Scattered on screens in the corridors of the Museum of Modern Art, caught in between other exhibits and flowing into the lobby of the museum — one piece appears at the 53rd street entrance and another one hangs from the ceiling above the information booth (not to mention the 24-hour loop of his first film Fluff (1996) running on a screen facing into the street in front of the museum) — is a survey of the work of Dutch artist Aernout Mik (continue through July 27). This arrangement is, appropriately, very much relevant to the crux of his work: a study in space and perspective, in expectation and arrangement. Indeed, though his work is often likely to be passed over on the way to more traditional art in more traditional viewing spaces, it is just as often likely to collect crowds of people in otherwise underused, unused or misused spaces. Within these crowds – themselves a potential magnet of museum-goer attention – is a means of approaching Mik’s work: when the impressions of identifying with (i.e. a crowd) and identifying as (i.e. a person) intersect.
Take, for example, the largest of his pieces, the 36’ wide by 7’ tall Osmosis and Excess (2005) that hangs from the lobby above the ticket counter. The piece surveys two locations: a large discount pharmacy in Tijuana, Mexico; and the hills and valleys outside the city that are covered in discarded and ruined cars. It‘s these comparisons, between spoiled beauty and how people in these spaces situate themselves, that typify Mik’s work. Here, pharmacists stand in front of a fluorescently lit counter amidst rows of different color products, looking bored as though having waited for hours for a customer – begging the question: “Where is everyone?” As this sequence ends the camera cuts to the valleys of abandoned automobiles and pans the once beautiful junkyard landscape. The camera continues to track up a hill to a group of disheveled children hitting piñatas, one of which is of a car. These spaces, one that is meant for people (the pharmacy) is left vacant and empty, and the other, a garbage dump, is where children play not-so-ironically with toy cars. As visitors to MoMA wait to enter, they stand, scattered and in groups, staring up at the piece, turning an otherwise purposeful space into a meaningful one. Neither is appropriate – the junkyard as place for children to play or museum lobby as forum for artwork – but that doesn’t stop either from happening.
However, the strongest of his pieces – the two-channel Raw Footage (2006), a collection of carefully arranged found-footage taken from newsreels of the Yugoslavian civil war – makes the rest of his work simultaneously seem stronger and somehow lacking. Much of the power of Mik’s work is in the coupling of the specific and the uncertain. His images and camerawork in his fictional pieces are distinct, but the “why” behind what is happening is purposefully vague. Just enough information is left so viewers can imagine explanations, but not enough to be satisfied by the made-up narrative. Adding news clips the way he does in Raw Footage, while much is still left unclear, answers the question of whether the events on screen would actually occur or only be staged to make a point. These images are juxtaposed to show the depths and heights of humanity, of things happening where they shouldn’t happen, for right or wrong (two apparently sleeping bodies are shown, and though it’s soon clear that one is dead and is the other only sleeping, both take on similar, if unintentional poses).
Mik’s exhibition is worth seeing, partly for the work, but mostly for the construction – the freestanding screens found unexpectedly, and the toying with multi-channel as sculpture (as in Vacuum Room (2005, pictured), 6 screens arranged as walls of an enclosure that is meant to be entered to be viewed), in particular. It is this challenging of expectations, of the what, where, and how as relates to the way things are seen that makes Mik’s first North American survey worthwhile.