David Claerbout is a Belgian artist in his late 30s. Nationality is rarely determining as regards art. Jean-Luc Godard and Paul Klee, two of the freer-floating sensibilities in 20th-century culture, were born in Switzerland, for goodness’ sake. But in Claerbout’s case it’s telling that he should come from such an in-between place: not France, not the Netherlands, but a country that draws on both for an identity that’s distinct itself yet elusive.
Claerbout creates wall-filling images that incorporate elements of video and still photography. Think of them as moving stills — or frozen videos (thawing, actually, since all of them do move, though in some cases at a barely glacial pace).
Claerbout’s self-titled show, which runs at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center through April 6, consists of seven such works. They range from “Bourdeaux Piece,” which is clearly a video, albeit with a notable durational twist, to “Vietnam, 1967, near Duc Pho (Reconstruction after Hiromishi Mine),” which only very close observation reveals to be something other than a standard photograph. Both are in color, as is one other work. The remaining four are in black and white. Not that that matters much to Claerbout. Appearance, for him, is mainly a means to pondering much different ends: the passage of time and ordering of space.
“Bourdeaux Piece,” for example, consists of a fairly straightforward narrative, roughly 12 minutes in length, inspired by Godard’s film “Contempt.” The twist is that Claerbout kept shooting the same sequence between 5:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. The version we see repeats the narrative over and over again, but with each succeeding version shot 12 minutes later in the day. Claerbout had the actors give identical line readings for each version (their own ventriloquists, as it were), so that the only thing distinguishing different filmings is the change in light. James Merrill has a volume of poetry called “The Changing Light at Sandover.” This could be called “The Changing Light in Bourdeaux.”
The images in the show are projections, which means the viewer (or at least his shadow) can become part of them, too. To the extent this is possible within two dimensions, then, the viewer enters into the space of the images. This is fitting, insofar as interaction — not just between time and space, but also stasis and motion, appropriated and original, past and present — is central to Claerbout’s enterprise.
Often he’ll take the still portion of one of his works from a preexisting photograph and integrate a video image within the larger whole. The most memorable instance of this is “Kindergarten Antonio Sant’Elia, 1932.” A group of children, frozen in time, play in a schoolyard while the leaves on a pair of saplings Claerbout has added gently flutter.
The effect this blurring of origins has is consciously deflationary. There’s nothing glossy about Claerbout’s art. He cares not so much about the given artifact as about the time and space that enfold it. “I belong to a generation of artists that has problems with the aura of the art object,” Claerbout has said, “and that’s why I work in a medium, digital video, historically associated with mass culture.”
Yet his images are, in their own way, also aura-struck. The aura is anything but effulgent, but it’s certainly there. In one of the galleries, New Age piano music plays — which is very much the sonic equivalent of that effect: a wan lyricism: blanched, slightly chill, aloof. Claerbout’s works aren’t detached. An hour-long interview with him that plays on a monitor in a nearby room makes plain just how long and hard he’s thought about the issues surrounding his art. And a refusal to divorce the human element from that art is plain in a work like “The Stack,” which shows a homeless man asleep in the shadow of an elevated highway, or “Sections of a Happy Moment,” which contrasts the highly animated happiness of a Chinese family playing ball with the stark building complex around them.
Still, it’s an arm’s-length embrace Claerbout extends. Although he neither photographed nor projects his images from behind scrims it can almost feel as though he did. There’s a remoteness to his work, as of life lived slightly underwater. We’re not watching as voyeurs, but at a further remove — as if over a voyeur’s shoulder. Has Claerbout’s concern with how space holds us created a further space of its own?