Hammer Projects: Keren Cytter

Hammer Projects: Keren Cytter

Born in Tel Aviv and currently living in Berlin, Keren Cytter makes films that portray characters entangled in complicated relationships, simultaneously connected to and alienated from one another. Inspired by direct experiences and observations of her surroundings as well as the films, plays, and novels of such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, John Cassavetes, Roman Polanski, Jack Smith, Tennessee Williams, and Samuel Beckett, her work is carefully scripted and produced while maintaining a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability. While past films have been shot in her apartment with a cast of friends and acquaintances, her untitled work for last summer's Venice Biennale was filmed with professional actors on a stage with a live audience, exploring the notion of identity in relationship to role-playing. Cytter's nonlinear narratives and use of a hand-held camera create absurdly abstract sequences of highly dramatic interactions and events, infused with both humor and pathos.

Organized by Anne Ellegood, Hammer senior curator.

Hammer Projects: Keren Cytter. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. January 5-April 4, 2010. Photo by Joshua White.

Biography

Essay

In the trailer for Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up, a male voice-over proclaims, "Sometimes reality is the strangest fantasy of all," expressing a sentiment often used to justify the transposition of real-life events into the realms of fictional literature and film. Antonioni was a member of the Italian neorealist movement and was also influenced by the French New Wave, so that by the time Blow-Up was released, an interest in bringing the realities of daily life into fiction was well established. But the film’s mash-up between reality and fantasy differed greatly from the director's more socially conscious previous forays into neorealism. Set in 1960s London, Blow-Up portends to be a sexy but relatively straightforward thriller about a fashion photographer, Thomas Hennings, who inadvertently discovers a murder in the park. Despite its depiction of the glamour and newfound liberalism of this swinging era, at its heart, the film is about the ontology of photography and cinema and the evidentiary power of the image. The title itself refers to the technique of enlargement, a process that the protagonist uses to help clarify what the camera has captured but that is quickly revealed to also distort the image.

In Israeli artist Keren Cytter’s film Les ruissellements du diable (The Devil's Streams, 2008), references to Blow-Up are evident. Rather than taking Antonioni’s film as direct inspiration, however, Cytter returns to the short story upon which it was based, Argentinean Julio Cortázar’s “Las babas del diablo” (The Devil’s Drool) of 1959, underscoring the interplay between the genres of fictive narrative and filmmaking and also distancing her project from the visual language of the now-iconic Blow-Up. Antonioni took many liberties with Cortázar’s story, changing the story line, the location, and the main character’s vocation, from translator and amateur photographer to professional fashion photographer. He also ignored some of the more experimental structural aspects of Cortázar’s writing in favor of a linear narrative, even though he defied one convention of the mystery genre and left the murder unresolved. 


Cytter follows Cortázar’s story more closely, returning the action to Paris and incorporating passages into a voice-over narration. She participates in the type of self-conscious postmodern investigation of form and process that informs Cortázar’s work and that also became a defining characteristic of the New Wave, which embraced such cinematic techniques as forgoing the studio set in favor of filming on location, actors speaking directly into the camera, erratic scene changes and jump cuts, and the use of nonprofessional actors. Cytter structures 
Les ruissellements du diable as a series of short but interconnected scenes, suggesting that the order of their viewing could be rearranged without disrupting or adversely altering the overall work or the viewer’s understanding of the events. In a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s penchant for inserting graphics into the middle of his films, credits are shown at the beginning and end but also suddenly appear in the middle. The viewer is allowed to piece together the various elements and to imagine other outcomes. This problematizes the role of the artist, situated between tightly held yet arguably irrelevant (or at least redefined) notions of fact and fiction.1 The narrator, reading from Cortázar’s story, articulates it perfectly: “I cried out. I realized that only the photo existed. I thought I was having an influence on reality by creating these freeze-frames, these floating images, but I did not even exist."

Notes

1. This empowerment of the viewer (or reader) at the expense of the artist (or author) relates to the influential works of French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault; see Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1967), in Image—Music—Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), 142–48, and Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” (1970), in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley et al. (New York: New Press, 1998), 205–22.

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Additional generous support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley, L A Art House Foundation, the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles, and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.  

Hammer Projects: Keren Cytter has also received support from Artis-Contemporary Israeli Art Fund, the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, and Joel Portnoy. Courtesy of Schau Ort, Elisabeth Kaufmann/Christiane Buentgen Zurich, Christian Nagel Gallery Cologne/Berlin/Antwerp, Pilar Corrias Gallery London.