David Claerbout

The Shape of Time

14 March - 28 June 2009
work in collection

David Claerbout (Kortrijk, 1969) is no stranger to the Dutch museum visitor. Various museums, among them De Pont, have his work in their collections. In 2003 Museum Boijmans van Beuningen devoted a small presentation to his video installations, and an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum followed two years later.The Shape of Time includes ten installations and is his most extensive exhibition so far. Shown previously at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the presentation comprises an entirely different selection of works at De Pont, where emphasis is placed on works from the past two years. Claerbout's most recent installation Riverside will have its premiere here. The exhibition's special design has been carried out in close collaboration with the artist.

Ten years ago David Claerbout made a considerable impression with video installations in which he interwove moving images and photography. The work from 1997 titled Ruurlo, Borculoscheweg 1910, in De Pont's collection, is a beautiful example of that. It consists of a wall-sized projection of an old postcard depicting a village scene. Gradually the viewer discerns a subtle movement: the leaves of the huge old tree in the foreground are gently swaying back and forth. Two men and a group of playing children remain motionless on the country road; only the wind, which blows in the present and throughout time, lightly stirs the surface. This is a magical image which—despite any movement—we continue to experience as a frozen moment from the past.

The passing of time is a predominant theme in Claerbout's work. With the works shown in the exhibition The Shape of Time, different methods have been used in order to give shape to the duration of time. In Arena (2007) that duration merely consists of a brief moment: the fraction of a second at which a basketball hovers above the basket during a game; in White House (2006) it involves more than thirteen hours, the time span between the first rays of sun and the last, at dusk. No matter how long or how short the moment is, Claerbout gives time all the space it needs. In Arena the situation just prior to the moment of scoring is portrayed from multiple vantage points. As the ball continues to hover in suspense above the basket, a forty-five-minute slide show offers, in a slow succession of hundreds of images, an ever-changing view of the court and bleachers, of the players and spectators. Often, in Claerbout's installations, time runs synchronous to real time. In Reflecting Sunset from 2003, the motif is the sunlight reflected on the 1930s facade of the Stazione Maritima in Napels. The light has a great intensity. As the reflection of the setting sun gradually moves across the wall, the blinding brightness actually causes the architectural details and view of the city, mirrored in the glass, to become less visible rather than more visible. The black-and-white video, which shows this process from a single camera perspective, takes precisely the thirty-eight minutes needed, in real time, for the reflecting light to pass from left to right across the wall, which takes up the entire image.

Claerbout's video installations do not lend themselves to a quick, fleeting glance. The effect and meaning of the images are revealed only in the long term. By abandoning rapid shifts in the editing and by making the filmic time run parallel to real time, he sometimes pushes the impatience of our stubborn observational habits to the limit. Claerbout is not interested in the narrative potential of film, although he does occasionally employ narrative techniques. White House (2006) takes place in the setting of a dilapidated, yet still impressive stately home from the colonial period. The film contains dialogue, vehement action and melodramatic music. As it begins we witness, from a distance, an argument between two black men on the veranda of the house. The sudden shift from this overall shot to the close-up of one of the protagonists comes across as a blow to the face. The same can be said about the brutal violence with which the one man kills the other shortly after this. In addition to the actors, there is also a role set aside for an aria from the opera Werther by Massenet. As words are exchanged, we hear fragments from Pourquoi me reveiller, and when the murderer walks out to the field at the end of the scene, the aria can be heard again, now from a cassette recorder in the parked car.The scene takes no more than about ten minutes; the entire film runs for a total of thirteen-and-a-half hours. During that time the two actors play the same scene seventy-three times. The minimal variations in their acting are outweighed by the metamorphosis undergone by the surroundings in that time span between sunrise and sunset. Due to the changing incidence of light, the light continues to reveal new details about the house and its park-like environment. A casual detail makes us realize that not one but two horrible murders have been committed. The camera takes no notice of this but veers away as if it were insignificant.Light itself is portrayed most prominently: the natural light of a winter day, which envelops the scene in all sorts of hues of changing intensity and clarity. As the sunlight changes, the whitish stone of the house evolves from a delicate pink to a bright white. Backlighting transforms one of the main figures into a dark silhouette against a halo of sunlight. The cast-in light, skimming across surfaces, models the pillars into an grand gallery. When the sun has reached its highest point, a countermovement begins and continues until almost all the light has vanished from the image; only the actor's checked shirt remains visible.In White House the short time span of the narrative scene and the much broader, encompassing duration of real time are juxtaposed with each other. Claerbout wanted to investigate the type of effect that this length of time would have on the viewer's perception: i.e. the extent to which the eye stays focused on what the actors are doing in the foreground, or shifts to what goes on around them at a much more gradual pace. By opting for a scene involving shocking moments, he further sharpens the contrast between narrative and setting, between foreground and background.

In Long Goodbye (2007) the dynamics of varying paces are linked with the opposing movements of a camera and a woman. Initially the image closes in on the woman. Her face stands out against the dark background of a doorway. For a single moment she looks up, as if she wishes to keep our intimate gaze at a distance. And as the camera recedes in an extremely slow and fluid movement, we see how the woman proceeds to the terrace of the eighteenth-century house, pours coffee, wraps herself in her shawl and finally walks to the edge of the terrace to wave the viewer goodbye. The simple act is so decelerated that it runs parallel to the time needed for the sun to set and the camera to withdraw. The greater the camera's distance, the more we see of the surroundings: as the image fans out, the scene ends with the woman waving as darkness falls. Long Goodbye is imbued with an atmosphere of 'the timeless here and now' that can be found in paintings by the eighteenth-century artist Chardin. The installation is a subtle play of approach and withdrawal, of visual disclosure and concealment; of longing for the intangible.For his installations Claerbout makes use of very advanced digital techniques but does not draw attention to these. His approach to time makes the viewer aware of his way of looking; it commands intense observation. But ultimately it is that atmosphere of enchantment and melancholy which determines the strength of Claerbout's art.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by JRP/Ringier. The 170 page illustrated publication was jointly produced by the Centre Pompidou, Paris with the MIT List Visual Arts Center and the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg. The catalogue features essays by Raymond Bellour, Françoise Parfait, Dirk Snauwaert, and Christine Van Assche.