EASTBOURNE, UK — When artist Melanie Manchot started making work in the 1990s, she was deeply influenced by gender and feminist theories. Her most well-known series from that period consists of photographs depicting her naked mother in different locations, often placed against imposing natural landscapes. Since then, Manchot’s work has shifted toward anthropology and philosophy, although certain themes, such as the tension between private and public spaces, individual experiences versus collective memory, still concern her.
People Places Prepositions, at Towner Art Gallery, premieres Manchot’s “Out of Bounds” (2016), a cinematic two-part installation shot in the Swiss Alpine valley of Engleberg, depicting the activities of alpine workers employed in the winter sports industry. Mountains are recurrent in Manchot’s work. In the past years she’s returned many times to the Alps, taking pictures and making videos of the inhabitants and environs, but never before has the artist produced such a lyrical piece as “Out of Bounds.”
The two videos that form the work are split between two adjoining rooms, which are painted floor-to-ceiling to match the predominant palette of the films, one black and the other white. The first video shows powerful sequences of snowcats flattening and compressing snow at night, preparing the ski slopes for tourists the following day. Human presence is denied: no driver can be seen maneuvering behind the dark glasses of the piste machines. The contrast between the quiet sight of a night landscape and the blinding lights of the vehicles acting on it allows Manchot to experiment with abstraction in an original way. Listening to the hypnotic tunes of the soundtrack, a feeling of estrangement permeates the viewer; the frantic activity of the vehicles on the ski slopes inspires reveries of alien machines colonizing an inhospitable planet.
The second video, a single uncut shot with little camera movement, shows two men making their way through the fresh snow, not without difficulty, to detonate a controlled avalanche. The sight of the two men in the dazzling white landscape, before the majestic, towering mountains is clearly reminiscent of sublime and Romantic paintings, although any philosophical reference is swiped away in one brief moment of surprise, when an explosion sets off an extremely elegant cascade of white matter.
Manchot prefers to engage with an idea over time, often over years. “Out of Bounds,” for instance, was shot in 2014, roughly edited the following year, and then radically re-edited earlier this year (the artist does not elaborate on how or why). Time is also at the core of “11/8” (2015), a nine-channel monitor installation composed of footage edited from filming the countenance of the same girl — Manchot’s daughter — for the duration of one minute every month, from when the girl was 11 to when she turned 18. Never chronological, the portraits fade in and out, displaying the changes that Manchot’s subject has gone through, as her appearance and ways of relating to the camera alter.
If the starting point of “Out of Bounds” is the tradition of landscape painting, “11/8” subverts the classical genre of portraiture, paying homage to Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests.” As in Warhol’s series, Manchot’s Super 8 camera focuses on the girl’s face only, scrutinizing any physical and psychological changes. As the child grows into an adolescent, her gaze loses some of its melancholy, turning into the daring look only teenagers have. “If we look at portraits of this young person over a seven-year period, are we, essentially, looking at one and the same individual? What can this collection of monthly portraits tell us?” Manchot asks in the accompanying exhibition text.
When I first saw “11/18” last year in the London exhibition series fig.2, Boyhood, the film directed by Richard Linklater in 2014, had just been released in the UK. It famously took the director 12 years to shoot his coming-of-age drama, following the physical change of the main character from the age of six to 18. Although Manchot’s project shares with Linklater’s the same concept, the latter still belongs to fiction. “11/18,” on the other hand, is somewhere between documentary and psychological portraiture.
We can’t guess the little disappointments, cultural discoveries, or first love that possibly shaped the girl’s years as a teenager. Yet we sympathize with her, we understand her feelings because they are also our own. We can remember them because we share them; her story is our story.
In “Matter and Memory” (1896), the philosopher Henri Bergson wrote that “all sensation is already memory.” Present experiences endlessly slip into the past. Time, Manchot suggests, is the ultimate substance that shapes us all.
Melanie Manchot’s People Places Propositions continues at Towner Art Gallery (College Road, Eastbourne, BN21 4JJ, UK) through July 10.