Burt Barr, "Projections," Nov. 8, 2001-Jan. 27, 2002, at the Whitney Museum, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
A longtime fixture on the New York art world, Burt Barr makes what highbrow critics back in the 1970s used to call "structuralist" films -- that is, slow-moving works that focus interminably on one or two simple aspects of "film as such." Barr, who is 62 and the husband of dancer Trisha Brown, enlivens his minimal narratives by casting art-world insiders like Cecily Brown and Elizabeth Murray in them. In fact, the latest frisson attached to his work involved a 1999 projection at Brent Sikkema in which Brown and the painter Billy Sullivan rolled around in the surf, a la Burt Lancaster and Janet Leigh in From Here to Eternity. (Sullivan is gay, but then the couple in Barr's film didn't really get together.)
More typical of Barr's work, perhaps, was his piece in the 1997 Whitney Biennial, a close-up video of a turtle trudging along -- projected in slow motion. That kind of introverted wit is on view in his current show at the Whitney, which features four silent projections that turn narrative film techniques (such as panning, focusing and the slow dissolve) into sight gags.
In Focus (2000), a woman -- it's Elizabeth Murray -- strides in slow motion along a country lane toward the camera. The video is unfocused and granular; it's as though microbes were teeming over the camera lens. Oddly, the artist's face remains blurry even as she moves closer -- a disorienting effect to say the least. Arriving for a focused close-up, she glares defiantly, daring anyone to mention the film's technical flaws.
The Long Dissolve (1998) is a nine-minute loop that lingers on an ice cube melting in a glass dish. Being forced to watch this natural event over several minutes is like sitting in a high-school science class. At the same time, the film's stillness provides a rare calm and suggests that much of nature is being overlooked. As the ice cube slowly caves in, the failure of our attentiveness becomes even clearer. Missing the subtle changes reveals the imperceptible process of aging. During the ice cube's final collapse, its cloudy center emerges like a departing soul.
The third projection, called Dolly Shot Twice (2000), offers a languorous dolly-shot pan over a Cadillac parked in the woods. Crawling in close-up over the car's profile, the camera gives no special attention to its front-seat occupant -- a murdered woman (played by artist Jessica Craig-Martin) with bullet-holes adorning her cheek and forehead. Why would we be scrutinizing the hood when there's a fresh corpse behind the wheel? The scene has the feel of a crime documentary on 1950s Hollywood, but the stuporous pace suggests that solving the murder is low priority. This bizarre film combines clinical detachment with the glamorous bad taste of fashion photographer Guy Bourdin.
In Focus/Ocean (2001), a plane flies overhead, leaving a billowing cloud trail in its wake. The smooth camera work arrests the plane's trajectory by fixing it in the upper right hand of the frame. Gradually, the plane wheels downward until it's obscured by trees, and the camera jerks around in confusion. Avoiding the cliché of spectacular flight, the camera's distant position below makes the plane's movement insignificant. It's as exasperating as watching a disoriented moth trapped by a light bulb.
At first, Barr's films seem disjointed and purposeless. But they do have a phosphorescent beauty, and it turns out that the artist goes to some technical pains to make low-quality video look luminous and silvery. All inside jokes about film aside, Barr's world seems to have weirdly drifted beyond the need for making sense.
In fact, one could say the camera itself has taken control of framing the events. No sensible director would carelessly allow a face to remain blurry. But a distracted intelligence might force the viewer to stare at an airplane stranded in the air. Clarifying what's going on rewards an audience's involvement. But in these films, the unresponsive camera avoids explaining human action. Hypnotized by its own methods, the camera is recast as an inscrutable god.