Sascha Pohle: Self-reflexive Aesthetics of Doubling
Text by Gerald Bär
Je est un autre (Rimbaud)
Sascha Pohle’s video-works If I were you – Las Vegas New York Blackpool (16:17 min.) and The Mad Masters (14:17 min.) are based on footage filmed in 2006 and 2007. The first is the result of a project that had gained him a grant, enabling the artist to travel to the place where fact and fiction blur – Las Vegas: the habitat of the double. The second video can be considered an offshoot of his initial project about Robert de Niro “doubles” or “doppelgänger” in three “chapters”, taking it to a different level. The Mad Masters, inspired by Jean Rouch’s ethnographical anthropological documentary Les Maitres fous (1955), was not previously planned and places the participants in a lookalike contest in the context of a particular form of post-colonial “possession” (formally, through homage to Rouch’s technique and detached perspective, and by using the translated title as an intertextual device).
Speaking of the “double” and the “doppelgänger” it is important to emphasize the complex and ambiguous terminology used to describe Pohle’s theoretical approach. At first glance, doppelgänger, lookalike, impersonator, double, persona, etc., are indeed semantically similar expressions, but by no means synonyms. In English the German loanword “doppelgänger” has connotations of the uncanny, in the Freudian sense, while the expression “double” can hardly be stripped of its cinematographic past. One might add the French “sosie” to this illustrious word family, which takes us back to the tragicomedy, Amphitryon by Plautus. In Sascha Pohle’s work we find all of these aspects in an astonishing interplay – a pictorial inquiry into identity and authenticity, appropriation and imitation.
In a footnote of his novel Siebenkäs (1796) Jean Paul had coined the expression ‘doppelgänger’, defining it as ‘people who see themselves’. According to Kittler the doppelgänger is the spirit of poetry. As literary devices they appeared around 1800, at a time when reading and reciting were used as possibilities of identification with fictional characters that provided a maximum screen for the reader’s projections due to their rather indistinct features. Cinematography provided the technical apparatus to perform and reproduce this experience even for the illiterate:
What poetry had promised and only granted to the imaginary, resulting from reading experience, appears to be real on the screen. In order to be transferred into a real, visible world, proper reading was for Novalis still the irrevocable condition, which has now become superfluous. To see doppelganger, people have to be neither educated nor drunk anymore. Even, and mostly, analphabets can see the Student of Prague, his lover and his mistress – all of Rank’s ‘shadowlike, ephemeral figures’ that are doppelgänger as such: celluloid-ghosts of actors’ bodies.
Pohle’s theoretical approach was also influenced by Peter Weibel’s ideas about the dissolution of the subjectivist consciousness of reality by the advent of the machine, which triggered a general crisis in systems of representation. In the 19th and 20th century machines for transporting information (telegraph, telephone and television) appeared and developed into systems of image production, transfer and reception that were later called “media”:
[…] photography became the doppelgänger of painting, causing painting to fear for its existence. And painting became the doppelgänger of photography, castrating photography's claim to be art. Photography phantomized painting, as it were, transforming it into a ghost, a spectre that could only be kept alive by means of artificial infusions. All new media not only double reality – they do this only fragmentarily – but also, above all, they are the doppelgängers of the old media.
In an artist’s statement of 2007, Sascha Pohle shows his awareness of the aesthetics of doubling and its implications for the arts. He regards imitations, copies and doppelgängers as metaphors of the desire for the other and of an elusive notion of identity. His video-art expresses the contradictory and ambiguous meaning of the doppelgänger as a motif of the uncanny, which arises from the fear as well as the desire to encounter oneself in the other. According to Pohle the so-called celebrity look-a-like or impersonator stands for ‘a fantasy to reproduce oneself according to a media image, an image, which is itself a simulation though and thus a copy of its own,’ and would show ‘how media images become more real, and how this reality is diffused by the reality of fiction.’
The production of The Mad Masters is also inspired by Rouch’s term ‘cine-trance’: a possession-like state induced through the “eye” and “ear” of the camera, in which the filmmaker physically enters the stage to involve with the subjects.
Jean Paul (Friedrich Richter), Blumen-, Frucht – und Dornenstücke oder Ehestand, Tod und Hochzeit des Armenadvokaten F. St. Siebenkäs (4 vols.), Berlin: Matzdorff, 1796-7.
