Published  12/04/2007

Shifting Identities

Shifting Identities

Aernout Mik, Camden Arts Centre, London
16 February - 15 April 2007

Dutch video artist Aernout Mik is drawn to images of conflict and war. In his exhibition at Camden Arts Centre he presents four video installations that also reveal his preoccupation with acting. He explores the shifting dynamics of power in human behaviour and includes moving unseen footage from the Bosnian war. 

Conflict in its many modalities brings about unfamiliar circumstances, creates quixotic moments, and in extreme cases, taints human action with the blood of an adversary. Out of conflict arises war. In fact, war is essentially conflict on a grander scale; a duel taken to Gargantuan proportions. War, in its crystallised form, according to Carl von Clausewitz, is constituted by acts of violence in order that the enemy, unable to further defend himself, becomes an instrument of the conqueror's will. With each side vying to disarm and subjugate the other, it is no wonder that we will go to any lengths to preserve our liberty. A person under such conditions might perform acts which demonstrate his courage in the face of danger, or he may carry out cold-blooded killings as a mark of allegiance to his country or in accordance with the ideology of an autocrat.

It is within the context of war and the power struggles it exemplifies that Aernout Mik operates. His video pieces exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre, London, reveal his preoccupation with acting, whether it is before a news camera in a war zone, or as part of a staged drama where the actors continually shift their roles between oppressors and oppressed.

Mik is interested in war because it perforates the fabric we call social reality. War renders a person into something he is not and, in some cases, turns him into a monster. Give him power and he will, more often than not, abuse it.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (conducted at Stanford University in 1971) attempted to show how protean our psychological make-up is by randomly dividing volunteers into two camps: one half taking the role of prison guards and the other half taking the role of prisoners. During the experiment both groups took on personality traits particular to their respective social roles; in a few instances guards showed signs of sadism, and their captives showed behaviour indicative of emotional trauma.

Similar character experiments are played out through 'Scapegoats' (2006) in which Mik has numerous people acting out situations within a small stadium. Some move aimlessly, others station themselves on the sidelines, talking and smoking. Those towards whom the camera is most directed form the two groups of captors and hostages. The captors, wielding guns, portray their archetype through aggression, however subtle; the hostages stand or sit meekly, taking the abuse with bowed heads. Each time the camera focuses on the two groups, the viewer finds that the characters have reversed roles.

Ambiguity, at least in a diluted form, is also a force governing Mik's earlier video piece, 'Vacuum' (2005). Set in a banquet room amid Baroque mirrors, heavy chandeliers and bronze statues, 'Vacuum' shows the dichotomy between a coterie of political delegates seated around the room and a group of activists running about, shouting, or stamping their feet in unison in the centre of the room. As the film progresses divisions between delegates and activists, which at first had been stark, lessen by degrees so that the viewer witnesses a kind of osmosis between them. But this work isn't purely about the dynamics between actors, it also explores the duality between image and perceiver. The six doubled-sided screens making up this piece have been arranged in a circle. Each screen shows an aspect of the room. Once seated in the circle, the viewer  sees not only the room and its many protagonists composed from six different angles, but also, by way of opaque silhouettes cutting across the screens, other viewers as they traverse the gallery. Those who are seen as silhouettes are themselves viewing the same images on the reverse side of the screens; and they view these images three times, for outside the circle several mirrors have been strategically placed so that there are two reflections: the second being a watery version of the first.

The only thing stranger than fiction is fact: Mik's 'Raw Footage' (2006) is a work composed of unused footage from the Bosnian conflict. This is a piece which throws up incongruities on many different levels, notably between the lush green countryside with its rolling hills and the military presence in the form of soldiers, tanks, guns and rocket launchers.

One image depicts a lone rocket launcher positioned in a field; another shows a number of sleepy hamlets tucked into a misty hillside against the soundtrack of machine gun fire and jet fighter planes. Another shows a pig rooting about a tank and yet another depicts jewellery-bedecked women soldiers, some with lipstick, wearing their regulation khaki and holding machine guns in their hands. Young dogs try to engage soldiers in play, and children are seen playing with toy guns, or rummaging through the carcasses of enemy tanks. A corpse, stiff with rigor mortis, is shown being lifted out of a river while a group of teenagers look on.

'Raw Footage' by its very directness is, for me, the most powerful of all the works shown. This may be due to it being a depiction of real events, or perhaps it is the idea of the real being acted out, as in the footage showing soldiers playing to the camera. Or maybe it is the notion that the camera itself has been integrated into the environment it is depicting, as when a camera itself is being filmed.

Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London +44 (0)20 7472 5500

Sophie Arkette

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