In Gabriel Lester’s A Man of Action Returns (2006) a small, lone male figure (the artist) pops into a sublime mountainous landscape. Occupying centre-stage, he mimes a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat, then pops back out of the scene. The ‘Man of Action’s’ choreographed gestures in this silent black and white Super-8 film, with its flickering image, grainy texture and rudimentary special effects, instantly conjure the renowned stage magician Georges Méliès, who pioneered early cinema with his accidental ‘discovery’ of stop-motion, invention of special effects and experimentation with extraordinary hand-painted sets. Lester’s long, static shot and the spatial unity of the scene also hark back to the first cinema documents or ‘views’, such as the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), which explored relations between figure and ground; the planar surface of the screen and the image’s depth of field. By recalling these earliest films, especially their focus on illusion and spatial dynamics, Lester’s deceptively simple motion picture turns into something of an archaeological artefact, providing clues to the remote cinematographic past as well as to his current films and installations.
Sergei Eisenstein, for whom montage and sequentiality were the building blocks of cinema, once declared the spatial art of architecture, rather than the pictorial art of painting, to be cinema’s closest ancestor, describing the Acropolis as ‘one of the most ancient films.’ Lester’s earliest installation, How to Act (2000), investigates the productive interplay between architecture and the now prevalent film and music composition techniques of sampling, sequencing and editing, which Lester honed during his film and art studies during the 1990s and in his long-standing music practice. In the video documentation of this installation, which he has described as a ‘film in mime’, the camera frames an empty room so that it looks like a deep movie screen, while coloured light projected from 50 recessed lamps in the ceiling flickers along to the ambient noise and music of diverse film soundtracks. The varying luminosity evokes the ghostly traces of a beam passing through a shadowy film reel, while the sound hints at narrative.
Removing the image from the cinematic equation and emphasizing the potential effects of its absence indicates a move away from the visual pleasure and satisfaction normally associated with movies. This shift is intimately tied to Lester’s conceptualization of space and implies a change in aesthetic regime from the optical to the haptic. Lester expertly maintains tension between these two modes. The act of seeing, still strongly framed by cinematic references, becomes a sensual, tactile experience in installations such as Habitat Sequences (2000), where he programmed lamps to light up and turn off in a furnished living-room, creating atmospheres ranging from the inviting and intimate to the gloomy and threatening. As a clock ticks, we must feel our way around with our eyes: lamplight isolates elements in a domestic interior that is never made entirely available to our gaze.
Here Lester creates not only the illusion of cinema but also its emotional experience: the sour metallic taste of adrenaline as fear mounts, the tedious ache of loneliness and the erotic charge of a kiss are all made accessible as feelings both viewed on screen and experienced ‘live’ countless times. Similarly, narrative is evoked, not literalized, in Lester’s film Urban Surface (2005), which consists of a series of shots of Stockholm at night, replete with empty streets, rustling dead leaves, vacant tunnels and street lamps, along with the occasional special effect to enhance the wistful mood. These landscapes long for passers-by, while the tone is intensified by ‘Valse Triste’ (Sad Waltz) from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), a film about the recognition of desire if ever there was one. Breathless suspense, on the other hand, is omnipresent in Peace is not the Absence of Conflict (2007), a compilation of film noir and scary-movie scores that echoes a Steadicam’s gliding ambulation through an abandoned apartment. The itinerant camera becomes both body and eye as it travels and absorbs and connects the visual spaces, but there is no climax.
In his installations employing architectural cut-outs and playful optical trickery Lester makes more oblique reference to film techniques, such as the establishing shot, which sets up the location of a scene before moving into more specific details. Fish.Bird.Deer.Bear (2005) operates in this way, and on the principle of children’s books that progressively reveal a whole image as pages are turned. The viewer peeps through a succession of cut-out animal shapes, which increase in size, only to arrive at a red monochrome wall. More recently, Big Bang (2007) requires you to pass through doorways in six bare wood walls, reminiscent of the back of a stage set. When you emerge, you turn to face the massive pattern of a mushroom cloud cut from the walls. Lester’s films and installations work in tandem to compress and expand cinema’s codes, tools and conventions, and posit a mobile, active spectator who generates meaning rather than passively following a plot or receiving narrative elements. In his work we become wanderers, intruders and explorers – characters on a journey through the very architecture of cinema. Eisenstein would approve.
Vivian Sky Rehberg is a contributing editor of frieze and course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
First published in Issue 109