Susanne Bürner’s LEAVES: spectacle of the unseen
“Isn’t it always a matter of seeing what isn’t made to be seen, and vice versa, you ask. Ask yourself” Jean-Luc Nancy
LEAVES opens on a large array of nature, an empty meadow surrounded by trees that one guesses is a stage where an action is about to happen. Slowly the branches on the trees start to be in movement and thousands of their small leaves become agitated by a wind, the only protagonist of this fiction. Once the storm comes down, there is a return to stillness and the scene ends by a curtain of branches closing in front of our eyes.
LEAVES doesn’t represent anything, it doesn’t offer anything to see to the viewer as the stage is revealed as empty. It is an amphitheatre where nothing really happens. If one can recognise the surrounding décor of nature as such, it is because of what this space signals to us, through a certain form of emptiness, it bares something of a familiarity to an arena, a round space, where a play, a performance would be expected to take place.
Nevertheless, the spectator is waiting for something to happen, an event seems like its about to occur in the middle of this nature, due to an impression of suspense which accentuates the idea of spectacle to come. A certain tension emanates from this suspense built through a series of images, a succession of shots of trees, branches and meadow, strongly emphasised by the gravity of the soundtrack (1), a music sourced from the sound of nature, amplification of the light noise of wind whispering in the foliage.
The ability of the artist to portray this ‘invisibility’by the mise-en-scene of a non-event, manifests itself through the use of a specific cinematographic language combining long shot sequences with a certain depth of field, a succession of still images retouched with special effects, including the slow-motion to emphazise the incredibly detailed images. This succession of plans, of fragmented spaces gives us the illusion of a film narrative, so the spectator is feeling the sensation of something about to occur in this awaiting space.
One could say that this filmic apparatus constitutes a first story. Here a first scenario is presented to us, mounted with images of nature revealing an empty stage, with movements of wind in the trees escalading to a storm. The space is exposed as a series of shots giving details of elements of nature and this kind of nature seems familiar to us. It bares the characteristics of a park as a dramatic setting, a nature which tries to say something but which masks, maybe, the real event. The spectacle first offered to us in the film comes from this filmic manipulation of nature. In this first story, first spectacle, the last movements of two branches, acting as closing curtains at the end of the film, would be closing on an action on the stage.
But that’s here, at this precise moment of the film, that one wonders if there is, perhaps, another story beyond the filmic space and if the device of the story told through elements of this nature becomes the speculative force for another story to happen elsewhere. Is the real story, what we could call the second scenario, happening outside of the filmic space?
The second scenario would be determined by an imaginary beyond the image, a place where lays another space for the viewer, a space we could refer to as ‘psychological space’. The psychological space in opposition to the physical space presented to us in the film, is a space of the imagination of the spectator, a space where his own narratives are created, where another story comes together, that leads to his own perception of the film, his experience of what happens in this space which doesn’t belong to what is shown on the screen.
In La Peinture de Manet (2), Foucault talks about the importance of the mise-en-scene within the painting to emphasise its material properties. At the time, this idea is going against the classical conception that allows us to forget that the surface, the support of the painting was two dimensional. Manet is taking the freedom to play with the material properties of the space, to show that the painting is a surface in two dimensions, with no depth. To cancel the effect of perspective, he constructs the painting with verticals, includes walls and personages at the front to obliterate the depth. He accentuates the vertical and horizontal axes, repetition of the axes of the canvas itself. He renders the texture of the canvas, as if the fabric of the canvas is appearing at the surface of the painting. Lines and checked patterns are used to form a repetitive motif on the clothes of the characters to evoke this texture. Sometimes, a tapestry of green plants is presented as a background, like a wall-paper, and no depths, no light comes to pierce this forest (3).
Foucault states that for Manet, the canvas is also a surface with two faces, one recto and one verso and Manet makes those two properties of the canvas play as well. For instance, he can represent the personnages as looking in opposite directions, looking at something which is outside the frame. In this way, Manet cuts the spectacle from us and the subject becomes those looks turned towards what is invisible to us.
Manet uses the glances of one character looking toward us and one looking in the same direction as us, presenting his back to us. So to discover what is watched by those personages, we should move to look over the shoulder of the one looking in the same direction as us and we should walk around the painting and look over from above the shoulder of the other personage, looking in our direction, and here Foucault demonstrates how Manet plays with this specific property of the painting: a plane surface with a recto and a verso. He is forcing the spectators to feel like they are turning around the work, to change position to discover what should be seen but which is not given in the painting.
Therefore, Foucault affirms that with Manet, painting is giving itself as ”something invisible”. Manet has cut the spectacle from the canvas in a way that there is nothing to see, that the looks in the painting are turned towards the invisible. The canvas is showing an absence of action. Therefore, with Manet, the work itself is to be considered as an object, a painting-object, around which the spectator positions himself.
