Bjorn Melhus, "Weeping," Sept. 24-Oct. 25, 2003, at Satellite, a division of Roebling Hall, 94 Prince Street, New York, N.Y. 10012
"There is a dark, empty place with power. Something, with power," says one of the twin figures in Bjorn Melhus' 13-minute-long video projection Weeping, currently on view at Satellite, a small space that the Williamsburg-based Roebling Hall gallery has opened in SoHo upstairs from the landmark Fanelli's Tavern. Well known in Germany for his video installations -- he had a major show last year at the Bremen Kusthalle -- Melhus is also represented in the current "American Effect" exhibition at the Whitney Museum with two single-channel videos, America Sells and Far Far Away.
In Weeping, the artist performs as a pair of robotic preachers, dressed in suit, tie and yellow shirt, speaking digitally tweaked dialogue from U.S. televangelists. Melhus distorts the voices by changing the speed of the original recordings, creating absurd intonations. On a split screen, the two almost identical figures give a riveting sermon that builds to a frenzied climax before disappearing into an apocalyptic glow.
The preacher on the left, head titled slightly down, begins with an intermittent warning "I want you to know that we have seen," while the preacher on the right, individuated by a slight upward tilt, remains silent until the seventh refrain. Framed to show only their heads and shoulders, they are menacing versions of TV minister Kenneth Copeland calling out "Blow the trumpets."
The sermon rhythmically builds as the preachers alternately goad and implore the audience to experience what their hearts are for. One asks the viewer to "cry out," while the left moans, "I can't do this." The speed of the sermon slows as the figures invoke a mysterious power before delivering a cryptic prophecy about human performance and mechanization. The sermon climaxes abruptly as the right figure shouts out, "Weeping, weeping, weeping," before both disappear into a kind of fireball.
These slightly alien figures and the abstract television space they inhabit are characteristic of Melhus' previous videos, although the formal structure is more rigid in Weeping. That doesn't make the work any easier to fully apprehend.
The figures are largely static, which calls greater attention to the editing and manipulation of the appropriated sermon. The changes in the preachers' inflections are both funny and disturbing, depending on the utterance. Melhus strips the dialogue of most of the explicit christian language, resulting in a generic sermon.
Pictorially, the preachers' heads are haloed in a ball of white light against a warm background in the manner of corporate portraiture. The sermon, delivered in this context is an ironic, post-modern expression that retains only the passionate tone of the sources. Melhus' sinister corporate preachers revel in the soulless irony of televangelism, a rather grotesque incursion of capitalism into the easy territory of religious desire. The performance is comically understated, yet Melhus' lip-synching invokes something more sinister like possession. It's this unnerving capitulation of the self that makes Melhus' technique mirror his message of the absurdity of televised salvation.
As the opening line suggests, something occupies a dark, empty place with power, and happily it's Melhus' austere video installation. And in the spirit of "The American Effect," we now have a German artist offering an interesting and entertaining criticism of one of the less savory aspects of American television culture. In Weeping, his vengeful CEO preachers exhort us to examine our mediated culture through a reflexively sublime performance.
WILLIAM POWHIDA is an artist and critic living in Brooklyn and is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.