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Jelle Bouwhuis

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L'Avventura (The Adventure) a group of upper-class Italian couples take a boat tour of the Aeolian islands. The pleasure cruisers include the main protagonists: the couple Anna and Sandro and Anna’s friend Claudia. During a tour of a desolate island, and merely 25 minutes into the action, Anna vanishes. Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the film driving through Italy as they (supposedly) search for her. In the process, the Anna-Sandro relationship is reborn with Claudia and Sandro, who in the end deceives her, just as he deceived Anna with her.

Some aspects of Antonioni's simultaneously praised and denounced experiment can be used as a comparison to Jill Magid's exhibition ‘Libration Point'. The central object is a person who isn't there, or isn't there anymore, but seems desperate to return to the script again. There are facial reconstructions (two and three dimensional), and evidential documents about her existence. There is a reference to the future in the form of a contract, with the Lifegem company, for manufacturing a diamond from the her remains upon her death. There is a film in which we hear her voice and observe a scene described by an animated camera, from which she is absent. There is no embodied protagonist: she balances somewhere between being and non-being, it is, so to say, at a libration point.

One of the most disturbing elements in L'Avventura is the complete shift from convincing suspense story into a love affair. From this it is rather the audience that keeps longing for Anna's story when the narrative decisively takes another direction. In the end there's the feeling of having missed something. Expectations are roused so strongly that during the first minutes of the second part of the movie, when there is no longer any mention of Anna, the viewer actually identifies the camera with her. Only gradually she disappears from the viewer's mind as well.

There are expectations and even some suspense at play in ‘Jill Magid – Libration point', but since a clear narrative is missing we are, as in L'Avventura, forced to consider the systematic behind this set up. First we have to take the use of systems of observation and control in some of Magid's earlier work into account. In Lobby 7, the artist, while standing in the main lobby of MIT, uses a small camera device to explore her body underneath her clothes, the results of which were to be seen live on the central information monitor in the same lobby. All attention was directed to the rather abstract images on the screen whereas none of the viewers seemed to connect them to the strange body movements of the artist standing in front of it. This idea was developed further during the work for commission by the Liverpool Biennial 04. Here Magid directed the city's ubiquitous CCTV system of camera surveillance to make cinematic scenes of her own strolls through town. If we could say that in early performance art the focus was on the gendered and politicized body, here it shifted towards the politicized and gendered systems of control of public space in a very elegant move. Paradoxically enough, the results remind one of the nostalgic qualities of Nouvelle Vague or, for that matter, Antonioni's movies. (Gambier Night, a work made of previously unused footage from the Liverpool project, rather recalls a thriller).

In the film piece Camera One Wester Park, she, as a subject, is missing altogether. This forces us to look it's construction. There's camera movement: it moves from an ‘objective' position, like a surveillance camera, to a ‘subjective' one, when it lowers to the ground and becomes embodied. Likewise the voice-over indicates a viewer who is both objective, as the one who controls the camera, and subjective, as part of the suggested scene of a couple making love. And yet every one of them is missing. The only scene we actually see is the location where this was filmed.

There's an interesting turn at play in Magid's work up to now. Pieces as Lobby 7 suggest the feministic atmosphere at the time she studied at the MIT department of visual studies where she graduated in 2000. Especially the influence Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking 1975 essay ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema' can be felt, in which the author analyses the psychological, if not scopophilic structures that typecast women in mainstream film as raw, passive material for the male gaze. Although the article has since attracted a lot of counter reactions and criticism, its main argument that most films are structured around eroticizing women to build up the viewer's desires, can hardly be denied anymore. Lobby 7 takes advantage of this insight: it ‘monitors' the desire and puts the artist in the role of both its director and revealer. The work can be seen in an already long lasting tradition in which women artists use there nudity to gain power over the (presupposed) male gaze from, say, Yoko Ono up to Elke Krystufek. Mona Hatoum's Corps Etrangér (1994), a video installation with medical surveillance images of the artist's body interior, should be specifically mentioned here. Magid's work shows the gradual decrease of the relevance of political gender differentiation that functioned so well for a lot of art, especially in the 70s and 80s. In the Liverpool piece the disarmament of it is in full swing. Here Magid directed a whole institute that we usually associate with the formality of the police and therefore political paternity and secrecy – which defines the panoptical state of today's society – to make evocative fiction in which she herself is starring. By using and revealing a system we usually ignore, she subordinated it to her own gaze. Not many people have had the guts and the opportunity to direct some 250 cameras, and the men behind them, more or less at once, to make a fancy registration of themselves. By the passive subject controlling it, the same technology is applied to challenge its presumed visual superiority.

In the Bureau Amsterdam exhibition comparable systems are applied: institutional ‘devices' of intelligence we usually neglect in our daily lives. Although it proved to be impossible to make use of the Amsterdam CCTV department (any advance to them was in vain) or the Dutch Forensic Institute (NFI) due to current state of political fears in the Netherlands and within its administrative departments alike, there have been a number of their employees or would-be employees involved. A number of forensic artists made 2D composite drawings based on descriptions provided by people who have been close with Magid. One manufactured a three dimensional facial reconstruction based on a forensic report written by the artist and secondary physical evidence: an ecstatic head loosely inspired by Salvador Dali's famous Freudian photo collage The Phenomenon of Ecstasy of 1933. A crime scene investigator was commissioned to document the location of the crime as it is fictionalized in the film. Instead of using them to distill harsh, undeniable proofs or as ‘research material' for predictable Hollywood narratives, the works deny all expectations and desires through the absence of a physical body upon whom we can project them. What we are looking at is not what we are looking for. The embodied subject has been taken out of visual realm and instead is hovering over the works, directing them, not being in them – neither as raw material for a narrative nor as manufacturer of the objects….

Camera One Wester Park addresses the viewer in a comparable, abstract way. At a certain point the viewer takes a position that might be best described as an Avatar in a computer game who has stranded in a virtually designed world, waiting for comrades to come out and play. This feeling is triggered by the alternating objective and subjective camera movements and the rather abstract footage in the form of, for instance, the grid pattern of the square in front of the old gas factory or the patch of unadorned grass at the slope of a railroad track. The voice-over doesn't help in doing away with this feeling. It is starkly descriptive and recalls a neutral observer, while the content suggests a person who is dramatically involved in the scenes described. The second scene was initially shot with actors, only to repeat exactly the same camera positions without them. When the monotonous voice-over concludes with ‘nothing moves' it contradicts the one thing we have been watching: camera movements.  

'Libration Point' uses its absent subjects as means to question the very systems expected to define them. It is the missing subject that reveals what we, as viewers, desire or require. Consider the absent diamond in Auto Portrait Pending, installed at the entrance of the exhibition. Magid has signed an agreement with a company that produces diamonds from the ashes of human remains to become a 1-carat diamond upon her death. What we see is an attractive, yet empty, gold ring setting and a series of contracts. The success of a company that promises to make love concrete ('because love lives on') is another token of Western society's reliance on proof and material evidence -- of a person, an incident, an existence. It is as if memory and imagination are lesser qualities, not to be trusted, proving nothing. Magid is asking us to look not at the function or success-rate of these systems, but rather at our belief in them. We take this statement from the Forensic Art and Illustration handbook (p. 525): “It is the integrity of the witness presenting the image that must be demonstrated. Physical items themselves are not evidence. The testimony of a witness is evidence and the image is an exhibit of that testimony. An image, all by itself, is totally unacceptable.”

Jelle Bouwhuis is curator of the exhibition

Click on writers name
Jelle Bouwhuis
Jane Farver
Janneke Wesseling
Michael Rush