Magazine article Artforum International

Shooting Spree: J. Hoberman on the Films of Sigmar Polke

Magazine article Artforum International

Shooting Spree: J. Hoberman on the Films of Sigmar Polke

Article excerpt

GREAT FILM INSTALLATIONS--Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, say, or Christian Marclay's The Clock, 2010--use the fact of motion pictures to hypostatize time. Lesser ones raise questions about narrative and intention. The 16-mm films and extended segments of 16-mm footage incorporated into the Museum of Modern Art's current retrospective of Sigmar Police's work do both.

Not that they were ever intended to bear as much weight--or scrutiny--as the spectacular orchestrations of images cited above. Did an erudite, fecund trickster like Polke ever mean for any of his footage to really be watched rather than briefly pondered as it flickered on a gallery wall amid his other work? Does it even matter? The films are indifferent, and my guess is that the filmmaker was too.

According to Barbara Engelbach's essay in moma's massive catalogue Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, Polke carried a camera with him constantly for decades and shot hours upon hours of film, documenting whatever came to hand (or into his head): performances, friends, artworks, excursions, TV news. However, this "collection of footage," as Engelbach calls it, was only transformed into a movie when needed for an exhibition, where it would serve as a raucous sound-and-image-delivery system complementing the artist's wildly disparate and generally bewildering oeuvre of paintings, collages, works on paper, photographs, and sculptures.

Ranging in length from thirty to forty-six minutes, five such finished "products" (Engelbach's term) were shown in Polke's lifetime: Der ganze Korper fiihlt sich leicht und mochte fliegen ... (The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly ..., 1969), How Long We Are Hesst/Looser (ca. 1973-76), Quetta's blauer dunstiger Himmel/Afghanistan-Pakistan (Quetta's Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan, ca. 1974-76), Auf der Suche nach Bohr-mann Brasilien und seine Folgen/BrasilienSao Paulo (In Search of Bohr-mann Brazil and Its Consquences/Sao Paulo, ca. 1975-76), and HFBK 11/ Hamburg Lerchenfeld (ca. 1975-89/2009). One notes with interest that, described in the catalogue as "film transferred to video" (perhaps specifically for moma's exhibition), these works reside in private collections rather than in film archives: Are they precious objects, limited editions, souvenirs? The last of the five, HFBK II, was not screened publicly until Polke's final exhibition, in Hamburg; the first, a collaboration with Christof Kohlhofer, was created for a group show in 1969 at the Museum Morsbroich outside Cologne, but it was also exhibited in 1970-71 (as Polke-Film) under the auspices of XSCREEN, a group created by Cologne's preeminent underground filmmakers, Birgit and Wilhelm Hein.

Painters who turned to film in 1966, the Heins provide a useful context for Polke's work. Their hilariously crude "structuralist/materialist" films are characterized by a comic combination of hearty literalism and casual production values. Rohfilm, which the couple produced in 1968 (a year before Polke-Film), was pure schmutz: The filmmakers' methodology involved gluing "dirt, hair, ashes, tobacco, fragments of cinematic images, sprocket holes, and perforated tape" onto clear celluloid, as Birgit Hein later explained. Polke's films are also material objects that may be even more provocative than those of the Heins precisely because they are less confrontational. Their mode is passive-aggressive.

Conceptual rather than perceptual, more boring than assaultive, diffident not strident, The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly is a desultory anthology of notions offering a formless succession of quasi-scientific filmed experiments--silvery cups spinning on a carpet, an outsize contraption in perpetual motion that might have been designed to shine shoes, a saucer of water being dumped on a chair cushion ad infinitum. It's also a pretty funny portrait of the artist as a young goofball sticking a rubber squeegee into his mouth, standing in a basin of water with cucumbers floating around his ankles, scratching himself, and staring dumbfounded into the camera even as he mimics, arms extended, Leonardo's symmetrical Vitruvian Man. …

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