Currently on at the Hannover Kunstverein in Northern Germany, Tell Me What You See is a superb retrospective of the experimental film work of Christoph Girardet & Matthias Müller. Their award-winning collaborations, constructed since around 1999, use found footage from mostly mainstream cinema to produce new layers of meaning and narrative buried in the images which we often take for granted on the big screen.
From their earliest collaborations such as Necrologue from their 1999 installation Phoenix Tapes - compiled from sections of Hitchcock movies - we see the way in which existent footage can be re-contextualised to provide new tales, generated in the mind of the viewer alone. A looped tear slowly running down a heroine's cheek becomes unbearably poignant.
As you move from piece to piece you begin to sense that the real message here is that mankind has more than enough visual imagery to feast upon (and certainly enough to be classified and grouped), and now our purpose is to experience it in a horizontal rather than linear fashion, squeezing new meaning from what was in danger of becoming cliche. This is, in essence, a new approach to cinema.
But, in terms of 'curation', whereas a film such as Christian Marclay's The Clock - with its collection of every minute of a day drawn from old footage and shown over 24 hours - seems ingenious but obsessive, Girardet & Müller's work remembers to insert a degree of emotion from a wealth of 20th century material.
It's one hell of a feat and it's also surprising how deeply this can affect the viewer. Only in the 2009 film Contre-Jours do you feel slightly let down, and that's because images of blinding lights, optical surgery and eyes are combined with stark black and white contemporary footage of a man and woman's heads in exaggerated chiaroscuro. You realise that the new footage feels out of place, lacking the aura of history.
Locomotive (2008) is perhaps my own favourite. Every formal aspect, from ratio and triple screen format to hypnotic sound design combines to immerse the viewer in a narrative that uses the collected images of repeated actions in and around trains (including the movement of the trains themselves) to build a story that remains half mystery and half celebration of a century of train travel. The rhythmic lull of the speeding locomotives is punctuated by the crisp metallic sound of the points being switched, while the film's mid-section where the characters themselves sink into sleep on the screen submerges us into a dreamscape of crashing trains that's both disturbing and romantic. If children of the future are cursed with the ignorance of how 20th century humanity crossed the globe without cars, this should be the key text to show them.
Girardet & Müller's style is fluid and evolving as well as amazingly humorous. A six-minute film such as Play (2003) uses carefully collected scenes of theatre crowds to focus on the ambiguity of gesture, the power of the glance and the ebb and flow of audience approbation. Elsewhere Maybe Siam (2009) uses segments featuring blind people silently negotiating interior spaces interspersed with a blacked out screen accompanied by the sound transposed from each segment. It's a poignant meditation on the loss of sight and the importance of other senses; until accompanied by Perry Como singing Far Away Places and suddenly the irony of never having the possibility of seeing any such sights becomes plain.
Detractors may ask what makes the duo's work so different from a million Youtube compilations but a few minutes spent mesmerised in front of any one of these pieces gives the game away. They are not only meticulously edited but also often demand to be seen in formats as arresting as the originals from which they are culled: i.e: on a big screen. I found myself imagining an entire movie theatre devoted to art such as this and it made my head spin. And lest the viewer become indignant that this repurposing fails to acknowledge the original inspiration, the print Source Citations (2013) manages to list all of their source material while turning the list itself into a piece of art.
Non-German readers may be confused or feel excluded when I write about such great stuff in far off lands, but luckily until February 22nd you have the chance to see one of Girardet & Müller's key current pieces - Meteor. in London at the Carroll/Fletcher Gallery. This 15-minute film is given a key place in the current exhibition in Hannover and in many ways represents a glorious validation of the amount of work the pair have done over the last decade, Narrated by John Smith, the legendary experimental film-maker and director of The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), this short compiles wonderfully evocative vintage space voyages from (often eastern bloc) science fiction movies of the '60s along with others of childhood, longing and loneliness, signified by the upward gaze of solitary boys. It feels like the most personal work in the entire exhibition and its operatic climax is genuinely as moving as any blockbuster. Images, combined with meticulous editing and an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema's history. What more could one ask?
Tell Me What You See is at the Hannover Kunstverein until March 16th. Meteor is part of the Carroll/Fletcher Gallery group exhibition of artist's film until February 22nd