If someone could find a way to implant a movie camera inside the human body, Michel Auder would probably be at the front of the line for the surgery. Since 1970, when he bought a Sony Porto Pack, the first truly portable camcorder, Auder has been filming his surroundings almost without pause. The results of this forty-year project, by turns glamorous, lyrical and seedy, include scenes of domestic life with ex-wives Viva and Cindy Sherman, portraits of friends such as Alice Neel and Andy Warhol, footage shot from TV screens, and voyeuristic observations of strangers seen on rooftops and through windows. A generous selection of videos, installations and photographs are now on view in "Keeping Busy: An Inaccurate Survey of Michel Auder," an exhibition spread somewhat chronologically among three galleries: Participant, Zach Feuer and Newman Popiashvili.
At Participant Inc., portions of Auder’s entire body of work can be seen. A selection of seven videos and films made between 1969 and 1998 are playing simultaneously without sound on monitors on the floor, while Chelsea Girls with Andy Warhol, a black-and-white mash-up of incidents from Warhol's public and private life shot from 1971–1976 and edited in 1994, is projected on the wall above the staircase.
Screenings of full-length pieces are also taking place at Participant for the duration of the show, projected on demand on another wall in front of a couch. Twenty-five works made between 1969 and 2008 are available. My choices were A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking (1980) and Cleopatra (1970), Auder’s 154-minute improvised parody of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s 1963 blockbuster. Viva plays the Queen, and Warhol superstars Nico, Ondine, Taylor Mead and Gerard Malanga, among others, play roles including Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra’s ladies in waiting.
Auder’s first and last movie financed by outside sources (who put up around $200,000), Cleopatra was filmed in New York, where snow served as Egyptian sand, snowmobiles as horses, skyscrapers were pyramids and a hotel room was a palace. The movie was finished in Italy, at Bomarzo (the prototypical 16th-century surrealist park) and in Rome on the streets and in the Cinecitta sets where the original Mankiewicz film was shot. Auder’s evocative echo transforms the highly scripted epic into a study of sensuous boredom, punctuated by idle conversations, sudden arguments and orgies.
Toward the end there’s a fabulous battle of near naked gladiators wrestling in a pit, with Viva, Mead and Ondine screaming encouragement from a balcony, dressed in decadent headdresses and costumes. Replete with lush atmosphere and demented conversation, the film shines through undiminished even in its current degraded state -- an uncut third-generation copy (surreptitiously made just in time by Jonas Mekas) is all that remains after Auder’s dissatisfied backers destroyed the original print.
A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking similarly combines drama with quotidian observation. A young Gary Indiana entertains neighbor Taylor Mead, who plays a famous writer and television personality partially based on Truman Capote. Cookie Mueller (as a professional dominatrix with a hard-drinking little daughter) goes on an out call to pee on a lawyer’s head; Indiana’s sleepover sex with a handsome stranger is repeatedly interrupted by a hysterical Mead complaining about a Qaalude and trying to steal his date; and Mueller and Alice Neel talk about bisexuality in front of Neel’s painting of a child seated on a pony.
Differences between contrived performance and actual unplanned life are conflated. The improvisations filling both of these pieces take place within skeletal fictional structures largely absent in most of Auder’s subsequent experimental video work. Recently, however, a quasi-autobiographical 2008 film made with Andrew Neel called The Feature (also available at Participant) has marked a return to theatrical movie making.
At the outset (after a warning that what we will see is not the truth), the present-day Auder appears as a rich and successful artist receiving a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Death’s imminence provides an excuse for a recapitulation of his past life and work: childhood, marriages, drug addiction, friendships and voyeurism.
By turns ravishing and raw, selections from Auder’s archive are interspersed with new footage of his over-privileged fictional potentate relaxing in a spacious Manhattan apartment or a sunken swimming pool on a hill in Los Angeles, without telling his two daughters, his American wife and/or his young French girlfriend about his illness. This rather annoying back-story provides a contrast to the poetry of his earlier work, and may be designed to poke exaggerated fun at his actual personal failings.
Nevertheless, The Feature is a grand example of the fluid sensibility that makes it possible for Auder to use the same material in multiple ways, as if he is constantly revising his own memories. Even when imposed drama is absent, film’s fictional construction of reality is always made clear. Following his separation from Viva, for instance, a trip to Morocco in the early ‘70s was edited as a solitary journey called Chronicles/Morocco 1971. More recently, Auder completed Morocco 1972: the Real Chronicles with Viva (2002), restoring the incidents involving his wife and daughter -- clearly the crux of the trip -- in a changing narration of the still unfolding past, as what he chooses to recall is transformed.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Auder widened his focus to include media appropriations and videos of strangers. The fact that Cindy Sherman, his wife at the time, had very little interest in performing for anyone else’s camera might have had something to do with the change. The Games: Olympic Variations (1984), for example, is on view in a small separate room constructed at the entrance of Zach Feuer Gallery. Shooting moving images as they played on a television set, Auder sexualized the details of athletes’ bodies with close-ups of genitals under athletic clothing, in sharp contrast to the usual sanitized sports coverage. In the darkened main gallery, small monitors playing a range of short videos are imbedded in roughly constructed sculptural installations by Auder’s former student Kate Levant, with weathered materials reflecting the frequent rawness of his subject matter.
Rooftops and Other Scenes, a longer piece from 1996, can be seen from a couch in Feuer’s back gallery. Voyeuristic footage of sexual encounters in neighboring buildings shot using a long distance lens is juxtaposed with evocative landscapes and interiors. Dead deer hanging from a tree outside a house in the snow, a television image of swimmers emerging from water; a man reflected in the lens of another man’s glasses; a moth alighting on a finger. . . the camera is usually either too close or too far away to identify who is represented, reflecting life’s beauty as found in the debris of unnoticed moments.
Narcolepsy (2010), Auder’s most recent work, is on view at Newman/Popiashvili Gallery. This five-channel installation includes footage shot with a small hand-held digital video camera, mobile phones and underwater devices. The videos appear on one monitor at a time, as the rest remain blank. A transparent rabbit in bed is superimposed on a dog in the snow; hands being washed under a faucet are juxtaposed with an outdoor flood; little girls play with dolls and mothers tend real babies; a spider web holds a captive fly.
A very different sort of home video by Auder’s late friend and subject, Larry Rivers, has recently been in the news -- a creepy and exploitative film about the sexual development of his two daughters (with footage of genitals and breasts) that was part of the archive Rivers’ foundation has sold to NYU. One of his daughters announced that the project had disturbed her to the point of contributing to her anorexia, and she thinks the work should be destroyed. NYU subsequently declined to accept the film.
Fortunately, Auder’s observations of his friends and family have always been oblique, never so invasive or disturbing. Instead, he manages to remain at least partially a distanced observer, no matter how intimate the situation. Using camera movements that seem to imitate the shifting of gazes during extended amounts of real time, Auder perpetually recreates his own history, while effortlessly capturing subjects often unaware that they are seen. And even when the people he films are consciously performing for his camera, they know they can always slip away.
The show at Participant Inc. runs until August 1, the ones at Newman Popiashvili Gallery and Zach Feuer Gallery continue until August 13. Prices range from $5000 to $40,000.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.