James Coleman: freezing the past

 

battle_of_bull_run_virginia-400
The Battle of the Bull Run – Currier and Ives

James Coleman-  Marian Goodman Gallery until 16th April

Coleman’s  battlefield re-enactment video, Ligne de Foi (1991),  is a riot of colour and suppressed tension bleeding through the screen. It documents his attempts to create a tableau that reflects precisely the key elements of the scene that can then be photographed. These stills form a second version of this work.

The rich  orange, blues and greens of the the original American Civil War colour lithograph featured above are faithfully reproduced in his video.  The more difficult task of choreographing the movement of men and horses to match the configuration of the original  propels the viewer on a  roller coaster ride of anticipation and relief. At regular intervals the artist/ director can be heard coaxing them into position, a shot is eventually taken and then they all stand down. As this is repeated, we get the mounting impression that each “take” is judged a failure and the cast, particularly the three horse-riders,  are coming under pressure to get the perfect shot.  I  had a dawning sense that this was a metaphor for our often frustrated attempts to cryogenically freeze a past nostalgic moment  and resurrect it in the future.

For much of the video I was intrigued and moved by the macabre Goya-esque “dead” soldiers and horses lying in the foreground: the corpses of a man and his horse stretched on a cartwheel and a soldier crushed beneath the weight of his dead mount. The impact of these images was heightened by the fact the actors remained motionless even between takes. Eventually the spell was broken as they had to stretch themselves out of their contortions and we are reminded of the gap between artistic representations of war and doing it for real. The horses, I assume, were drugged!

This video is part of a wider survey of Coleman’s works which demonstrates that conceptual artists who also revel in aesthetic pleasure are onto a winner, a theme I will return to in my next post which will review Susan Hefuna’s CROSSROADS at Pi Artworks.

 

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