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WEEKEND UPDATE
by Walter Robinson
 
The longer the film, the smaller the audience? The avant-garde symmetry of that equation would seem to be borne out by Klatsassin, the new Western movie by Canadian artist Stan Douglas, now unspooling at David Zwirner Gallery on West 19th Street in Chelsea.

It’s 69 hours long. And though the picture is really quite good, the large, pitch-black screening room (the film is rather dark) typically has only a few viewers, if any, perched on the less-than-armchair-like foam cubes that serve as seating. Oh, well.

Klatsassin is what used to pass in the late 1960s and ‘70s as a "structuralist film," that is, a movie whose primary focus is some aspect of its own form. Touchstone for this movement is Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), a very slow 45-minute zoom of an 80-foot-long loft, during which some kind of event -- a murder? -- takes place at the edges of the filmic scene.

In Douglas’ Klatsassin, the topic at hand is our old friend, the unreliable narrator. The film is based on a historical event: In 1864, during the gold rush in British Columbia, a Tsilhquot’in warrior has been arrested during a tribal revolt, but on the trip through the frontier the deputy who has him in custody is somehow killed and the Indian escapes. What actually happened is unknown, and the other characters in the film -- depicted in a series of black-and-white photographic portraits on display in the adjacent gallery, along with spectacular color images of Western sets and the movie’s rugged countryslide locale -- include a thief, who is a suspect in the murder; a farmer, who apparently witnessed the killing; and an innkeeper, a constable and a prospector, all of whom take part in telling the story.

Douglas doesn’t present his tale in a straightforward series of scenes with a beginning, middle and end. Rather, he cycles through them, showing the same scenes over and over, adding new shots here and there to provide -- incrementally -- new information. Viewers enter the narrative at random, and must watch for some time to figure out what’s going on (though not too long -- after 45 minutes, the basics of the story are clear). The exceptional length of the film, which makes it unlikely that anyone will see the whole thing, is made possible through computers and digital technology.

Adding to the esthetic layering is the fact that the tale is carried by several different narratives taking place at different times. The deputy tells the innkeeper what he’s doing with his captive Indian; the innkeeper later tells the story to the prospector; still later, the thief, constable and Indian tell their versions to a traveling circuit court; and finally, the prospector tells the tale to his partner five years later. What’s more, many of the characters are from different places and speak different languages -- French, Dutch, English, Scottish, Native American. 

And then there is the film’s own wordless showing of the events, which has a different kind of authority. If you ask me, the thief did it, thinking to rob the deputy, who was paid $100 for transporting his prisoner. And, the thief has a guilty face. Isn’t that role played by the artist?

Once you set yourself down and relax, ready to take it easy for an hour or two, Klatsassin is enjoyable in a Philip Glass kind of way, as the narrative unfolds to soothing electronic music and the characters gradually reveal themselves. Not everything makes sense -- what’s with the white dog trotting through the forest? -- but bits of the dialogue take on the power of portents. "There’s always gold for people who know what they’re doing," the prospector says. Pollyanna!

Despite the special esthetic pleasure of the structuralist mode, one cannot help feeling that if the story is really worth telling -- and Douglas suggests that the situation in British Columbia in 1848 parallels that of Iraq in 2007 -- then the filmmaker might have broken down and told it in a couple of hours, comprehensively, as in ordinary movies. They can be masterpieces, after all. Douglas cites Rashomon (1950), which was made more than half a century ago, as his starting point.

Today, the self-referential ideas of structuralist film are all over mainstream entertainment, notably in TV shows about TV shows like 30 Rock and Studio 60. In the movie theaters, we’ve had Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), in which parts of the movie that the audience is watching have supposedly been filmed by someone actually in the movie (someone who turns out to be, figuratively, the audience itself), and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), an unprecedented set of pendant films that tell the same story from two opposing sides.

But if Douglas made ordinary movies, he would be selling a DVD for $24.95 instead of a big installation (in an edition of three) for around $300,000-$400,000. The photos, which are beautiful, range in price from $12,000 to $48,000.

*     *     *
A western also occupies the attention of Los Angeles-based, Louisiana-raised artist Stephen G. Rhodes, whose exhibition of sculptures, photographs, drawings and films, titled "Recurrency," fills the Guild & Greyshkul gallery down on Wooster Street in SoHo. Rhodes’ inspiration is the 1981 short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, in which a Confederate soldier’s miraculous escape from the hangman’s noose is discovered to be, at the point he is embracing his beloved, nothing but a fleeting fantasy.

In Rhodes’ manic gallery installation, the rope has a life of its own, like the severed hand that chased Peter Lorre around in Beast with Five Fingers (1947). Several full-sized gallows with moss-green bases -- a comic aside about modernist sculpture’s "problem of the base" -- send overlong hangman’s nooses snaking through the space (thanks to some impregnating plastic).

Similarly animated garden hoses swirl and rear up, and considerable lengths of rope wrap densely around columns. The artist himself is filmed tramping through the woods, with the rope slithering among the trees. It’s about "trauma and alternative histories," "formal exercises" and "historical contingency," according to Johannes VanDerBeek, an artist and co-founder of the gallery.