And this concept of a painting as a material object can be transposed here to that of the film as an object, as a material image projected on a screen. Looking at the physical presentation of LEAVES at the South London Gallery (4), the screen was hanging from the entrance presenting its reverse to the visitor coming in the space, offering, in this three dimensionality, the screen as an object, with a recto and a verso, an object that can be looked at from the reverse and walked around. This invisibility, this nothing happening in the film is built also from the material qualities of the image. The image becomes an object of representation and the screen, this plane surface, is a surface of projection and as surface of projection, one could say that it naturally bares the quality of reflection, of a mirroring effect.
In LEAVES, the real, the second story as we called it is hidden by this material filmic image whose elements create the sensation of waiting for an action. All what had to be seen, after this series of elements contributing to the effect of suspense, is only this emptiness, this absence of spectacle and as the curtain of branches is closing, aren’t we spectators impassive, aren’t we the real subject of this mise-en-scene, offered to nature?
If in LEAVES, we are the subject, the real story, it means that we look at an image which observes us in return. There is a reciprocity, an exchange of glances with this dramatic, enigmatic setting, looking at us and reflecting, reversing the image.
We can think here of a precise moment in Foucault’s analysis of Las Meninas. In his text titled Les Suivantes (5) which analyses Velasquez’s painting of 1656, Foucault says: ” at first, the rapport is simple; we look at a painting which in its turn stares at us”. Among many other key elements in the construction of the painting, Foucault talks about an important element which supports the reflexive quality of the painting: “the painter who is represented in the painting, looks at something: us, our body, our eyes, our face, which is a spectacle twice invisible as it is not represented in the painting and because it is situated in this blind point where is hidden our looks at the precise moment when we watch”. How can we not see this invisibility as the painting holds its own equivalent? The reverse of the painting in the painting restitutes this invisibility which is us and the space in which we are. The look of the painter links us to the representation, to the painting. At first the link is simple: the painter directs his glance to us only because we take the place of his model. But this painter accepts as many models as there are spectators in the space of exhibition. We look at a painting which in its turn looks at us and the presence of a mirror in the background reflects the image of two personages ‘outside the painting’ which are the subject of the work. “This mirror crosses all the field of this representation, but this invisibility that it surmount is not the one of the hidden”, it represents the reverse of the painting in the painting.
There is a precise construction of the space in the composition of this painting. The way the image on the surface of the canvas is built makes the spectator think of another space outside the image: all the personages are turned towards what must be happening at the front. The tableau in its totality looks at a scene for which the tableau is, in its turn, a scene.
If we are the subject of this mise-en-scène of LEAVES, then one can say that the filmic image is reflected on us and we can consider the film as a ‘surface’ in the same sense as the surface of a painting.This idea of an image as a surface is a direct reference to the material, a picture projected on an object. And here it is perhaps what the artist has wanted to tell us by placing the screen hanging in a way that the spectator has to walk around it before to access the image on the screen. It invites them to notice the screen as an object onto which the film is projected. A delimited frame.
And the screen, the plane surface that welcomes the projection, this plane surface is perhaps suggested in the film by the leaves themselves. By their shape, the leaves reminds us of this plane surface of the screen. The leaves, are here a constant allusion to this plane, reflective surface. So the screen, as represented by the leaves, resumes this triple relation and becomes an important element making allusion to this multiple relation. The leaves can also refer to the sheets of a book, on which a story unfolds, but perhaps also alluding to a decorative element, a landscape printed on a wall-paper, a trompe-l’-oeil. Here, we meet again this idea of Manet to use the wall-paper effect to conceal the depth of a space, to emphasise that the tableau is a plane surface on which it lays, as it would lay on a straight wall.
Furthermore, we could advance that if we are the subject of the film, then this apparatus put into place in the film has been ‘faking’, pretending to an action that serves as a spectacle, a mise-en-scene which at the end simply turn to the spectator and strengthen the relationships between the filmic image and our world as imaginary.
LEAVES, as a material image is in fact not the place which masks, hides something happening but which insures the absence of an action, which makes it exist. This strategy assures the invisibility looked at by the spectator. And this ‘strategy’ is only possible through the artist’s ability to present a space that explores different codes of representation. The artist constructs a space which oscillates between a given fiction and our imaginary that opens to multiple possibilities of scenarios. The film asks us to think of another world, a world coexisting with the primary one, the one fictionalised on the screen. All this apparatus of presenting a ‘non-event’, something which makes us think of another space, invisible in the frame of the filmic image, was mounted to reflect on us, to capture some bits of reality, which refers us to an existing world but to also better penetrate a world which is our own world, of which the only subject of reflection is Us.
published in LEAVES, boabooks Geneva 2011.
1. Soundtrack of LEAVES by Eliav Band
2. Foucault, La Peinture de Manet, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 2004
3. Here we can refer to the following works: Dans la Serre, 1879; La Serveuse de Bock, 1879; Le Chemin de fer, 1872-1873 and Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1881-1882.
4. Presentation of LEAVES at the South London Gallery, 9-18 December 2009.
5. Michel Foucault, Les Suivantes, in Les Mots et les choses, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, p. 19-31.