Kittler, Friedrich A, “‘Das Phantom unseres Ichs’ und die Literaturpsychologie. E.T.A. Hoffmann – Freud – Lacan,” in Urszenen, 1977, pp.139-166.
'Was Dichtung versprochen und nur im Imaginären von Leseerlebnissen gewährt hat, auf der Leinwand erscheint es im Reellen. Zur Versetzung in eine wirkliche, sichtbare Welt ist rechtes Lesen, bei Novalis unabdingbare Voraussetzung, überflüssig geworden. Um Doppelgänger zu erblicken, müssen Leute weder gebildet noch angetrunken mehr sein. Auch und gerade Analphabeten sehen den Studenten von Prag, seine Geliebte und seine Maîtresse – all jene »schattenhaft flüchtigen Gestalten« Ranks, wie sie als solche schon Doppelgänger sind -: Zelluloidgespenster der Schauspielerkörper.’ (Kittler, 1977: 97).
Peter Weibel, “Phantom Painting, Reading Reed, Painting Between Autopsy and Autoscopy”,
New Paintings for the Mirror Room and Archive in a Studio off the Courtyard by David Reed, exhib. cat. Neue Galerie Graz am Landesmuseum Joanneum, 1996, pp. 49-55.
If I were you – Las Vegas New York Blackpool
I am interested in our collective relation towards popular culture and how these interfere with our picture of reality. (Sascha Pohle)
If I were you – Las Vegas New York Blackpool is a video-loop in three chapters. I can imagine its three sequences as an installation, revolving in a cylinder screen around a Robert de Niro statue with three fronts (each front representing a double/impersonator).
The Blackpool and de Niro sequences are based on found-footage. While the de Niro sequences were provided by the lookalike who had used them to advertise his services, the Blackpool footage was taken from a VHS cassette, about the yearly festival of the city’s illuminations. Pohle bought this material on eBay, because he intended to keep both sequences in the same poor quality. After the montage they appear at the “end” of the video, but in the loop it may be considered as the beginning, if temporal categories should be applied at all. The sequences in Las Vegas and New York are shot with a HD DV camera, providing images of better quality. However, the material effect equals that of the deteriorating quality of a copy of a copy of a copy… In order to present the aspects of time and decay, it is totally justifiable to place the Blackpool sequence at the video’s “end”. Pohle told me that this camera (Canon XH A1) was his ‘mimetic disguise’ as cameraman, journalist and filmmaker. Furthermore, he was taken more seriously with professional equipment as some impersonators considered themselves vampire-like ‘camera-suckers’ who need media attention to exist and to perform illusion.
He visited three professional Robert de Niro impersonators in the three different towns mentioned above. They resemble older versions of the film star as I remember him in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976). The third is slightly younger – the factors time and individual memory cannot be eclipsed and Pohle lets us choose our favourite copy. For technical reasons the image of the Blackpool de Niro appears grained and ‘unfocused’, as Woody Allen put it in his Stardust Memories (1980), a film about cinema, reminiscent of Fellini’s 8½ (1963). The protagonist, a writer, becomes ‘unfocused’, entangling himself in fact and fiction (i.e. he interacts with his own characters). The director is quoted as saying: ‘Shortly after Stardust Memories opened, John Lennon was shot by the very guy who had asked him for his autograph earlier in the day […] This is what happens with celebrities: one day people love you; the next day they want to kill you.’ Source?
Of course, Pohle’s genre is here the documentary, but the comparison with productions like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) inevitably comes to mind while watching ‘spitting images’ reenact scenes from Taxi Driver that make part of the cinephiles’ collective memory. In Woody Allen’s film, Mia Farrow falls in love with an actor’s image, which walks out of the screen, confronting the “real man” with his role and role-boundness. The blurring and mirroring of fact and fiction in If I were you – Las Vegas New York Blackpool includes the setting:
In Las Vegas we see an imitation of Manhattan, in New York City we revisit original places where Taxi Driver was shot and in the British Blackpool we return to visions of Las Vegas in a silent presentation of glittering icons, such as space shuttle, steamer, train, billboards, etc.
