches her closet for the right outfit for the evening, a man washes his dishes, a curtain blows in the wind. Here too, with patience and an attention to detail, one may see small edits or awkward angles that reveal the choreographed nature of the piece. The monitor is carefully placed on a wall opposite of two windows of the museum, as though the video does not need a viewer—it is content in its continuous loop of windows facing windows. The activities within each apartment will continue, just as life continues on the streets of downtown Montreal.

    The exhibition’s motif unravels in whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, a piece of cinema, with no clear beginning or end, though “cinema” might not be an appropriate description. The piece is isolated in a viewing room complete with old theatre chairs, projected ahead while on the periphery hang two monitors continuously running code. Without knowledge of the process behind whiteonwhite, it is possible to identify the relationship between the monitors and the projected film, listing lines such as “found match for tag: anxiety.” At that moment in the film, protagonist Jeff Holtz might be sitting upon a train looking ill and agitated. The monitors feel like a sci-fi gimmick to create unease in the viewer. They suggest that the viewer should not wholly trust what they see as the story unfolds before them. However, upon reading the description of the piece, it is revealed that this code is not a strange addition, but the very thing producing the film as we watch it. Sussman, entertaining the idea of the happy accident, has created what she calls the Serendipity Machine. Programmer Jeff Garneau has programmed an algorithm that identifies pre-attributed tag words to match video with sound. The algorithm draws from a database of 3,000 clips of film and video, 80 voiceovers, and 150 clips of music. What results is a strange and fractured journey, saturated with paranoia and a struggle to communicate.

    The work, in film noir fashion, weaves together a narrative that references a loss of language, autonomy, and even human nature as the government of a fictional city, City-A, alters the water to disrupt its citizens’ biological clocks. whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir is quite simply beautiful, steeped in cryptic poetry; as a female voice narrates, “The horizon is everywhere/ he thinks nothing is charming.” Each piece of the exhibition repeats itself, embedded within whiteonwhite, as though it should all make sense to you now – the set of Gagarin’s office, the architecture of Wintergarden, Lee’s ominous landscapes. The logic is fleeting, and the film will never play the same way again. It will leave you alone to your own devices to construct it as you wish and remember it the way you thought it to be.

    For more information on whiteonwhite, visit the MAC de Montréal’s website here.