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26 November 2010

Exhibition review: Philippe Parreno

Serpentine Gallery, London.

By Lucian Robinson

Philippe Parreno came to public prominence when his film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, was screened out of competition at Cannes in May 2006. This extraordinary work shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji with 17 synchronised cameras, followed Zinedane Zidane, then still one of the world’s great footballers, through an entire match that he played for Real Madrid. Accompanied only by Zidane’s subtitled thoughts during the game and a saturnine soundtrack by Mogwai, it presented the footballer as both sporting matador and bull, carrying off technical flourishes with a thaumaturge’s dexterity whilst constantly being baited by the opposition.

This new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is an altogether different affair. Whilst for the Zidane film Parreno turned himself from artist into film director, here he is firmly presenting himself as an artist.

The first film, The Boy from Mars, was made in 2003 and is one of Parreno’s best known works. Shot on 35mm and then transferred to HD, the film centers on a ramshackle, canvas-covered structure in a geographically undefined landscape (South-east Asia perhaps?), from which a strange orange light emanates. We see mysterious flares in the sky above the building, possibly UFOs. A water buffalo, generating electricity for the building, slips and slides through the mud of an adjacent paddy field, its hoof tearing at the ground in sharply defined close up. The visual perspective veers continually from the still to the dynamic, from canvas to hoof to raven night sky. It’s mesmeric: film-making at its most visceral. One can almost feel the mud splattering from the screen and the comparison in the length and volume of sound, between the silent long shots of the building and the heavy churning of the buffalo in the mud, is completely aurally overwhelming.

The outstanding film in this exhibition (consciously projected in the gallery’s centre) is June 8, 1968, photographed in 2009. Based on the train journey that took Robert Kennedy’s coffin from New York to Washington after his assassination, Parreno’s film, made with same cinematographer and sound director as the Zidane movie, follows a train through a verdant, defiantly west coast American landscape, watched over by a cornflower blue sky. Deriving from Paul Fusco’s celebrated photographs of mourners watching the actual Kennedy train, the first five minutes of the film follow the locomotive through the landscape, with occasional long tracking shots of sparsely placed onlookers, ostensibly in mourning but solemn rather than distraught. Then, suddenly, the film cuts violently to a shot of a solitary girl in a still white boat framed by deep azure water. The cut is like a break in a symphony; from forte to piano in one deft take. The stillness of the shot catches the viewer off guard, catapulting him out of the easy complacency the train’s rhythm has forced him into.

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Two other films are included in the exhibition. One is a new short from 2010 entitled Invisible Boy, a quick footed cinematic caper through an anonymous Chinatown interrupted by sinister sketched rabbits, which frankly I couldn’t really make out, enjoyable as it was. The inclusion of the other film, No More Reality, is the one element of this exhibition that is misjudged. Made in 1994, this immensely turgid and dated work shows a crowd of children holding obscured banners shouting “No more reality” for four minutes. I think I understand what Parreno is trying to say (a supposed joke about cinema and its claims to realism) but I don’t understand why he thought it would be interesting to say it. The comparison between it and the three other films in the exhibition could not be starker.

When the screening of Invisible Boy finished, the window blinds automatically rolled up and fabricated snow poured down outside the gallery. For a moment I couldn’t tell whether it was real or fake, and contemplating this after the exhibition, I realised this is how Parreno wants his films to make us feel: unsure and ill-informed. In this show at least, he’s succeeded admirably in that goal.

Until 13 Febraury 2011