Short, Quiet and Disturbing
On Recent Video Work by Pierre Yves Clouin
On Recent Video Work by Pierre Yves Clouin
Ger Zielinski publishes a review on video works by Pierre Yves Clouin in Trade
Ger Zielinski Short, Quiet and Disturbing On Recent Video Work by Pierre Yves Clouin
My first brush with Clouin was seeing his video MY LEVITATING BUTT (Cul en l'air) (1997), a sharp short that shoots from tle hip and reveals several of the artist's concerns. Butt is composed of a single shot containing now and then part of the artist's body. The work opens with the actor/artist apparendy lying on the floor for a few moments nearly naked, clad merely in a skimpy jockstrap. He then slaps his butt and begins to levitate, legs curled up and hidden from the camera, exposing only his back, subtly bobbing upwards and magically tansforming into what appears to be the giant head of a fully erect penis, eventually escaping out of the top of the screen. The image is centred, symmetrical, simple.The body is Platonic in its self discipline, its certainty, its athleticism, its lean, taut muscles, always a pleasure to uncover, to view. The movement of the body across the frame is forever steady, precise. Nothing wasted, nothing extraneous. The sound is raw, from the studio in which the tape was shot, apparendy unmanipulated and direct. Thematically, the work addresses vision and the gaze through framing devices and the male body, but the accent is equally on the male figure and the representation of gay male sexuality. These elements return in various combinations and balances in Clouin's more recent work. On his artistic practice Clouin notes, “Alone in front of the camera, and without word, I spy on myself in the monitor during the action. I am double: seer and seen." This excerpt captures and accurately accounts for several elements characterizing his work. In particular, the strong, successful play with framing is reminiscent of Warhol's provocative film Blow Job (1963) in which only an actor's face and upper body are in view. The putative offscreen action is fellatio. From the tide and the actor's expressions and sounds the viewer is left to decide whether the action in fact took place. No visual closure to this simple narrative is offered. the action's factuality is left inderterminate. While Clouin's use of framing to create ambivalence and emotional tension sometimes ends in narative resolution, sometimes the ambivalence remains. another of many influences on Clouin's approach to relating his body and technological medium in Vito Acconci's work. The concern with acknoleging the medium itself through its most fundamental devices, such as a frame and direct sound, is common to both. Unsettling or disturbing the viewer by situating him as voyeur is also a strongly shared motif. However, one important difference between these video artists is that Clouin never speaks or verbally addresses the viewer directly. His work is largely visual in nature and quiet, with some direct environmental sound, but never spoken language. The wit inherent in his visual bodily play owes a little to the notion of ostranenie or making the banal strange, coined by the early Russian avant-garde. A riddle of sorts is often posed to the viewer before he even recognizes it as such a way as to mislead the audience into assuming they know what is displayed until the situation is carefully, subtlly changed, the framing is altered, the body is moved, to reveal the mistake, misperception, misunderstanding. A gentle but disturbing subversion of learned viewingng habits, lazy epistemologly.
Both COWBOY (1998) and DIANA TEXAS (1999) I selected to be part of a program of artists' film and video called DRAGGED OUT: A STUDIED GLANCE AT CURRENT RADICAL DRAG (at Toronto's Pleasure Dome in 1999. The aim of the show was to inspect the outer boundaries of (radical?) drag mainly by artists. While neither of Clouin's tapes was intended as a drag tape, to be sure, they fit superbly in the program, perhaps for that very reason. COWBOY is a single shot of the kneeling artist's naked thighs, butt, and scrotum from behind, centred and in triangular stance with bright sunlight spilling into the studio before him and street sounds just barely audible. The viewer wonders what the actor is doing. Curiously sunning himself, urinating while kneeling, masturbating? He manipulates his scrotum with his hands, forming a silhouette of what may be discerned as bovine teats. Here it is not a question of crossdressing but of species crossing without any sophisticated camouflage but simply the actor/artist's body, light and camera. The movement and eventual revelation of feigned teats are droll and serve well Clouin's accompanying caption for this video, "In just a lonesome cowboy with gorgeous teats." In his DIANA TEXAS we see first a composition of the chest and hands of someone-in fact, the artist-lying in a t-shirt, apparently with breasts. The actor/artist lights a cigarette with a match, accompanied by raw sound. His hands begin to fondle the “breasts" erotically and in turn unscrew their tips and begin ringing them, which thereby reveals their practical