The exhibit by the French-Algerian artist Philippe Parreno I went to see is made up of four video installations. While most video works presented in a gallery are continuously played on a loop, these four videos are projected in order and the viewers are led from room to room by lights turning on and off and blinds coming up and down. In this way, Parreno creates a unique gallery experience and forces viewers to follow a particular pattern and to watch the videos to their end and in sequence.
The artist may have wished that viewers begin with a particular video, but the practicalities of running a permanent exhibit means that the cycle of four videos is continuous. I first caught ‘The Boy From Mars’, a film based on an eco-installation that Parreno created in Thailand. It involves a machine in a tent operated by water buffalos and in the video, this eco-installation becomes part of a mysterious landscape. The film records a day in the life of the area: it starts as night is falling and slowly each section of the tent and then streetlamps are illuminated. Then some mysterious lights also appear in the sky, accompanied by rumbling sounds reminiscent of airplanes or perhaps UFOs (later, the video reveals these to be candles). The rest of the work shows often disturbing and poetic images of the same region moving from morning until the next evening. At the heart of the area seems to lie a glowing light on the side of a building which we can only assume is related to the boy from Mars. What we are exactly supposed to take away from all of this is uncertain, although the ambiguity in this case is not frustrating, but contributes to the overall sense of mystery.
The best of the four videos for me came next – ‘June 8, 1968’ (2009). It opens with a jolting image of a train in mid-motion. Throughout the film we see things from the perspective of someone on this moving train, starting on the tracks but widening to show the surrounding landscape. Soon silent and motionless people, dressed in 1960s style clothing, begin to appear along the tracks. They are all watching the train mournfully as it passes, yet we never know what they are watching. However, there is a clue in the title, as on this date a train carried Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington and almost a million people gathered on the route to pay their respects. Parreno’s video is based on images from Paul Fusco, who was one of the people on that train. We are, in essence, watching a funeral. The train seems to symbolise the arrival of something imminent, perhaps bad news that could alter people’s lives. The elegiac faces seemed to be mourning the end of their current lifestyle.
The next video is ‘Invisibleboy’ (2010). The boy in the title is an illegal Chinese immigrant, hiding in what appears to Manhattan’s Chinatown. When he awakes from his sleep in his junk-filled flat, his guardians are absent. They are presumably among the people we see working, or playing mahjong in a restaurant. The boy is invisible, both to the authorities and to his elders. What makes the video interesting is the appearance of a number of creatures, created when the artist scratched images onto the film stock—they are wandering on the streets, hiding in various domestic places and looking bored in a restaurant. These creatures add a kind of ghostly aura and a sense of doom to the film. The tension is further heightened by an instrumental score that grows more insistent as the film progresses. Although Parreno builds the tension as if moving towards a climax, the ending is deliberately unresolved. It is perhaps suggested that the invisible boy identifies with the scratched creatures.
The final film, ‘No More Reality’, continues the themes of invisibility and uncertain reality that we encountered with the unseen Martian boy, the unknown cargo on the train and the Chinese boy. The work begins with children chanting, which you can hear in all the rooms in the gallery: creating a disorienting effect for viewers who are uncertain where the next video will be shown. When the video does appear, we see French children chanting and holding placards saying, ‘No more reality’. What does this protest signify about the reality of the images we have just experienced and their implications for the viewers and the work? Do these children, too, long to escape reality and become invisible?