Clement Page in conversation with Robert Defcon, Berlin 2018
»As an artist, you have the ability to change reality«
Sleepwalker was my first full scale film production. I initially had the idea in 2002 and finished making it in 2005, partly because editing two screens to synchronise with each other takes time.
The setup of Sleepwalker is simple: The video installation consists of two screens or canvases, one of which shows what the body actually does, while the other shows the content of the dream that's manipulating the body. They have strange parallels. Sometimes they're interconnected and sometimes they aren't. The sleepwalker may be dreaming of sorting through a pile of books, but what they are actually doing is tackling a pile of clothes on the floor.
It's interesting how the information received through the body feeds back into the content of the dream and vice versa. When the sleepwalker experiences obstacles in reality, like walking into the side of a railway bridge, or banging into a wall, then the dream stops – in the installation the body screen turns black. The unconscious becomes focused on the problem, the real danger facing the body.
Both Jaques Lacan and Freud had a special interest in somnambulism, primarily because it gave strong evidence of the role of the unconscious. Sometimes the best way for the unconscious to speak, is to live out the dream through the body.
The film has a largely ambient soundtrack consisting of the kinds of peripheral sounds that we are hardly ever consciously aware of. I was interested in using the sound track to introduce these background sounds which gradually affect the audience throughout the film, allowing them to make their own free associations, drawing the viewer further into the film.
I do not think that art needs to justify itself with philosophical or (in my case) psychoanalytical ideas. These are just starting points for me, like my own experience of sleepwalking. I am not an artist who believes that all of these things must be discussed in order to understand what I do. People understand purely by watching the film. Art does not justify itself through ideas – ideas justify themselves through art.
II. Hold Your Breath
I started developing the script and the storyboard for my film Hold Your Breath after moving to Berlin in 2006. The film is based on one of Sigmund Freud's signature case histories, ‘The Wolf-Man’ – from the History of an Infantile Neurosis. A lot of research went into the film because there is so much literature on the case. The film explores the childhood mind of Sergei, whose enigmatic character is transformed when he develops a phobia (Fear) of animals. I look at the origins of his fear in relation to his emerging sexual curiosity.
There are about 2.000 phobias listed, but the irony is: It doesn't matter what the object of the fear is, the outcome is always the same: The physical symptoms of sudden adrenaline rushes, hyperventilation, increased body heat, and fainting or collapsing are almost identical in every case.
In a sense a phobia is a false unconscious. For Freud, the key is that it covers up some deep-rooted trauma or fear. It's a cover-up for something deeper. But the deeper you go, the more cover-ups you will discover: Behind each mask lies another mask. Once you find the root cause, you realize that was another cover-up. It was something to throw you off the scent, the real hunt as it were.
I originally came to Freud via Juliet Mitchell, an English, feminist psychoanalyst and her book Psychoanalysis and Feminism, which argues that Freud’s work, while deeply rooted in patriarchal discourse, could be read as a critique and analysis of patriarchal society.
In fact, the publication of the ‘Wolf-man’ case in 1918 deeply upset Austrian and German society. The idea that children have an awareness of sexuality disrupted the romantic ideal of childhood and was disturbing to a society where child molestation and sexual abuse were quite common.
In a sense Freud's case histories have to be read as literature. They are narratives with protagonists, events, and obstacles – the key elements of drama. So these stories lend themselves to film, but without necessarily culminating in a resolution, since a sense of brokenness and discontinuity is inherent in the process of discovery.
I wasn't interested in giving a particular explanation of phobia. It's more about inviting the viewer to look at the ambiguity of possible causes, but without a conclusive result or interpretation.
III. Painting, film and mirrors
Currently, I am making an installation combining double sided paintings with mirrors. I am looking at how painting can form a correlation with the temporality and changing view points of film.
What distinguishes film making from painting, is that making a film condenses years of preparation, into a very short period of actually shooting the film. You virtually spend everything in ten days. Then you spend the next year exhibiting and talking about it. Painting, on the other hand, is very much a daily thing. And you have to make yourself open to the material and chance, in the widest sense. In a way It requires the suspension of ideas and theory. It is a more experiential thing.
With film, the interesting thing is working with actors and developing the images and dialogue with them. Film is a collaborative process and requires a different kind of imagination, whereas painting is very much a singular activity. Of course, you can write and talk about what are going to paint, but when you pick up the brush, or any applicator or material and start working on the image/idea it changes. In a sense you have to adapt your idea to the process of painting, which often yields new and unexpected possibilities.
On the other hand, there are ways in which film and painting are interconnected. Painting also involves time, and a process of condensing time into a material image. It takes the viewer time to disentangle the meaning of painted marks and how the image is created through those marks. So, in a way, painting is a film that unfolds in the mind of the viewer, rather than an exhibition of objects, which implies the misunderstanding of painting as a fixed framework of meaning. The installation/painting I am currently working on involves a spatial/temporal, experience for the viewer, there are no paintings hanging on the wall in a classic sense.
The installation involves a series of large double-sided paintings which stand on the floor in a diagonal formation with the wall. The back paintings can only be viewed in a mirror which leans against the wall behind the paintings. There are small gaps between the diagonal arrangement of the double-sided canvases – you can't walk through it, but you can see the reflection of the back paintings in mirrors on the other side.
Jacques Lacan, discusses how the visual identity given by the mirror provides an imaginary "wholeness" to the experience of a fragmented reality. Mirrors are devices of reflection that are meant to capture some kind of truth, but when polished, curved or broken they become devices of distortion and manipulation. When looking through the gaps onto paintings reflected in mirrors – somewhat like in Plato's cave allegory – the inevitable and inescapable task of interpretation is but a broken reflection of reflections of paintings, whose wholeness is purely imaginary. There's a gap that can't be bridged.