Aernout Mik

Artvehicle 11/Review

16th February 2007 — 15th April 2007

Aernout Mik's videos tell us what we already profess - that power corrupts. Yet saying so does not make a more engaged response any less urgent, nor does it remove the need for a gentle reminder of its methods. In "Training Ground" (2006) police learn to carry out routine procedures such as forcing people to lie on the ground face down. One member of the public who is forced to the ground is a black man dressed in a tracksuit. He has a fit and collapses but nobody is concerned: the camera homes in for a while on the globules of saliva that trickle down his chin before moving on to document other dehumanising practices that serve the interests of law and order. There is throughout the work a tension between the amateur camerawork (read: "this is trustworthy") and the knowledge that all this is staged. It is, after all, only a re-enactment of an imagined scenario. Significantly though, this tension does little to depoliticise the presentation of these events or ease the viewer's discomfort.

In "Scapegoat" (2006) civilians are rounded up and beaten by soldiers. Periodically the roles of civilian and soldier reverse to provide a medley of abuse that shows neither purpose nor resolution. There is no sound except at one point when a machine gun is suddenly fired into the air, loud enough to pollute the viewing of the other videos as well.

"Vacuum Room" (2005) sets a group of immigrant youths against another oppressive institution, more sinister than those we have seen so far by virtue of the fact that their profession is never quite identified. It is enough that they are predominantly white, middle aged, and male. Three separate projections are set up so that they are viewed as if from the centre of the space where they are shot, implicating the onlooker as a participant within the events that unfold. The youths jostle in and out, littering the floor with spilled papers and documents. A seated official removes his shoe and begins banging it rhythmically on the desk. Soon everyone in the room is stamping their feet to the same rhythm as if in protest. The behaviour of the room's occupants is, in fact, so incongruous with the mock-period architecture that they come across as having been set up. The imperial building conspires against their caused and renders them more of misfits than they would otherwise be.

The last piece, "Raw Footage" (2006) depicts events during the war in Yugoslavia, events which we are told in the press release, were not eventful enough to lead the media to broadcast the footage for news purposes. Acquired for the artgoer, it is presented knowingly without editing or narrative voiceover so as to show, by means of its tedium, power stripped of all possible panache or glamour. At one point a body is pulled from a river and loaded into a cart. Rigor mortis has set in so the procedure is slow and the corpse cumbersome as it unceremoniously snags on a ladder and bangs about. In another section soldiers pedal around the ruined streets on bikes they've stolen from local kids, making the victory gesture with their fingers as they pass the camera.

Mik's contributions to discussions about power go beyond the provision of examples of its crimes and misdemeanours. For the gathering and contextualisation of examples is the task of documentaries, a task that relies heavily on the evidential feeling of real time footage and which plays to politics' demands for hard facts and data. Such, for example, is the premise of much work shown at the last Documenta and photojournalism today. The practice of Alan Sekula in his extraordinary exposé of global capitalism "Fish Story" or the media's insistence on the firing of Reuter's journalist Adnan Hajj for adding billows of smoke to an image of Beirut burning after it was bombed by Israeli jets in 2006 attest to the enduring importance of veracity in this tradition. But the fact that Mik's works are either staged or stripped of context exonerates them from the responsibilities of exposé and instead frees them up for the larger satirical task of debunking power as it is exercised. Here the concept of power is under scrutiny rather than a given instance of power that stands or falls on the truthfulness of a given piece of footage. Power and hierarchies are ridiculed: the policewoman doing a body search in "Training Ground" is upstaged by a child doing a cartwheel in the background; the camera in Scapegoat refuses its role as voyeur of someone being beaten up and instead drifts off to look at an unusual old cooker, humiliating the scene's protagonists with its indifference. The overall feeling is one of puerile satisfaction, the same sort of desperate joy that John Heartfield must have experienced as he stuck together his pictures of Hitler and his accomplices in the run up to the war. In his text "Language and Politics" Naom Chomsky says that the goal of cultural change in the broadest sense is the pursuit of justice not the conquest of power (Chomsky 1999). Relieved of having to chronicle power's conquests, Mik, like Heartfield, get on with the more difficult task of defacing it in the name of justice.

References Chomsky, Noam. "Language and Politics". (1988) Ed. CP Otero. Montreal: Black Rose Books. 1999 pp 23 - 37.


Camden Arts Centre
Arkwright Road
London NW3 6DG

Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm
Wednesday, 10am-9pm

Aernout Mik — Photographers’ Gallery Singing class, Children's Palace  from the series DPRK 2005 © Philippe Chancel/ Courtesy Erik Franck Fine Art, London

Photographers’ Gallery
Singing class, Children's Palace  from the series DPRK 2005
© Philippe Chancel/ Courtesy Erik Franck Fine Art, London