Aspects of the haunting doppelgänger become particularly evident in the New York sequence, which starts with footage from The Fan (1996). De Niro’s impersonator stakes his claim for fame due to his physical similarity (‘genetically’). He knows many biographical details of the actor who had taken legal action against him for attempting to use his image (‘This is not his face, this is my face; I was born with this face’). He also blames the Hollywood star for his ‘thin skin’, saying that ‘he sues people all the time, unfortunately, and it’s a personality flaw, I believe.’ This impersonator was Robert de Niro’s double in films, such as Great Expectations (1998) and The Fan until the lawsuit ended their collaboration. Pohle illustrates the impersonator’s critical comments with blurred film excerpts in slow motion, in which the “real” de Niro is shot and replaced by his double when he falls to the ground. Since The Student of Prague (1913) to shoot the double means to kill the “original”.
In several frames the impersonator’s double-vision appears as a haunting reflection on the TV screen while he showed the video to Pohle in his home somewhere New Jersey and was filmed at the same time. The sequence ends with a close-up on his face attempting a typical de Niro grin, confirming the mask-like seriousness of celebrity lookalike culture. What comes to mind is “stalking” and a sentence from Theodor W. Adorno’s book Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life (1951). Obviously, the commercial appropriation of a public image is not a case of usurpation of personality or of stolen identity as described in many doppelgänger stories. However, the imitator affirms various biographical and genetic similarities (experiences, body style, bone structures, complexions, hair colour and beard) between the actor and himself, believing that Taxi Driver is a movie he ‘possibly would have been able to make.’ Pohle neither comments, nor seems to take sides by editing the scenes in a way to credit or discredit anything that was said. He shows the absorption, copying and representation of an actor’s image with certain auratic qualities, initially constructed by de Niro with the help of film-scripts and film-director’s advice. As in the Purple Rose of Cairo, the role is an existential part of the actor, but also has an independent life.
With the help of intertextual elements, such as the original soundtrack and voice-overs of fragments from Taxi Driver script Pohle evokes what our memory has stored about the film. He has the impersonators reenact classic scenes, which have become part of the collective iconography; this produces a Brechtian ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ on the spectator: it not only questions the connotations and the line of associations triggered by the icon, but also our notions of authenticity and individuality in the realm of the media. Being Robert de Niro (not John Malkovich) : each impersonator comes across as something unique and individual despite their tightrope acts between role and self with indistinct boundaries.
Douglas Gordon’s comparable work Through a Looking Glass (1999) is also taken from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: a visual representation of a psychological process. It shows the sequence where a psychotic Travis Bickle played by Robert De Niro is talking to himself in a mirror. The scene is played on two screens that face one another with a thirty foot gap in-between. Gordon states that, ‘Something happens between the surface of the glass and the silver reflected surface,’ and in doing so he desired to make this quarter inch gap in the mirror into a thirty-foot gap that the viewers could place themselves in. This indicates how narrative is often disposed of when recalling a film, and how these recollections then merge with personal memories. Cf.: http://www.thisispipe.com/2013/06/marked-by-images-remembered-film.html
cf. Harold Ramis, 1996, Multiplicity
The Mad Masters
Immer mehr zu werden, was ich bin, das ist mein einziger Wille.
An invitation to a ‘ceremony in which all participants get possessed’ and ‘united with the gaze into one singularity’ provides the prologue for Sascha Pohle’s follow-up documentary in the spirit of Jean Rouch. A documented Celebrity Impersonator Convention, May 29-June 1, 2007, Imperial Palace, Las Vegas is framed by the two songs “Real Love” (Parton/Rogers) and “Against all Odds” (Collins) performed by professional impersonators. The respective lines ‘real love not an imitation,’ and ‘you’re the only one who really knew me at all […] take a look at me now, well there’s just an empty space […] a memory of a face,’ describe in a few, well selected words the subject presented in The Mad Masters. This time the artist’s reflection on the doppelgänger theme sets out from a colonial environment, the ceremonies of the West African Hauka cult, in which indigenous people in trance states are possessed by spirits of their former colonial rulers. It takes us from this phenomenon, comparable to a temporary metempsychosis, to conjectures about the post-colonial, media orientated celebrities cult. As in the previous video Pohle remains the quiet observer, only commenting in the cutting-room by selecting, editing and framing the sequences with subject related songs. Again he uses an effect of estrangement when he has the Kylie Minogue impersonator sing in a bare staircase with the sound fading out into silence. He hijacks the celebrity’s public image from the temple of worship (the stage) and puts it in a “non-auratic” environment. Watching George Bush and Angelina Jolie lookalikes complaining about bad monetary compensation for their efforts the spectator compares them with the image he has of the “real” celebrity, trying to spot a difference.