One of Rhodes’ earlier works, a rubber boa constrictor that has apparently swallowed a Donald Judd box sculpture, was bought by Charles Saatchi, so perhaps a demented humor has something to do with it as well. After Hurricane Katrina down in New Orleans, damaged houses were spray-painted with Xs, and Rhodes has included some photocollaged images of the devastated city in glass frames, which are themselves marked with spray-painted Xs, works he calls "Excerpted." The sculptures are $8,000-$15,000, the animated hoses are $2,800 and the Xed-out photos, an art-historical first, are $2,800.

*     *     *
The Chelsea map is so densely packed with galleries that the hard-working art critic is lucky to make it down a single block. Last Saturday, a visitor to West 29th Street had a relatively easy job of it -- four galleries on the south side of the street. Sean Kelly Gallery has a structuralist cinema installation -- speak of the devil -- by Anthony McCall called You and I, Horizontal (III).

Ethereal and hard-edged, McCall’s installations are about turning film into an immaterial spatial geometry, and on Saturday, several parents with toddlers were there, frolicking in the hip art playground. Cones and lines have never been so much fun.

Next door is the well-tempered Peter Blum Chelsea space, now housing "Smile" by Alex Katz, a series of 11 paintings originally made in 1993-94 and exhibited at Marlborough Gallery Madrid. Each 8 x 6 ft. picture depicts a single woman looking at the artist with a love-struck expression, including a big smile. The guy likes women, say that for him, and always has. Katz has kept the pictures since he made them, but will sell them now, as a group, for $3.5 million.

A bit further down the block is Alona Kagan Gallery, which has a group show by five women artists who are all new to me -- Mary Redmond, Clare Woods, Victoria Morton, Servane Hottinger and Eva Rothschild -- though the stuff looks good. "If you have any questions, let me know," said the young woman at the gallery, prompting me to take off my headphones. Who are these people, I asked. "I don’t know," she said. "I just came to the country last week."

And over towards 11th Avenue is Cynthia Broan Gallery, where Rachel Rampleman (b. 1973) has a priceless 30-minute-long video, Poison (My Sister Fucked Bret), in which her sister relates, in excruciating detail, how she stalked and finally bedded the 1980s hair-metal rocker Bret Michaels. It’s Oprah Uncensored, and notable for at least two reasons: the moment-by-moment chronicle of her all-absorbing self-consciousness in the presence of the star, a condition that is unbelievably easy to identify with; and the gossip about Michaels.

To cut to the chase, Susan (as the protagonist is named) says that romance with the rock star was "less than explosive," and that he is in the "bottom third" in both technique and penis size. His site of choice for sex is the couch in his screening room, and the impulse comes over him randomly (not as part of some nighttime bedding-down). He doesn’t make a peep during, and after acts like nothing had happened. Plus, his house is "cheesy."

All this can be yours for $3,000 in an edition of six; for the rest of us, a trailer is posted on YouTube. Next up at Broan, "What F Word?" a show of works by 36 women artists. The "F," they tell me, stands for "Feminism."

*     *     *
In advance of the opening of a survey of their work at Tate in London, singing sculptures Gilbert & George pick their favorite work -- a huge crucifix formed with photos of a "colossal turd" surrounded by images of the artists "tumbling naked though the skies, cocks akimbo," writes Deborah Ross in the Independent. The work is titled Naked Shitty Human World.

Performance artist (and Exit Art co-founder) Papo Colo’s new project is to jump 51 fences, "the number of democracy," from Puerto Rico to the Bronx, as a mark of freedom and the quest for the unknown. "I want the highest fences I can find," he said, "to show that our generation still has it!"

After six years on Lower Broadway, your trusty art reporter finally wandered across West Street to the new art-filled Ritz-Carlton New York in Battery Park, just in time to see Creative Time’s new "art on the plaza" installation -- two 17-foot-tall sculptures of olive trees by New York artist Ugo Rondinone. The sculptures are cast in aluminum (and covered with white enamel) from 2000-year-old olive trees found near Naples, near the hometown of the artist’s parents. They have poetic titles: air gets into everything even nothing and get up girl a sun is running the world.

Also on view inside the hotel proper, by the way, are works by abstract painters Rima Mardoyan and William Wood.

On the final weekend of the Annie Leibowitz show at the Brooklyn Museum, the last-chance line to get in stretched through the exhibition galleries, through the lobby and out front into the rain. . . . CRG Gallery inaugurates its new, full-floor space in the same West 22nd Street building -- the former Marianne Boesky Gallery -- with the installation of a multipart painting by Pia Fries. . . . Art Basel hopes to name a successor for director Sam Keller, who is slated to take a post as head of the Fondation Beyeler, at the forthcoming Art 38 Basel, June 13-17, 2007.

Eve Therond has resigned as founding editor of Whitewall after an unspecified editorial dispute with the publisher. . . . Over at the New York Times, a regular slot on the art reviews page seems now to be reserved for critic Martha Schwendener. Close readers notice more stories being filed by Benjamin Genocchio, who also writes for the paper’s regional sections, and by the veteran reporter-turned-critic Grace Glueck, who has the best sense of humor of the bunch.


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