Citing/laughter: Three Video Works by Ellen Zweig

By Zummer, Thomas | Millennium Film Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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Citing/laughter: Three Video Works by Ellen Zweig

Zummer, Thomas, Millennium Film Journal


Ellen Zweig is not well known as a filmmaker, although her work has involved media in general, and cinema in particular, for many years. She is well known as a performance artist, though she started as a writer, and moved into writing, and doing, performative works with supplementary media such as Super-8 film and slide-dissolve sequences, as are found in Impressions of Africa, a series of works done in the 1970s about fantasies and phantasms of Africa. In the 1980s Zweig designed and built various camera obscurae which involved dramatic sequences-both live and recorded, written and improvised. In one case she installed a camera obscura in/as a moving stagecoach, a live, mobile, and transmitted event addressing issues of spectatorship, transport, collection, and the Victorian mania for travel. Since that time Zweig has worked on various installations using sculptural/architectural elements with multiple monitors, which often reference their own mediality by re-presenting the images, traces and illusions of former technologies. In a work entitled Hubert's Lure (1994), installed in a street-level window facing 42nd Street, she reconstructed and updated a well-known proto-cinematic illusion known as "Pepper's Ghost." This cinematic trick uses an image reflected in glass that seems to float in an unearthly space through a suspension of one's ability to perceive a fixed figure/ground relation. Zweig's use of a luminous video image, projected in miniature scale, took up residence as an uncanny, impossible, apparition. It was at the same time a brilliant and incisive commentary on the economies of cinematic illusion and public credulity.

Most recently, Ellen Zweig's work has shifted from the presentation of physical bodies and armatures, to the re-presentation of the traces of bodies in mediation. The familiar performative dimension of her works has now been inscribed-folded into-a purely cinematic space. Zweig often works ad seriam, exploring a theme or topic in contiguous sequences to trace the contours of a seductive and problematic cultural territory. In her current series of interrelated single-channel video works, Zweig explores, with characteristic generosity and obsession, the phantasmatic constructions of "China" wrought at the hands of philosophers, writers, scholars, and other odd souls. Three short works have been finished to date, and a fourth is nearing completion. Zweig is producing a linked collection of "portraits" of Western figures all of whom have studied, invented, miscast or misunderstood, and been enamored with China. As spectators, we too, are implicated in these doubled fascinations, the guilty pleasures of a romanticized and voyeuristic "Orient." Familiar tropes and forms of address, fragments of the grammars of the cinematic avant garde are cut loose and recast, arresting the viewer in the display of the exotic. The exotic as familiar is, as she well knows, a species of the uncanny. What emerges, through Zweig's subtle deployments, is a palpable and concrete critique of the unconscious "orientalisms"-and some of their sources-that still haunt our global, political, and theoretical environs.


".. .a 'certain Chinese encyclopedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a)belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'."

Michel Foucault's famous paraphrasing of Borges1 traces the contours of the boundaries-often transgressed by laughter, as he readily admits-between our familiar and well-ordered schemes of things, and other more exotic taxonomies. The classificatory themes that domesticate and temper the wild profusion of extant things, which determine the tacit protocols in thinking notions of identity and difference, anomaly, possibility, and the impossible.

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