Le rire, disent-ils, vient de la supériorité. Je ne serais pas étonné que devant cette découverte le physiologiste se fût mis à rire en pensant à sa propre supériorité.
– Charles Baudelaire
On ViewMuseum Of Modern Art
March 12 – June 12, 2016
In a recent conversation between art historian Claire Bishop and Cuban artist Tania Bruguera at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Bruguera described her work as funny. “Not ‘Ha-Ha!’ funny, but ‘Huh!’ funny,” she stated coolly—which was immediately followed by an uproar of laughter from the captivated audience. (It was quite funny.) The brand of laughter Bruguera brings attention to is not only the sort of response one has when looking at her deeply politically and socially engaged work (or “Arte Útil,” as she commonly refers to it), which through clever artistic and performative gestures illuminates the intrinsic absurdity of the totalitaria. It is also a laughter that comes from a position of superiority—the sordid, pretentious scoff: “Huh.”
Conversely as Baudelaire memorably put it in his essay “On the Essence of Laughter” (“De L’Essence du Rire”) (1885), laughter is also an indication of a position of inferiority, one particularly closely connected to the archetypal figure of the “sage” who speaks the truth but is rewarded only with mockery. The significance of laughter (and its dual, conflicting meanings) as artistic performance or response merits consideration: a compelling example of its potential is visible in the work of the Algerian-born artist Neïl Beloufa.
In The Colonies (2016), his first solo exhibition at MoMA, Beloufa presents an immersive installation of kinetic sculptures and video projection; CCTV cameras with Raspberry Pi mounts (small inexpensive CPUs) and speakers; walls made from foam and resin; plastic bags with crushed beer and soda cans; seating areas made from steel, pleather, and wood; and two videos—centered around his 2011 video People’s Passion, lifestyle, beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water.
People’s Passion, presented on a television screen in the back corner of the gallery, takes the shape of a faux documentary about an unnamed city, presumably in North America. Beloufa prompted five amateur actors to describe their experience in this fictional and ideal city. The result is a full-blown cast of caricatures of modern-day yuppies all fervently excited about their white, homogenous, petit-bourgeois utopianism. It was very funny. The laughter was not simply an amused response to the blue-blooded basicness of the characters, but also complicated—implicitly silenced, even—by the presumed “seriousness” of the space I was in: an art museum. This laugh then came out as a sort of self-censoring chuckle. Here, again, was that “Huh.”
Beloufa’s work, then, and its content, immediately set into motion a complex process of rumination: not only is it an opportunity for a biting critique of bourgeois culture, it demands a type of self-reflection on the part of the viewer as well. Walking through the rest of the gallery space I encountered two televisions on the far left wall. Both TVs were broadcasting, in real time, video feeds of the installation and the spectators in it; the feeds were carefully programmed to sync with People’s Passion… (playing on a loop), and the video blared from all the suspended speakers in the space. Only after careful observation did I notice the Plexiglas cylinders and domes attached to the different parts of the seated sculptures, containing small moving cameras with LED lights capturing different areas of the gallery, and the objects and clippings positioned inside them (including clay figurines, a magazine cutout of Kendall Jenner, a Friends DVD case, etc). This realization becomes a funny “aha!” moment as you realize that you are being watched; that in fact the audience is part of the cast of characters in Beloufa’s satirical video.
Finally, in the center of the space is a steel structure holding four Plexiglas panels that move horizontally on a motorized track, and also pivot at a 45-degree angle. Each panel is transparent, but attached at random are 8 1/2-x-11-inch pieces of white paper, as well as small pieces of translucent vinyl. People’s Passion…is projected onto the four panels or screens at once; and as they move, the different areas that are blocked out by paper or vinyl capture different segments of the video, creating a disjointed and dizzying effect. The images are fragmented and refracted by the “sage” apparatus. The effect is dehumanizing (think of the psychic images of the “precogs” in the tech-noir thriller Minority Report). Coincidentally it presents our inferiority to technology, but also qualifies this inferiority as a trait of human nature—a display of our propensity to be blindly lured by the charisma of our iPhones and other digital devices.1
The Colonies both effaces and (hopefully) reaffirms one’s humanity by making the viewer rethink who he/she/they are laughing at and why. Am I, as a modern-day flâneur, any different than the characters Beloufa pokes fun of in his video? Am I not a slave to technology and to the privileges that life affords me as well? Is Beloufa no different himself? Although the artist is quite successful at creating a space where the relations between the viewer and his objects are at the forefront of the work—as apposed to the objects themselves—it is worth asking whether the work, and more precisely People’s Passion, lifestyle, beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water, can stand on its own. In other words, does the video need the added element of spectacle and installation to create a whirlwind of relationships between the viewer and his work? Are Beloufa’s videos as thought-provoking or challenging as his installations (and vice versa)? Beloufa’s carefully constructed installations are quite effective in their purpose, but also very heavy-handed—they can seem, at times, almost forced. Despite this, the work is impressive and amusing; it does everything it possibly can to remind us how funny and fucked up things actually are.
- I am reminded of Jon Kessler’s The Blue Period (2007/2011), first exhibited in the U.S. at Salon 94 in 2012. The work was, similarly, an impressive installation filled with kinetic sculptures and surveillance cameras about the bewildering effects of consumer culture and smart phones.