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Aernout Mik

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The New York Times
ART & DESIGN  | ART REVIEW | AERNOUT MIK
Video Spectacles, Imaged, in One Case, Real
By Ken Johnson, MAY 21, 2009

Something is happening in Aernout Mik's videos, but you do not know what it is.

Displayed on single flat screens or on multiple screens on custom-built walls in various locations at the Modern Art Museum, they seem to document chaotic, emotionally charged, newsworthy situations involving scores of people. Made with high production values and dating from 1996 to 2009, each of the eight works on view is an endless loop with no starting or ending point.

As you watch, you keep hoping to discover what exactly is the cause of the commotion, but no clarification arrives. They are mesmerizing, tantalizing and frustrating.

Mr. Mik, who was born in 1962 and lives in Amsterdam, flouts conventional cinematic storytelling to hold up a mordant fun-house mirror to the society of the spectacle. But though intriguing at first, his knowingly enigmatic narration, stylish antichoreography and overripe cinematography wear thin in the long run. His works have as much to do with the steroidal photography of artists like Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall as they do with the real world.

Most of the videos convey moods of apocalyptic crisis. The six projections of "Vacuum Room" (2005), which surround the viewer, show different perspectives of what looks like a legislative hearing room. An old man talking on the phone in his office talking on the phone. A tall, bearded man in a food-stained white undershirt with a large, dirty stuffed animal.

Mr. Mik’s people seem to be in the grip of collective insanity. In “Training Ground” (2006) uniformed police officers and emergency personnel are running a practice exercise of some sort in a parking lot, but many of them end up convulsively rolling around on the ground. Civilians stiffly march around with wooden rifles like psychiatric hospital patients.

Made in 2001, the eerily prophetic "Middlemen" shows the paper-strewn floor of a stock exchange apparently in mid-crash. Some people run this way or that. Some stare hopefully upward, presumably towards an off-camera big board. Others just sit, numbly gazing into space and occasionally twitching or hiccupping.midcrash. Some people run this way or that. Some stare hopefully upward, presumably toward an off-camera big board. Others just sit, numbly gazing into space and occasionally twitching or hiccupping.

"Schoolyard" (2009), which was commissioned by the museum, shows what resembles a combination of riot, funeral and religious awakening among a multiethnic crowd of young people.

Taking place mostly inside an indoor sports arena, "Scapegoats" (2006) looks as if it were a shot in the Louisiana Superdome during  Hurricane Katrina , although the people here are somewhat concerned.

There is a good deal of surrealism in Mr. Mik's videos. They are like uncomfortably weird and vivid dreams. "Osmosis and Excess" (2005), in which white-coated pharmacists in a bright drugstore remain oblivious to a flow of mud underfoot and construction workers in the background, evokes an absurdist, Freudian tension between the hygienic and the excremental.Mr. Mik’s videos. They are like uncomfortably weird and vivid dreams. “Osmosis and Excess” (2005), in which white-coated pharmacists in a bright drugstore remain oblivious to a flow of mud underfoot and construction workers in the background, evokes an absurdist, Freudian tension between the hygienic and the excremental.

One piece is crucially different. Projected on two screens side by side, “Raw Footage” (2006) consists of newsreel material from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The imagery is not sensational. Rather, Mr. Mik compiled segments that were edited out of news broadcasts because they were considered insignificant or insufficiently dramatic.

Yet because they are so visibly real, they are riveting. Men in uniform and in civilian clothes warily stalk through a municipal park as gunshots sound in the distance. Laughing children play with real and toy guns. Unarmed townspeople watchfully stand outside on sunlit sidewalks.

One of the most remarkable sequences follows a group of female soldiers in black T-shirts and camouflage pants. At one point you see them coolly firing their rifles at an unseen enemy. You will notice that they have not forgotten to put on their makeup and dangly gold earrings and to do up their hair, as if they were going not to war but out to dinner.

The relevance of "Raw Footage" to Mr. Mik's other works is obvious. In his fictive movies he captures something of the erratic rhythms of real life under pressure. But the real footage is more gripping. They are real bullets in those rifles, and although they do not see it, they are actually getting killed nearby. There is a tension and anxiety that can not be seen in the staged films, which, however, diverting in small doses, come off by comparison as contrived, formulaic and portentously arty.