Until the middle of last April a selection of Bjørn Melhus’ works could be visited at the Amerikan Hastanesi Sanat Galerisi ”Operation Room”. Presenting key works within the artist’s oeuvre, such as “Again & Again “„The Oral Thing“ (2001) or „Still Men Out There“ (2003) – from which the exhibition borrowed its title -, the show also featured more recent pieces like his 2008 multi-channel video installation „Deadly Storms“.
The selection offered the viewer the opportunity to grasp several decisive aspects in Bjørn Melhus’ work. Namely, the artist’s multiple attention to the worlds of American commercial film, television pop music and publicity, the coexistence throughout his oeuvre of pieces in which the artists embodies all the media roles and pieces in which he consciously redraws himself from and which result more abstract. Finally, a certain performative aspect was made available through the documentation published in the catalogue for occasion of this exhibition showing the intense and rich pre-production work in Bjørn Melhus’ films.
Manifold, the exhibition provided the viewer with the opportunity to compare works regarded upon as „classical“ – those in which the artist himself appears and enacts different characters -, with a work like „Still Men Out There“. Less “recognizable” as a Melhus’ piece, “Still Men Out There” is basically a pure synchronized sound and light installation in which the artist consciously redraw his own figure from. Next to pieces which are figurative and in which Melhus embodies different roles, the artist has also created pieces in which images are reduced to abstract fields of color. Both strategies have in fact always coexisted in Bjørn Melhus’ production. His absence in some of his works is not as unusual as one might think and is not without consequences for the overall understanding of his work. Far from being an isolated example, one must only think of „Emotional Fields“(2007), „Murphy“ (2008) or Melhus’ successive tree houses to recognize just that. Significantly all these works have been produced in parallel to the ones in which the artist plays different roles, including that of a woman, and which the public specially identifies the artist for and critics have payed most attention to.
Thus missing a trademark – Melhus himself -, “Still Men Out There” (the installation) contains however other characteristics of the artist’s work, such as the exploration of the conventions of film (American war cinema in this case), repetition and multiplication of effects and found sound footage.
Placed on the floor in three concentric circles, the eighteen monitors show their screens facing up. Monochrome color fields alternate rhythmically, pulsing to the sound of machine guns. The soundtrack, composed of snippets from mainstream war movies includes everything a good war film needs, from marching troops, to tragic love, to gunfire, to heroic soliloquies. These sequences of monochrome image, script and sound produce a penetrating effect. At times full of pathos, other times purely kitsch, “Still Men Out There” stresses the highly entertaining and spectacle qualities present in American mainstream war cinema. The work’s sources are well documentated, “Still Men Out There” takes on sound footage from “Platoon” (Oliver Stone, 1986), “The Thin Red Line” (Terrence Malick, 1998), “Black Hawk Down” (Ridley Scott, 2001) and “We Were Soldiers” (Randall Wallace, 2002).
Melhus is interested here how cinema, as the greatest manipulative technical dispositive of all times, has been conditioning our feelings and behavior in respect to what our cultural notions, in this case of war and death, concern.
Regarding this, the artist has said in an interview: “Still Men Out There is not a statement about war or politics (even if the material does refer back to this reality), but is about evoking and exposing cinematic stereotypes”. But this is only partially true, for in the end the work does open into the ideological workings of cinematic war representation.
It is extremely significant that we are being offered the spectacle of war with no images (except for monochromatic images), in this way addressing directly what has been described as “American media’s refusal to show the American dead and injured in the war” in recent times. On the one hand the work pervades the idea that one can no longer trust any image of war to be authentic and that the only solution would be the renunciation of all imagery. This feeling is a direct consequence of the on-going control of images of war scenarios since the Golf War – from which only generic night shots of Bagdad under attack were divulged. And the so-called “embeded journalism” in practice since the Iraq war – when journalists march alongside the troops during their advance – which results in a loss of objectivity, and also contributed to a general sense of crisis due to the conflict of interests it generates.
On the other hand, because we can identify the audio sources of the installation, it is forcing us to deconstruct the cultural references regarding war on cinema, thus awakening all sorts of images of war which lie dormant in our heads and which obviously have been shaped by the mass media.
“Still Men Out There” is not only exploring the impact of American cinema on our collective memory but also forcing us to admit that some of our notions are being actively designed by it, against historical facts and in favour of specific ideologies.
The work is thus not only bringing cinematic stereotypes into light but also forcing us to consider the reception of cinematic war representation critically. The sound and its different moments borrow a narrative structure to a work, which is in itself abstract. As already noted, this “practice of fragmentation, destruction, and reconstitution of well-known figures, topics, and strategies of the mass media opens up not only a network of new interpretations and critical commentaries, but also defines the relationship of mass media and viewer anew” (Schmidt, Bremen, 2002).
By exposing the mechanisms of mainstream cinema, Melhus rebels against pre-established simplifications and global cultural standardization. Admitting that no images exist today outside of the corporate media, Melhus’ works contest such iconographic hegemony.
Both fascinated and disgusted by the American mainstream media culture, Bjørn Melhus has made his field of research what others would hastily judge as American “trash”. In a meticulous and consequent way he has been thus exposing the manipulative power of modern media by successively paying attention to several genres, including Hollywood films, news TV channels or the talk show format, just to name but a few cases.
With his systematic examination of different mass media frameworks, Bjørn Melhus has been exposing the stereotyped voices, gestures and slogans which are being conveyed on a daily basis and which seem to be dictating our behaviour despite of us. What to do with this awareness, a sort of pledge for responsibility, is the question left open to every single viewer.
(Excerpt of my review published in RES – Art World, Issue #02 May, 2009)