nature as desktop bells. He then slides the breasts-bells around under his shirt while ringing them to a near visual and aural frenzy. With his glasses on he briefly peers into the camera, and finally readjusts the bells to better simulate once again a female chest to bring the tape to a close. DIANA TEXAS seems a sort of feminist video, a veritable parody of straight male porn or more generally the representation of women and their objectification; here the feigned selferoticism as in pornography is merely posed for the camera and the inferred viewer/voyeur, but thoroughly disrupted by the excessive movement and ringing. KANGAROO ( 1998) provokes the viewer through its impossible, unresolved nature, while CARNISSUS (1999) continues the play with ambivalence but at the threshold of light. KANGAROO has its own curious pouch-ostensibly a human butt-which fills the screen and out of which toils arduously and incredulously a hand with heavybreathing on the sound track. The hand once outside reaches to lind some cloth near the camera lens and then flicks its fingers at the lens which signals the end of the video. An audacious example of a sort of reverse fist fuck, wittily turned inside out? The "butt" is so convincing that I am still unsure with which other body parts Clouin achieved such a fine simulation. I am left wondering and in wonder. With clear references to the myth of Narcissus and "carne" (flesh), CARNISSUS lives at the edge, the threshold of light, of reflection. The video image is dark and difficult to discern but intrigues and holds the attention of the viewer. One hears water dripping, with added manipulation to achieve an echoing sound, supporting the theme of reflection. One also hears passionate kissing which one associates witl the shadowy figures inthe frame. One eventually recognizes the kissing partner of the male ligure as the figure's very own reflection in a mirror. The darkness of the screen, images nearly indiscernible, entices the viewer into prolonged voyeuristic activity, a drive to see, touncover, to witness, to know. One video that stands quite alone in Clouin's recent work is HONNEY BUNNY (Mon lapin bleu)(1999), breaking with a few of the artist's stylistic and structural devices. BUNNY is lighter in tone than the others, even whimsical. It opens with a shot of the actor, the artist himself, sitting naked on a stuffed toy bunny, crotch to crotch. He bounces in that position moving about the floor of the studio, perhaps simulating some frisky sex,which is then interrupted by the titles of the piece. The final (and humorous) shot is of the bunny as a top, mounting the actor/artist. Here Clouin's carnal perplexity and subtle framing are forsaken. The strange and banal mass-produced, interchangeable stuffed bunny in this video becomes a sex object, a children's toy, a fetish. Kinky, indeed.The brisk movement of the actor and bunny subverts the darker consequences of all this, but the subtext pointing to the commodification of desire and sexuality remains.
Reminiscent of the earlier Butt, among others, in depth and quality, Clouin's THE LITTLE BIG (1999) ranks as one of my favourites of his videos. This tape begins with the image of an apparent butt, sound the sound of a match being lit, and watersounds that may signify the setting of a bathroom. A hand caresses the butt, but also appears much larger in scale. With the heavy breathing we wonder what sort of sexual activity is being performed on the other, hidden side. Piquing our voyeuristic curiosity, we wonder about fellatio, masturbation, etc. The actor's dangling balls appear to jut visibly from the base of his butt. This action is sustained over a few seconds, allowing the viewer to become misled in his confident mechanisms of recognition, identiification and empathy. The butt unravels surprisingly into shoulder blades, balls into butt. Camera angle revealed. Assumptions destroyed. Match struck and cigarette lit.
Surveying several of Clouin's recent videos reveals a concise portrait of an artist and his work very successfully situated in traditions carved out by such artists as Warhol and Acconci, among others, but with important differences in approach to his medium and treatrnent of his thermes and concerns. Clouin pushes video art in avery reflexive direction. Not only is medium specificity, i.e. video as video, constant, but also the thematic concern with looking and the gaze. He constitutes the voyeur through his clever framing of his body and proceeds to dispel his assumptions, thereby making the banal ever so strange. Clouin'swork challenges and provokes the audience into seeing particularly the male body anew and more generally into rethinking our presumed and lazy habits of perceiving. Work truly short, quiet and disturbing. The way I Iike it.
Ger Zielinski lectures on contemporary aenhetics and theories of art, film and new media work inthe School of Image Arts, Ryerson Polyechnic University, Toronto. He also lectures at universities and festivals in Europe and North America, and publishes criticism regularly in Paruchute and Lola, among other art mags. Ger curates for Toronto's Pleasure Dome.