I was introduced to Keren Cytter before the opening of her solo show, "Video Art Manual." She was standing on the loading front of DiverseWorks and asking who had given that "I have a dream" speech. I told her "Martin Luther King." "Really?" she replied, "I thought it was this Malcolm X."
The artist recently moved to the United States and lives in New York. She's Israeli and has spent a lot of time in Europe. Misunderstandings of American history are understandable (don't quiz me about the dates of the first intifada), but then again, conflating Malcolm X and Martin Luther King is the sort of thing Cytter might intentionally do in one of her videos.
Cytter's work is filled with a host of subtle and not-so-subtle absurdities, along with references to, riffs on and parodies of other film or video work. Trying to pull a coherent narrative out of a Cytter video is pretty much futile. Bits and pieces start to remind you of things you've read or seen before but can't quite remember. You think you've got her number, then things change. Her videos are often frustrating, but they're strange and engaging enough to keep you watching.
"Keren Cytter: Video Art Manual"
Through October 20. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. (This is the last show in the downtown space, DiverseWorks will be moving to its Midtown location at the end of the month. A closing party on Wednesday, October 24, from 4 to 8 p.m. will celebrate the DiverseWorks years at the old location.)
Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York
Video Art Manual is a good primer on Cytter's work.
If you want a clue to "getting" Keren Cytter's work, make sure you first watch the Video Art Manual (2011) of the show's title. The 15-minute work is a sardonic — and perceptive — take on video art and film, as well as their tropes, the same conventions the artist winkingly uses in her own videos. Snippets of news-media clips are patched together to create a sentence from the words of a variety of anchors. Elsewhere, a narrator's voice says, "This performer is marking the space in his studio while playing the viola" and a viola player (with an actual limp) hobbles around an empty room, referencing Bruce Nauman's performance video Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square. In another scene, a man in jeans and white T-shirt walks back and forth across an empty plaza with gun clasped in his hand. A subtitle appears that reads, "Subtitles appear as a translation of the content or as independent information."
There's some hysterical 1980s footage of Richard Simmons leading aerobics in the mix. And during scenes of actors delivering their lines in a comically stilted fashion, a subtitle appears that reads, "The performers aren't concerned with their acting skills as they are representing familiar characters and situations." Bear this in mind as you watch the numerous moments of bad acting in Cytter's other videos.
The main gallery presents four large-scale videos from Cytter, and the ever-present issue of sound quality in a gallery space is handled fairly well here — Cytter either gives viewers headphones or hangs speakers at ear height next to a bench. Four Seasons (2009), the first video in the main gallery, has the stilted dialogue of a porn movie, especially appropriate in the opening scene, in which a female neighbor supposedly wanders into a guy's bathroom while he's in the tub. He stands up and the camera is right at dick level. (One of the great things about Cytter is that she will use penises as freely as male filmmakers use breasts.) Like a lot of Cytter's videos, it's filled with fractured verbal and physical interactions between a man and a woman. The video has a quasi-Hitchcockian feeling, with scenes of blood flowing over tile, a toppled chair and a burning Christmas tree. Cytter jokes that, as a Jew, she's always wanted to burn a Christmas tree.
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Alla Ricerca di Fratelli (In Search for Brothers) (2008) and Una Forza che viene dal Passato (A Force from the Past) (2008) are shown back to back. According to the gallery handout, they contain "uncanny references to Pasolini's film La Ricotta." I'll take their word for it. If you are a student of mid-century Italian film, you will probably get more out of it. They just vaguely remind me of old black-and-white Italian films with young, thuggish men who call women prostitutes. While they may play on a lot of Italian film motifs and cultural stereotypes, the videos feel more one-note than some of Cytter's other works.
Watching all of Cytter's videos will take about two and a half hours. Vengeance (2012), the longest, is 44 minutes but thankfully is presented in the DiverseWorks screening room, a heretical space with comfortable upholstered chairs. (Wooden benches are oddly de rigueur for viewing most lengthy video art.) The video is a compilation of three episodes from a series by the artist. Her first work since moving to the U.S., it's a soap opera-esque collection of moments, disjointed narrative and bad acting — Cytter has mined American television for themes of dysfunctional suburbia, superficiality, infidelity, consumerism and cut-throat workplace intrigue. Like many of her videos, it's randomly interspersed with statements that seem as if they ought to be profound. I just don't know that Cytter needs a series of these videos — length does not improve her work. If you don't have much of an interest in narrative, making a series seems counterintuitive. But who knows? Maybe that's the point.
There is a lot of jargony writing about Cytter's work, but the artist herself is funny, direct and unpretentious. I see her work not so much in the context of the elaborate agendas ascribed to it but as an outpouring from Cytter's witty, eclectic and free-ranging mind. She writes (copies of her books are on display in the gallery), she founded the dance company Dance International Europe NOW (DIE NOW), she held a crazed 48-hour poetry academy in Berlin called "Mai Thai University" (the results of which are on view in the back of the gallery), and she writes and directs plays. Cytter has an amazing amount of diversely creative energy. Not all of her efforts are equally successful, however. While her play Show Real Drama, presented at DiverseWorks last weekend, did not make me demand that hour of my life back, it did make me think of all the other stuff I could have been doing.
"Video Art Manual" closes this weekend, and if you miss it, Cytter's videos are all online at vimeo.com/kerencytter, so you can watch them from the comfort of your home. Cytter doesn't seem to be that particular about where you watch her work. She's not trying to control your experience, she's just sharing what she's done. However, if you do watch at home, you'll miss the gallery's large projections, as well as that awkward moment that occurs when you're standing in a group of strangers while the guy in Cytter's Les Ruissellements du Diable (The Devil's Whispers) masturbates.