Isla Leaver-Yap is fascinated and frustrated by the video installation work of Dutch artist Aernout Mik at Fruitmarket Gallery
At first, it might seem surprising that Dutch artist Aernout Mik claims to care little about art. He argues that you might as well get rid of the words ‘experiencing art’. Yet, in going against his orders and experiencing the artist’s works, it is both unexpected and darkly comic to discover Mik’s art is obsessed with rules and regulations.
In Shifting Shifting, a show that tours from Camden Arts Centre in London, Mik once again presents videos that display his characteristic fascination with spaces that come with preordained drama: police stations, courtrooms, sport stadiums. We’re well aware that these settings come entrenched in codes of power and hierarchies. But the people occupying the spaces in Mik’s films seem strange, at one remove from reality. Instead, they are wilfully petulant, volatile, or sometimes simply bored in otherwise extraordinary circumstances.
In the multi-screen installation ‘Vacuum Room’, for instance, the courtroom backdrop is instantly recognisable: suited magistrates shuffle papers, eyeing up subjects over their horn-rimmed glasses with consternation while neon lights buzz overhead. Meanwhile, a group of people demarcated by their skin colour as much as their casual dress, appears entirely inappropriate. One breaks and rubs an egg on the head of an official-looking bronze figurine; others lie limp on the courtroom floor. Protests erupt as quickly as they die down, and the room descends into a kangaroo court where the notion of who is in charge is just as erratic as the conduct of its occupants. But this drama and Mik’s other works are by no means self-contained - they leak into familiar territory, recalling bleak contemporary events. Another work, ‘Scapegoat’, shows dishevelled figures laid on makeshift beds as bloodstained soldiers listlessly wander around, make soup and tie their shoelaces. ‘Scapegoat’ is particularly disturbing for its resonance with grim events: we are reminded of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002; the lawlessness of the Louisiana Superdrome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the Beslan school siege of 2004.
Staged drama or real event? The artist’s videos have a documentary feel coupled to unbelievable scenarios, yet, paradoxically, are perhaps too implausible to have been made up. Partial answers might be found embedded in each work’s small print, but even then, the sparse details Mik is ready to give never seem enough to sate our enquiry.
With duration times usually absent from each of the works, the videos roll on relentlessly as unsolved looped actions that inflame viewer uncertainties rather than solve them. And so, rather than resolve these uneven narratives in some glib fashion, Mik invites us to accept or reject his melancholic nightmares, already wary of the idea that there is objective fact to be found in the footage at all. There is no critical moment of truth to be found here, only Mik’s attenuated dramas, which have intruded upon art and contaminated it with doubt. And, despite the artist’s fascination with codes of conduct, we wonder if this is, in fact, a set up.
Aernout Mik: Shifting, Shifting, Fruitmarket, Edinburgh until Wed 11 Jul.