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Erik Wesselo
film still from Oil


The artist in Oil
Man in a Box
by Ned Higgins

Workaholics anxious to dispel summer doldrums with hard labor might enjoy Oil, a new film by Dutch artist Erik Wesselo, currently projected onto a nine-foot screen at Chelsea's Team Gallery.

In Oil, 1,700 boxes of Coroli cooking oil are loaded into a large truck by two men (one of whom is the artist). Standing silently in the truck's cavernous interior, they immediately begin lifting boxes off a pallet and piling them up like bricks against the far wall. The only dialogue occurs when the bearded worker calls to someone outside, who slides another platform of boxes into the truck. Each unloaded pallet is quickly replaced by a worker with a forklift (who is never seen). In the last moments of the 28 minute film, the truck's opening appears while the last box is placed on the final top row. The job being completed, the two men sit on a nearby vehicle and are driven out of sight.

Throughout the film, the camera is fixed squarely on the men from two feet away, suggesting a low-budget documentary on grim working conditions. However, the workers' mood is determined, not resentful.

As these tight-lipped characters work with seemingly no end in sight, one notices that their pace never slackens. Evidently, several film cuts resume the action in mid-stream to create an illusion of continuous toil. At first soothingly predictable, their work becomes increasingly maddening and hypnotic (the viewer's only relief from the constant movement is an occasional blurry close-up of the boxes). The sounds of the men slinging boxes into place adds a mechanical rhythm as well. All this repetition encourages a wish for escape. Watching the entire film seems beside the point.

Wesselo's monotonous routine certainly discloses the futility of human effort, recalling the endless stream of highway commuters in the film Koyaanisqatsi. The artist seems to desire a test of mental endurance through movement that is exhausting or potentially harmful. In Windmill (1997), which was shown earlier this summer at Apex Art in Tribeca, the artist is strapped to the rotating blade of a windmill, providing another example of a man condemned to perform a repetitive, physical action. And this stunt offers an even more emblematic and absurd metaphor of a man helpless to control his life.

Oil gives an unromanticized account of an artist's life shaped by routine (apparently, Wesselo worked as a mover while awaiting funding for his projects). It also spoofs the creative process, detailing the artist's restless urge to fill space. And of course the film invites a philosophical exploration on whether only work itself, not its result, is worthwhile.

NED HIGGINS is managing editor of Artnet Magazine.