Adad Hannah: Stills

Curated by DisplayCult
Galerie SAW, Ottawa
September 7-28, 2002

Drawing upon his work as a performance artist and a set designer for films, Adad Hannah contemporizes the nineteenth-century practice of tableaux vivants in the digital era. Each still consists of a continuous videotaping of individuals specifically arranged in the context of art. Staged in the dignified spaces of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Hannah reimagines the Baroque galleries where paintings appear to be golden-cased windows onto other worlds and where the architecture lends itself to ceremonial rituals and rarified experiences. In these “museum vivants,” people are viewed posing in pictures, for pictures and as pictures -- with uncanny resonances occurring between the various levels of representation, reality and mediation.

Whereas video art has often worked as an extension of, or an alternative, to film and television, Hannah brings video into an association with photography. Like the use of stills to condense Hollywood films, Hannah’s stills convey provocative moments in which narrative, psychology, personality and social relations are compressed or implied. Projected like large-format photographs, these fixed moments open into an expanded sense of time in which action is frozen, but subtleties are exaggerated: a finger twitch, a swaying torso, an eye blink, and other micro-details of sentience. This aspect of “liveness” provokes the eye to undo the totality of the composition and to see the image not as an emblem of thanatos, à la Barthes, but as an ongoing, vital presence.

The stills chosen for our exhibition at SAW Gallery centred on modes of aesthetic experience -- both idiosyncratic and conventional. Given the tradition of Kantian “disinterested contemplation” as the standard of museum demeanour in beholding art, we focused on two extremes: excessive or engaged interest on the one hand, and banal or disengaged disinterestedness on the other. Shown in two sets of three, each museum vivant lasts five minutes and looped continuously with the other projected videos.

One set of stills portrayed the museum as a site of aspiration -- its traditional role as a place where citizens are formed according to civilizing rituals. But here, beholders exceeded museum propriety as they overidentified with the content of paintings. Tribute depicts a woman with an arm outstretched to Philippe de Champaigne’s The Tribute Money. Her gesture reacts to the painting’s depiction of the tense meeting between Christ and a Pharisee, who demanded to know whether his spiritual beliefs advocated disobedience to Roman authority. The woman’s hand rises to meet the hands of the two men and silently inserts herself into the interaction, complicating the significance of the moment by virtue of her living presence and gender.

Portrait of a Gentleman shows a man who has disrobed and knocked over a velvet rope barrier. He lunges toward a seventeenth-century painting by Bartholomeus Van der Helst, with the same title, in an apparent attempt at carnal union. Two museum guards strive to halt his impassioned careening into the canvas. Caught in the act of what we could call artophilia -- an excessive love for and eroticization of art -- the naked man exhibits patently ungentlemanly behaviour by rupturing the protocols of museum restraint.

In contrast to the atypical eruptions of excessive identification mentioned above, the second cycle of Hannah’s stills depicted the museum quotidian. Here the museum is deployed as a heterotopic public space defined as a “time-out” in the frantic pace of the city. In 4, visitors relax in upholstered chairs poised in a compartmentalized, cruciform shape. The individuals in this alienated arrangement relate neither to each other, nor to the art. Are they distracted, dreaming, making plans, or just spacing out? Whatever their thoughts, these individuals are distinctly “alone” despite being in public.

Ascending/Descending foregrounds the museum’s stairs, a dramatic architectural feature prominent in most universal survey museums. Traditionally, this part of the museum functions as a transitional threshold in which visitors ascend from the mundane world of commerce to the “higher,” contemplative realm of art. What is fascinating about this still is its disjunctive temporality. While museumgoers stand immobilized on the stairs, in the background we glimpse real-time reflections of passing traffic and pedestrians, each oblivious to the other’s circumstance.

depict a curious state of limbo which problematize assumptions about each of the media formats they reference: they are performances without action, photography without stasis, videos without editing.

For a fuller text, see Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, “Museum vivants” in Adad Hannah: Video Projects, Seoul, 2006, pp. 9-15 (in English and Korean). Also at
  Adad Hannah, Tribute, 2002.
Digital video (5:00).
  Adad Hannah, Portrait of a Gentleman, 2002.
Digital video (5:00).
  Adad Hannah, 4, 2002.
Digital video (5:00).
  Adad Hannah, Ascending/Descending, 2002.
Digital video (5:00).
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