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Eli Cortiñas’ The Most Given of Givens (2016) opens with a film camera pointing towards the severed stone head of Lenin being lifted away by construction cranes. The source of this material is not revealed until the end of the film as a glimpse of the 1995 Greek film Ulysses’ Gaze,but the audience can immediately connect the scene to the historic frenzy of the early 1990’s to tear down Soviet monuments across Eastern and Central Europe. In Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius there is no more direct way to open up a conversation about monuments in public space – this scene serves as the springboard into Cortiñas’ claim that film and cinema should be imagined and discussed as public sculpture because of the influence it enjoys in our perception of the world and the shaping of our opinions.
The Most Given of Givens is part of Cortiñas’ two-piece exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius curated by Neringa Bumblienė that runs through 13 January 2019. The claim that cinema must be considered a public monument is postulated through post-colonial and feminist discourse. The urgency is due to its power as a form of unconscious imagination of the world through our passive consumption of images. In the context of the ongoing discussions about monuments to confederate generals in the united states, the Valle de los Caídos in Madrid, and the continued debate on Soviet memorials in the Baltic countries, the exhibition asks whether we will take the time to consider film culture in that same way.
The film was completed in 2016 when Cortiñas’ received the Karl-Schmidt-Rotluff grant for production but the exhibition’s moment follows the artist’s continued interaction in the Baltic region after her participation in the Riga Biennial and residency at Rupert in Vilnius in 2018. The same film was shown in the biology building of the Riga Biennial from May to October 2018 prompting the question of why showing this again in the same region makes sense to the curator. But on visiting the exhibition, the solo-exhibition format frames the video in a markedly different way as well as focusing on a singular artist’s practice rather than the large group-exhibition format, allowing closer attention to the individual films as well as the practice of an individual auteur. Accompanying the visuals of Lenin’s disgraced bust are the famous opening lines of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ Statues Also Die(1953). “When men die, they enter into history. When statues die, they enter into art.”This remix and mashup of a film about looted African art stored in ethnographic museumswith footage that can immediately be placed in the Eastern European context ties into local discourses of Baltic post-colonialism and self-colonisation. By mixing two incomparable elements, Eastern Europe and West Africa, new arrangements of history and alliances are formed through their cinematic juxtaposition. Quoting Hungarian Art Historian Edit András, “Eastern Europe is “the Other” within Europe, but not in the context of Western civilisation.”The 3-screen installation structure and the remixed montage act as layers of a complex post-colonial discussion that morphs as it applies to varied geo-political contexts throughout the globe.
The film goes on to mainly address Tarzan archetype in various films made through the decades with their patriarchal and inherently racist narratives repeated in Western pop culture. Stereotypical representations of African bodies cause the terror of the defenceless white woman in distress. Animals perform as commanded, and wild untouched scenes of nature are meant to conjure mental images of an African continent without ownership and ripe for conquest. Later in the film, the Athenian Parthenon floats in front of anthropologic art objects from a museum wing of African art. The division between debate surrounding the return of the Elgin Marbles and the exoticisation of animal and human bodies in colonialism strikes an odd note. The European woman who moments ago looked frightened towards representations of wilderness and animals of the Savannah is replaced by throngs of white tourists with Fuji cameras walking calmly under the Greek sun. Overall, the scene serves as a reminder and a return to the public monument – Lenin was torn down but the ransacked Moai monoliths of Easter Island never returned to their people. East and South Europe are represented both as victims and inflictors of the conflict in the complex matrix of patriarchy and neo-colonialism.
Cortiñas’ knowledge of film history also uses the remix format to visualise underrepresentation and develop a reclaimed history of cinema. Hollywood Tarzan films with all of their racialisations and Western gaze are cut and spliced with footage of West African filmmakers Moustapha Alassane and Ousmane Sembène. During French rule, colonial subjects had been legally barred from producing films – only a decade after Marker and Resnais’ film were North and West African filmmakers allowed to take up the camera themselves and revise the colonial representations of their own countries. Cortiñas’ use of newer films such as the 90’s Disney animation of Tarzan and the 2009 release of Avatar (which is largely based on the Tarzan narrative) show how the deeply racist archetype of Tarzan nevertheless continues to play out in popular culture today – as Cortiñas insists – “these particular genres have not been decolonized at all.”
In the second film presented at CAC Vilnius, Quella Que Cammina (2014), Cortiñas uses footage of Love in the City (1953) a film by Carl Lizzani which tells the story of an aging prostitute who struggles to find clients. Returning to the artist’s earlier work that dealt with revealing the patriarchal systems of Hollywood, the selected cuts are portions in which the main character is asked simple stereotypical questions by a male journalist – i.e. how many pairs of shoes does she buy each year? Collage of appropriated films is mixed with her own footage of sculptural assemblages and personal anecdotes whispered by the filmmaker’s mother. The murmuring women throughout the piece recall the first line on passivity that opens the film: “We women never dare anything. Someone always has to push us. We behave like proletarian…. We will always be proletarian.”Bringing back the camera to the self, Cortiñas focuses this film on the personal connection to the subjugation of women and the circularity of repression represented by generations of mothers and daughters. Like The Most Given of Givensthe film compacts “the eternal” conditions of patriarchal society that pass from generation to generation without a definite solution in a cycle of eternal return.
Return points to the endless uphill battle played out by women and colonial subjects against a repressive Western patriarchal order. The use of montage however does not refer to Marx’s famous saying, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”but rather to a philosophy of repetition elaborated by Brian Dillon – in Frieze he made a claim that repetition is both reprehensible and impossible to avoid. Citing a strange posthumous book by Søren Kierkegaard in which his character is unable to complete a past journey in exactly the same way – minutia is out of his control and on returning home, the housekeeper has re-arranged the furniture “dispelling even the reliable repetition of home.”Although this essay does not endorse repetition in music – it speaks to the style of remixing as a Hegelian value and to what repetition offers in the endless sway of history. In the return to repression that followed the independence and glimpses of freedom in the ex-colonies and Southern and Eastern states after authoritarianism – it is true that revolution also constitutes a return but always in a redeveloped form. It is in the re-mixes and appropriations, the repetitive elements arranged in new constellations that the title of the exhibition takes its form, re-mixing takes on the zombie-like walk of wakening old ghosts and cadavers, re-animating them in order to give them a new funeral.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)