by Luca Cerizza
In what is perhaps his most important film, and certainly his most complex (Playtime), Jacques Tatì reconstructs a day in the life of a contemporary city (a standardized Paris of which we can intuit only signs, characteristic reflexes) from morning to evening. Following the actions in most choral situation possible, Tatì constructs an extremely precise narrative plot tracing the lives of the various characters in an infinite series of little-big events and movements inside a congested, ultra-modern metropolis. In certain scenes in the film there are as many as one hundred persons in the picture, each performing a different action in a mechanism in which there are no primary and secondary elements, but a complex, concatenated texture of relationships and connections.
Tatì’s way of looking at the city is, in fact, a bird’s-eye view, a wide-angle perspective that makes the movie screen ‘into a large window open on the world’ (Roberto Nepoti, “Jaques Tatì”, La Nuova Italia, 1978). In this way the spectator is allowed to observe many events happening at the same time, the movement of men and the more or less random relationships that take form during this long day. More than the sentiments, experiences, the individual cases of the characters (almost never shown in close-ups), what counts for Tatì are the structure, the relationships, the modes with which events combine in a larger organism. What is important is to understand how a single event, a single choice, a single gesture can influence the course of reality in a complex concatenation of cause and effect.
In one of his new projects still in progress the Swedish artist Lars Arrhenius is developing, through a series of small concatenated circular images, a choral narrative set in the city of London. Portraying a series of micro-events that happen to the various characters, and following their progress in certain points of the city Arrhenius, like Tatì, opts for an aerial vantage point from which to observe the complex mechanism regulating the life of a contemporary metropolis. A-Z (this is the title of the work, citing the name of a common map of London) is a clear example of Arrhenius’ interest in narration and plot, in the concatenation of the events, based on logic and happenstance, that compose a story. In his The Man without one Way (1999) the Swedish artist tells the brief tale of a man who leaves his house and walks down a street. His stroll is punctuated by various events, or by different choices he must make until his return home. Each option, each choice, each sudden accident has its consequences: Arrhenius shows us the ‘what would have happened if...’ of this character, through sequences that intersect or run parallel to one another.
In formal terms the work consists of a series of 171 small color images made with a computer, printed and mounted on plexiglass, and arranged in bands on the wall, somewhat like musical notation or a computer game. The style is simple, the tones flat, the narrative nodes clearly displayed. These are all choices that aim at the most direct, accessible, ‘popular’ communication possible. Arrhenius uses the medium of drawing, of the cartoon, reducing the expressive impact of the features signs almost to zero, so as not to distract the viewer’s attention with superfluous details and picturesque notes, concentrating on the narrative nodes themselves, the cause and effect relationships. Arrhenius seems to want to show us the modes with which a story (and life itself) are constructed, something like what happens in the web, where different planes coexist without hierarchies, or as in a hypertextual narrative structure.
With respect to the two series The Man.. and A-Z, Domino (2000) stands apart for several aspects. The story follows the movements of a simple banknote, from its emergence from a cash machine to its return, presumably to the same bank from which it came. The series is composed of 74 images mounted on plexiglass and arranged on the wall just as in the sequence of the game of dominoes. The linear progression of the events, which in the other series was open to different options, is absolute in this case: the banknote travels from person to person, country to country, linking men of different races and creeds, like a red thread, a value, a common language that links the whole world. In Domino Arrhenius has abandoned the cold, almost mechanical style of The Man.. in favor of a more expressive, dynamic image, not without a certain note of the grotesque. The technical procedure is also different: in this case the artist has taken characters from different comics (not particularly famous ones, and therefore not easily recognizable) and repositioned them inside brief situations of his own definition. Beyond any citationist and deconstructivist intent, any metalinguistic use of the means, once again what dominates is narrative unity and consequence. The curious remix of characters with different graphic styles, unified by distinct black outlines that accentuate their expressivity, is in this case placed at the service of a narrative intent.
In this setting the random component plays a more decisive role than in the other works mentioned above: in the scenes created by Arrhenius what seems to dominate, this time, is a stronger note of distrust and pessimism, a sense of subterranean violence, as if the money were responsible for influencing the modes and behaviors of man, controlling them. Of course, in the other series as well, the place of chance in determining events is clearly visible: a note of bitterness seems to hover in the background of these short stories, where men and women, depicted as silhouettes against vague backgrounds, look like tiny variants of a mechanism that overwhelms them. This sentiment of subtle cosmic pessimism, this awareness of a capricious Fate that decides the destiny of man is nevertheless balanced, upon closer scrutiny, by the active, propositional role the single character plays in influencing or determining the course of events. Actually Arrhenius demonstrates a general faith in the possibility for the
character/citizen to influence reality, even within a social community.
In A-Z this faith appears even more clearly, perhaps precisely in relation to a very problematic urban context – that of London, or any other contemporary metropolis. For this reason, in the image stories of Arrhenius the emphasis is constantly placed on the links, the connections, the relations that are established between people, in a complex but basically logical plot, where each person is responsible for himself and for others, and proves himself stronger than the mechanism in which he happens to live. Each has a role, each is a link in a chain that cannot hold without compliance with some form of individual responsibility.
This faith in the community dimension of society, which is deeply rooted in Scandinavian culture, is coherently shifted into popular, easily communicative modes in the work of Arrhenius, and not without moralizing overtones. It is as if the Swedish artist were completing a series of modern parables in images, replacing the use of the fresco in medieval art with an equally direct, easily legible language, but updated to conform to the modes and stylemes of contemporary narration. Thus not only short situations, but also entire lives can be narrated in the synthetic, direct modes of computer animation, The new video Elisabeth (2001) packs the life of a woman into three minutes, through the alternation of a long series of portraits, once again drawn with essential lines. Something like handcrafted ‘morphing’, illustrating the unwinding of a life, the passage of time on the face of a woman from birth to death. Again, in this case, the general formal ‘lightness’, the pleasant electronic music cannot completely banish a subtle sense of bitterness, as if we were faced with a sort of ‘memento mori’ of the digital age.
With this ‘trilogy’ focused on circumstances (The Man without one Way), money (Domino) and life (Elisabeth), Arrhenius sheds light on the possibility of a modernly popular communication through images, combining contemporary linguistic procedures and modes with ancient needs: a language of images accessible to all, with which to confront, with a light, essential touch, certain major universal themes.