While video art is often associated with badly lit conceptualism shown in rooms with nowhere to sit, Bill Viola has long proven that there is indeed a fascinating space to be explored between film and visual art. Two of his works in the collection of Museum De Pont, Tilburg, are rich and masterful video paintings whose slow, meditative movement conveys great concentrated power.
Both 'The Greeting' (1995) and 'Catherine's Room' (2001) are based on medieval paintings. 'The Greeting' recreates Pontormo's sixteenth century 'Visitation' in video, using extreme slow-motion to stretch a short scene of greeting to ten minutes. The backstory of the painting - Mary telling Elizabeth of her pregnancy - is not strictly necessary to be wrapped up in the complex interplay of emotions between the three women, slowed down to dramatic proportions.
'Catherine's Room' is a more ambitious piece. On five screens, arranged like a polyptych or predella, a woman is shown in a room performing various basic activities - doing yoga exercises, sewing, studying, lighting candles, making her bed. The sparsely decorated room that looks like a monastic cell, along with the work's title bring to mind St. Catherine, the fourteenth century mystic. And in fact this piece was based on Andrea di Bartolo's predella 'St. Catherine of Siena Praying'.
The five scenes from Catherine's life are shown not in slow-motion but performed very slowly, quietly, meditatively - as a kind of praying, They take place during different hours of the day: morning, afternoon, sunset, evening and night. And through the window we can see how they are also set during different times of the year. From left to right the four seasons are represented, while the fifth is enveloped in darkness. It is the fifth screen, in which the woman makes her bed and lies down to sleep, that completes the natural cycles of a day and a year, and there is more than a hint that what we are watching is the woman's death.
Viola has been called "the Rembrandt of the video age" for the painterly quality and great technical mastery of his works. But in 'Catherine's Room' Vermeer seems a closer model - from the meticulous compositions and the almost tangible light to the scenes of daily tasks and concentrated stillness. But more than recreating paintings 'Catherine's Room' adds movement to these scenes of stillness, and paradoxically this is what gives them their power.
In our hectic and secular 21st century, Viola prescribes this series of serenely performed rituals as modern prayers.
Another good reason for visiting De Pont is the work by James Turrell in their collection, the only one in the Netherlands besides 'Celestial Vault'. 'Wedgework III' (1969) is one of his artificial light pieces, exhibited in such utter darkness that the light seems to become an object. An object of perception, if such a thing exists. Highly recommended.
Warning: some spoilers ahead.
'The Invader' ('L'envahisseur'), the feature film debut by Belgian video artist Nicholas Provost, poses uncomfortable questions about the immigration policies of Fortress Europe and its creeping xenophobia. More subtly, in a layered visual style that often expresses more than the deliberately simple narrative, the film shows the tragic corrosive effects of social exclusion on a young man's mind.
'The Invader' elaborates on Provost's 2004 short 'Exoticore'. Both films star Issaka Sawadogo as an (illegal) African immigrant who desperately tries to enter the affluent but closed European society that sees him, if at all, solely as a threat. In 'Exoticore' it is Oslo while 'The Invader' is set in Brussels, but the distrustful attitude of the locals is the same.
Crucially, however, in 'Exoticore' the protagonist has a job as a metro driver, and has thus already taken the major hurdle of economic integration. It points to Provost's real preoccupation, of social integration and the thin but all-important line between being 'in' and being 'out'.
By contrast, in 'The Invader' Amadou has nothing but his body and his wits when he washes ashore on an Italian beach. The much talked-about opening scene, which Provost deviously called "a commercial for Europe", starts with a modern version of 'L'Origine du monde' on a nudist beach and continues to show a beautiful, independent woman observing Amadou as he emerges from the sea. The scene introduces a visual motif that runs through the film, of a sexualized Europe - liberated and decadent at the same time - seen from the perspective of an outsider. Significantly, the second impression Amadou gets of Europe is the seedy red light district of Brussels.
Another good example of Provost's visual style is the opening title sequence, showing a long and abstract journey through a tunnel, using the mirroring technique he also used for earlier experimental work like 'Papillon d'amour' (2003) and 'Storyteller' (2010). On a narrative level it represents the journey Amadou makes from Italy to Brussels. Symbolically it is also linked to the opening image and can be seen as a birth of sorts - which ironically transports Amadou from the seductive commercial of Europe to the gritty and hostile reality of Brussels. Provost described the tunnel sequence as Amadou's "psychological downward spin towards hell".
From his arrival in Brussels, Amadou is determined to get ahead and carve out a place for himself. As the title indicates, 'The Invader' is not the helpless victim of the system that we know from films like the Dardennes brothers' 'La Promesse' or that other recent Belgian 'J'accuse', 'Illégal'. Instead, Amadou soon wrests himself free from the exploitative underbelly of Brussels and seduces a rich lady, Agnès, fascinatingly portrayed by Stefania Rocca.
For a short while it looks like Amadou has indeed managed to enter society. But as the film insinuates visually (for example, the sex scene between Amadou and Agnès is filmed from outside, through glass) he remains an outsider. And as fast as he reached his foothold, he is losing it again. Amadou's attempts to hold on become more desperate, and he slowly turns into the unpredictable criminal that society has taken him for the whole time.
To extend the metaphor of Fortress Europe, Amadou lays siege to a society that refuses to let him in, and we watch him lose. By the end of the film, he takes refuge in psychosis to convince himself he's 'in' - a sad conclusion that drives home the fact that there are no easy solutions to this complex issue.
Between the memorable opening and the strong, ambiguous ending, 'The Invader' turns into a psychological thriller whose atmosphere is heavily influenced by David Lynch. There is some uneven pacing here, and perhaps one too many of the brooding cityscape sequences, but the film's careful visual language and soundtrack stay captivating.
Often closer to visual art than to Hollywood, 'The Invader' is a film to decode, a process that continues long after the film is over.