Adaptation

Henry Art Gallery, Seattle

Through March 22, 2009
by Noah Simblist

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      Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation
      Photographic still from The Rape of the Sabine Women (Disintegration at Hydra)
      2005
      Courtesy the artists and Roebling Hall, New York
      Photograph by Ricoh Gerbl

      View Gallery

      Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay Adaptation offers a self-referential look at the popular phenomenon of adapting feature films from novels. However, creation through revision is more freely explored by artists not limited by populist commercial constraints, artists such as those in the exhibition Adaptation, organized by the Smart Museum in Chicago and currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. For instance, I can’t see Les Noces (2007), Arturo Herrera’s play between abstract images, cartoons, comics and a Stravinsky score, making much headway at the multiplex.

      As a video exhibition, with long pieces by Herrera, Guy Ben-Ner, Catherine Sullivan and Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation, this show takes time. But the longer I spent in the galleries, the more I sank down into the rabbit hole of each work. This isn’t simply because of the power of narrative or my suspension of disbelief. It is also because an experience of each piece is simultaneously an exploration of its many referents—source material including literature, music, painting, film, ballet, email correspondence and video art.

      Guy Ben-Ner’s Wild Child (2004), adapted from the 1970 Francois Truffaut film, is more accessible than Herrera’s but equally confounding. As Tom Gunning points out in the on-line catalog, Ben-Ner’s work is self conscious of the copy inherent in adaptation by revealing its artifice. The sets, costumes and props in a video like Wild Child (2004) are clearly little more than the stuff of child’s play. Indeed, the possibilities of imagination are taken for granted by both children and artists. Perhaps it is this connection that Ben-Ner is interrogating with his version of Truffaut’s tale of an 18th Century savage who is tamed by a French doctor. But in the process of adaptation, Ben-Ner lets go of Truffaut’s romanticized vision of feral nature—a nature assumed to be shared by artists, children and the uncivilized.

      Catherine Sullivan’s Triangle of Need (2007) is much more refined in terms of its production values than Ben-Ner’s work, but her abstraction of the narrative creates other kinds of spaces for allusion and interpretation. Sullivan uses film, theater and dance to create a hybrid form that tells a story from multiple sources. The setting for this work includes the apartment of a factory worker in Chicago, the opulent turn of the century Miami estate of the factory owner and a Nigerian email scam that offers a portion of this estate. A trio of Neanderthals is brought to the estate for a breeding experiment which links the questions of the wild and the civilizing properties of science to Ben-Ner’s Wild Child (2004).

      This tension between Eros and Logos is carried further by Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (2005). Adapted from the classical myth, it evokes famous painted adaptations of the same, such as those by Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David. The film tells the story exclusively through images and a score by Jonathan Bepler. Set in 1960’s Greece, it eerily evokes the most recent student protests on the streets of Athens. In this version, sleek dark suited men and elegantly clad women lounge about until tensions build as they tear the clothes off of one another in a violent tumultuous brawl. Raucous abject violence is revealed to be seething beneath a veneer of cool refinement.

      The galleries of Adaptation are filled with an intertextual performance of stories, and images that blur not only the boundaries between art and life but also between mediums. The gestalt of Les Noces (2007), made collaboratively between its visual and musical parts, is simultaneously by Herrera and Stravinsky. This multiple authorship allows the video’s creation exists on a continuum rather than being fixed at one specific point in time, and like the other work in this exhibition, it creates a landscape of possibilities suited only for unabashed intellectual and sensual play.

      Noah Simblist is an artist, writer and Assistant Professor of Art at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His work explores the political role of the artist, the history of abstraction and the ideas of home, borders and exile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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