In various interviews the professional impersonators display a detailed knowledge about their originals and about what distinguishes them from themselves. They are often filmed in private situations that celebrities avoid. Frequent close-ups and silent studies of features and gestures emphasize their individuality. However, at least since Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994), cinema goers know that roles and disguises may not only grant you more freedom from feelings of inhibition or being caged in an identity, they can also possess you. In literature Rainer Maria Rilke illustrated the unexpected effects of playfully assuming another personality in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). Already at that time the author complained about people who would mistake this protagonist for his creator. In Rilke’s novel the young Malte’s light-hearted act of disguise in front of a mirror changes suddenly into a spectacle of the uncanny; into an almost palpable horrifying and self-threatening doppelgänger fantasy. For in the infantile, naive imagination mirror and mask develop a life of their own. For the impersonators the celebrity’s image is a shortcut to fame. They earn money, get easier access to things and even overcome their shyness and stage fright: ‘you pull somebody else out of you’ (John Travolta). Concerning this second self inside there is a noticeable fear of a possible usurpation of Cher’s character in the statement of her spitting image: ‘It was very scary doing Cher.’
In biological terms mimicry is a technique usually applied to deceive predators or prey; George Clooney’s lookalike is perfectly aware that the image he uses attracts the particular attention of women as it feeds their sexual fantasies. Pohle also captures the interesting moments when impersonators meet a colleague who imitates the same celebrity, which produces a curious effect reminding us of Andy Warhol’s serial imagery (e.g. the silkscreen paintings Double Elvis (1963), 10 Lizes (1963), etc.).
Soundless sequences of their performance enable the spectator to study how closely the impersonators copy the movements, gestures and facial expressions of their “originals”. Pohle confronts them with the uncanny and mythological side of the doppelgänger, but their approach seems to be rather pragmatic. Angelina Jolie’s impersonator believes that she knows the star’s personality extremely well: ‘She probably is a lot like me, but I don’t put up the facade, because I don’t have to […] I can be myself but still look like her.’ However, in a voice-off an impersonator describes the tragedy behind the comedy: their anonymity behind the mask that absorbs their personalities. Everybody identifies them by their role or appropriated personality, which – to a certain extend – has possessed them. After the event nobody knows their real names. Pohle makes use of the impersonator’s self-reflexive comments and draws from a modernist’s legacy of depersonalization, but faces the challenges of the media in the digital era. Towards the end of the video, a Jack Nicholson lookalike questions the effects of the medium (of television) as a constructed reality using the example of the US President’s public image. A George Bush lookalike with a guitar appears on stage and in the voice-off we hear: ‘how do I know he really exists? […] I see his representation every day on the TV screen.’
Our choice is limited by Pohle’s reenacting scenes and texts from Taxi Driver (1976).
‘With many people, it’s already an exercise in shamelessness, when they say I.’ [Bei vielen Menschen ist es bereits eine Unverschämtheit, wenn sie Ich sagen.]
Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999) is a film about celebrity, (transgender) personality, privacy and the invasions of it, which inevitably end up somewhere near the New Jersey Turnpike.
Metempsychosis is a prominent theme in Edgar Allan Poe's short stories “Metzengerstein” (1832), “Morella” (1835), “The Oval Portrait” (1842) and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1850); it is also a recurring theme in James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses (1922).
'Während ich in maßlos zunehmender Beklemmung mich anstrengte, mich irgendwie aus meiner Vermummung hinauszuzwängen, nötigte er [the mirror] mich, ich weiß nicht womit, aufzusehen und diktierte mir ein Bild, nein, eine Wirklichkeit, eine fremde, unbegreifliche monströse Wirklichkeit, mit der ich durchtränkt wurde gegen meinen Willen: denn jetzt war er der Stärkere, und ich war der Spiegel. Ich starrte diesen großen, schrecklichen Unbekannten vor mir an, und es schien mir ungeheuerlich, mit ihm allein zu sein. Aber in demselben Moment, da ich dies dachte, geschah das Äußerste: ich verlor allen Sinn, ich fiel einfach aus. Eine Sekunde lang hatte ich eine unbeschreibliche, wehe und vergebliche Sehnsucht nach mir, dann war nur noch er: es war nichts außer ihm.’ (Rilke, 1966, VI: 808)