Statues Also Die
By Regina Barunke
In 2012, Sascha Pohle shot a film that he called Statues Also Die and in it adapted not only what now seems anachronistic, namely an analog recording medium on 16mm film, but also evidently adopted the title of the eponymous short film Les statues meurent aussi by French filmmakers Chris Marker (1921-2012) and Alain Resnais (1922-2014). Their remarkable 30-minute black&white essay is a hybrid of documentation and personal reflection and was commissioned by pan-African magazine Présence Africaine and released in 1953. After premiering at the film festival in Cannes, the film was censored by the French state film support authority CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée, Paris) because of its controversial anti-colonial thrust and was not screened in the full version again until 1968. Marker has the voice off-screen comment that an object dies as soon as the living gaze that has alighted on it disappears (“Un objet est mort quand le regard vivant qui se posait sur lui a disparu”, Les statues meurent aussi, 1952-3), and this applies possibly not only to the protagonists, but to the initial shelf life of films packed away in metal cans or cartons awaiting rediscovery. Resnais said that Les statues meurent aussi was meant to be a film about African art, with the mask, robbed of its origins, exhibited behind glass in a museum, as the representation of a “dead” sculpture and a tradition no longer lived, yet from which our Western notion of culture derived sustenance:
“When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter into art. This botany of death is what we call culture“ /„Quand les hommes sont morts, ils entrent dans l’histoire. Quand les statues sont mortes, elles entrent dans l’art. Cette botanique de la mort, c’est ce que nous appelons la culture“ (Chris Marker, In: Commentaires 1, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1961:9)
Chris Marker and Alain Resnais shot the film not only at locations in Africa, but also in Paris’ Musée du Congo Belge and Musée de L’Homme, in the British Museum in London and in the homes of private art collectors. And they added ethnographical film footage. So what we see is something that arose at a cutting desk in a Paris film studio, extracted from time, place, and use and entrusted to a new medium, film.
The 8 ½ minutes of Sascha Pohle’s film Statues Also Die likewise arose at a cutting desk, in his Amsterdam studio. It is divided into five chapters. From beginning to end, we see a black background or space that seems to expand infinitely were it not framed by the film material. In front of or in the black we then see various constellations, movements and a number of empty product packages made of carton or molded pasteboard or polystyrene. The packs glide past the camera like so many silent celestial bodies. They meet, turn, move toward the lens (until, when close up, something flips and the black surfaces are replaced by the white surfaces of the packs), and then start to move away again, to leave the frame set for them.
The first chapter begins with the view of an opened carton. Its right side is painted black, the left is bright card, and placed together we get the image of a book that has been opened. But what that ensues obeys no narrative structure or plot. Rather, the film presents groups of items from the artist’s private collection, cataloged, grouped and presented behind the glass of the camera lens. After the initial image, we see more shots of open cartons, which bar a few exceptions form a series of animated stills. In the second
chapter, Sascha Pohle more or less dispenses with zooms and movement by the objects themselves, which now also appear in sets of two. What we see are different, bizarrely crushed pasteboard shapes, first in narrow profile, then frontally and dramatically illuminated from the side. The anthropomorphic nature of these geometric bodies that seem so sculptural is reminiscent of archaeological or prehistoric artefacts, bringing to mind the African masks in Marker & Resnais’ film. The third chapter is devoted to more complex folded shapes made exclusively of white packaging. Folded open they look like models of Modernist architecture, or the building volumes themselves, seemingly dancing by rotating on their own axes. While in the fourth chapter Sascha Pohle presents packaging that is either folded out completely into two dimensions or have the side tags pulled out to form wings or resemble animal totems, the fifth and final chapter concludes with a group of cartons that have holes punched through them or have been grotesquely distorted by folds. Initially, the visual rhythm is fast and the movements hectic. Now appearing in sets of two or three, the industrially folded and punched carton parts introduce a calmer phase of animated individual images that culminate in a zoom into a mouth like opened slit, and fade into black.
Given the numerous different packs, the viewer is left asking not only what kind of products they are meant for but also what is their purpose and destination. All the surfaces are bereft of writing or other marks. There’s no voice-over or subtitles to indicate what the content might have been. Meaning all viewers can do is try and determine the origins or play the art historian themselves, to decide from the shapes, openings, folds, sizes and types of material what the absent objects or goods are. Any reference to the standardized product types and sizes that would indicate best what consumers could expect, initially also offers no clues. Only the shapes molded in pasteboard that are perfect fits for the absent objects indicate that they were packs for technical appliances. You could well suspect that one of the packs contained Sascha Pohle’s film, another the technical apparatus for it. In this way, the artist creates a feedback loop that deciphers the things depicted as a metaphor for a universal cycle, be it from the world of commodities or a film loop.
