Although we know full well that video takes place on a stationary two-dimensional plane, moving images endeavor to solicit the willing suspension of disbelief. Current technology makes it only too easy to dream away in the illusion that what we see is something “out there”—a piece of the world.
While many moving-image makers exploit our willingness to be deceived, others, especially artists, counter it. The key term is “self-reflexivity”: the deployment of the medium to investigate what the medium is and can do. Of the many practitioners of lens-based art who probe these questions, Dutch video artist Roos Theuws is, to my mind, among the most radical, profound and creative. Her exhibition of two new video installations—Kitab al Manazir (Book of Optics), 2013-14, and Fences & Pools (2012)—along with inkjet prints, at Gallery Slewe, offered two very different ways of decomposing, dissecting and exploding the moving image. Exuberant visuality was the result.
On the three large screens of Kitab al Manazir, we see black-and-white projections of the same room displaying optical instruments in a science museum. Yet the images refuse to become a unity. The question “what do you see?” remains hard to answer. The screens present a very slow pan that moves until a reflecting sphere, visible in all three images, appears in the center of each, after some 15 minutes. But because the sphere reflects the lens, the lens moves in search of a focus. Of our happy, stabilizing habit of linear perspective, nothing remains. The razor-sharp, high-definition images do not show anything but themselves. Meanwhile, a 10th-century treatise on optics by Arab scholar Ibn al-Haytham is whispered in Arabic.
On the two screens—one large projection and one monitor—of Fences & Pools, we again see slow panning shots. They are both of a wooden fence on a peninsula in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, behind which, at a distance, we see mountains. The blurry color images are very different from those of Kitab al Manazir. The video has been slowed down drastically, and movement is imperceptible. Only if you look for quite some time at one of the screens and then look back at the other does the scene appear different. You don’t see it change; you see that it has changed.
Here, we hear a voice in English reading from three texts that evoke this landscape: the Book of Revelations, a Navajo creation myth and the diary of a 19th-century scientist. The same voice, three cultures, all relevant to the image. The texts come from different audio sources, so the viewer who moves from one speaker to the next hears only fragments of each. Standing in between the speakers engenders a bodily exercise in sculptural hearing.
While a tree that we see disappearing on the projection begins to appear on the left of the monitor, an old drilling installation on the right of the monitor slowly leaves the frame. When the tree is completely in the frame, the drill is gone, as if nature pushed economy away. The visual image decomposes in lines and planes of color; the texts decompose the mixed society of the setting. Together, then, the medium dissects itself, undoing representation. What do you see? Not a piece of world “out there”; only the image blown up in time, disrupted, laid bare.