Abbas Kiarostami: Five - MoMA

kiarostami_five.jpgInstallation art allows the viewer to enter an alternate realm of perception, one created in space by the artist. The renowned Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami has created an intriguing multi-screen video installation, called Five, on view at MoMA until May 28 in its first presentation in the United States.

Kiarostami’s films (ATaste of Cherry and Through the Olive Trees, to name a couple) are characterized by their view of ordinary people whose everyday lives reflect the depths of human feeling. But when asked to discuss his films in 1998, he spoke of how he looked at filmmaking, as opposed to his subject matter: “When I look at nature, I see a frame of painting. I see everything from an aesthetic angle. Even when I am in a taxi, looking out of the window, I put everything in a frame. This is the way I see painting, photography and film—all interrelated and connected.”

So it is no surprise that in this 2004 video installation, what Kiarostami shows us is nature framed: five views of the Caspian Sea, each taken from a single angle by a fixed camera, recording in real time (so that a complete viewing of all five screens would require 74 minutes). The total effect is calming and meditative, as well as humorous and reassuring in places. Screen one shows waves hitting the shore again and again, with no other creatures about, just a single shell and piece of driftwood on the shore. By contrast, screen two captures a boardwalk space with a white metal railing, where walkers stroll and a few jog, unaware of the camera. Screen three also captures the water’s edge (like screen one), but here there are seemingly still objects by the shore, at first appearing as rocks, then possibly seals, but ultimately when a couple stand and walk a bit, they are revealed as dogs. Scene four focuses on a shore line area where ducks walk by endlessly, singly and in quacking groups, often hurrying (to some comic effect). The final screen is in the darkness and mystery of night, only water, no shore line, with a luminous light reflecting on the gentle undulations, perhaps the moon.

In a way, Kiarostami captures all of human experience here: the empty shore before our birth, the midlife of walking, talking, running, and dogs and ducks, followed by the darkness after our departure. Of course that’s my human-centric perspective, and no doubt egocentric. Other interpretations of these very basic and universal scenes are easily imagined. In fact, the scenes are so simple and pure in their lack of ideology that they are almost an onscreen Rorschach test: you see what you see and construct your own narrative. Or not.

In the MoMA setting, with darkened spaces and a simple bench before each screen, it is easy to sit and drift, emptying the mind for the meditative experience, aided by the ambient sound recorded with each situation. One is awash in awareness of both time and stillness. The museum refers to the installation as “a canny and sublime work,” and it’s a decent description, particularly when they also point out how it is “playfully investigating the fluid limits of documentary art practice.”

One cannot help noting at this historical moment how satisfying it is to experience the work of a brilliant Iranian artist, particularly a work in such a universal language: image and sound. The beach shoreline could be any shoreline—in Europe or the U.S. or, in this case, the Middle East.

In September of 2002, Kiarostami, who some have labeled “one of the world’s greatest living directors,” was denied a visa to enter the United States. He had been invited to attend the New York Film Festival, and afterwards to lecture at Harvard and Ohio State. So this is the world we live in now: art can sometimes cross barriers that the artist cannot. France’s former minister of education and culture, Jack Lang, viewed the visa refusal as the new U.S. “intellectual isolationism,” manifesting “contempt for other cultures.”

But sitting on a bench in front of a screen, hearing the waves hit the shore, the viewer is lifted above the banality and short-sightedness of politics to the deeper space of the natural world. As Mathew Arnold wrote in 1851: “The sea is calm tonight. / The tide is full, the moon lies fair/ Upon the straits; on the French coast the light/ Gleams and is gone.” – Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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