We are familiar with the function of packaging as part of our consumer world. It is the basis for something that triggers a kind of desire for the not-present in us, something that is usually of greater financial or status value that it itself is. So what is our desire as regards Sascha Pohle’s film? By means of unusual camera perspectives and presentation modes, the packaging seems abstract, rendered aesthetic, strangely alien. Then there’s their stage-like, auratically exaggerated presentation and the retrospect rhythm, the montage of the items as film images. In Statues Also Die the packaging thus turns into strangely anthropomorphic objects and are presented in a space that gives them the liberty to lead their own lives. In this manner, Sascha Pohle succeeds in presenting the packaging as cultural artefacts, turning them and not their content into objects of desire. In Les statues meurent aussi Chris Marker and Alain Resnais did not film carton or polystyrene packaging, but hand-made, carved or painted African masks that were presumably placed in the one or other form of packaging before being transported to Europe. In visual and functional terms they resemble packaging objects for in their original function they were the medium for and representative of things that were not present, the spirits of gods, ancestors or cultural heroes. They were worn for ritual activities and thus were prosthetics for the human body. By
virtue of being transposed into a new cultural domain, this dual status as medium and symbol gets lost. Their value is set by a profit-oriented market that seeks to manipulate and satisfy the desire of others. And yet the filmmakers manage to reanimate the material through the medium of film which is so powerful that it caused the censorship of moving images for more than a decade.
Walter Benjamin wrote that a gaze always implies as an answer the expectation that it will be returned and we are always running this risk. If our gaze locks with another’s, then this creates the most intense moment of the experience of the aura (Walter Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in: Selected Writings, vol. 4, Harvard, 2003, p.338). This self-reflective act of seeing recurs in Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ film in the juxtaposition of gazes of persons (Africans, Europeans), objects (hand-made masks) and the camera as the viewer’s eye.
What happens or what is the difference if we gaze at de-individualized, industrially made objects from the world of commodities, from the surfaces of which unexpectedly faces emerge, as if of their own volition? What kind of magic and desire does their inanimate gaze emanate? The countering gaze in Statues Also Die is the result and culmination of a process of transformation from a commodity into an artwork and/or fetish that has been freed of its fetishistic/cultic functions and transposed into the auratic, but economically defined space of Modernity.
Another line leads to Alain Resnais’s 13-minute film La chant du styrère made in 1958. French industrial corporation Société Pechiney, which continues to be a packaging market leader, commissioned Resnais to make an image film on styrene, a new and infinitely malleable plastic. The opening sequence, a fast-cut trick animation of the creation of colored plastic products (ladles grow like flowers, bowls and beakers pop up) leads on finally to the unusual presentation of various plastic packaging types. Spread out on black foil they form pictorial elements in a constructivist composition. So what we see, and this brings us full circle to Sascha Pohle’s packaging “portraits” in Statues Also Die – are not industrially manufactured products, but art.
Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ short film Les statues meurent aussi may also have served Sascha Pohle as inspiration for another piece that he made one year after Statues Also Die for a show at Goethe Institute in Amsterdam: the installation Crippled Symmetry (2013). He used two carousel slide projectors and referenced Morton Feldman’s eponymous 1983 LP: Its cover shows an image of a traditional, hand-woven kilim carpet. While one projector showed images of the cans of film containing the institute’s collection of 16mm films, the other showed a psychedelic image flow of alternating ornaments, kindling associations with traditional 19th-century woven patterns and decorative shapes. A second glance discerns their material properties and basis: Sascha Pohle used the archive boxes for the film cans, arranged them in different patterns on the checkerboard parquet floor of the Goethe Institute and filmed them from above at an angle that disguises the space and unsettles our perception.
In other words, in Crippled Symmetry Sascha Pohle displays two forms of packaging, the cans of film and the archive boxes. Not that we can see into the cans of film. Yet unlike the cartons in Statues Also Die, the cans with their labels reveal the titles of the individual teaching films or documentaries, and it would not have been surprising if they were to have included cans containing Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ films. Woven patterns that are animated in fast, trance-like sequences are also to be found in Les statues meurent aussi. Marker and Resnais used them deliberately as a visual break before the following chapter.
Les statues meurent aussi, the filmic essay by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, can be construed as the associative link between the two pieces by Sascha Pohle, his 16mm film Statues Also Die and his slide set Crippled Symmetry. What also links them is a self-reflective stance on the medium of film as the basis for and means of conveying an inanimate cultural asset, brought back to life by the moving image.