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Adad Hannah: Masterpiece Theatre

"Adad Hannah: Masterpiece Theatre" by Mark Clintberg, Fall 2009, pp. 90-93 / photo Eric Tschaeppler

As I write this, the Montreal-based artist Adad Hannah is in British Columbia’s 100 Mile House, recreating Théodore Géricault’s epic painting The Raft of the Medusa with the aid of a cast of high-school students and itinerant tree planters. Tableaux vivants inspired by or involving pre-existing images have become Hannah’s stock-in-trade, yet he continues to subtly alter how he approaches and restages history. He typically presents the viewer with projected videos that at first glance appear to be still photographic images. The slight quivering of his models, who are often holding strenuous or otherwise difficult poses, reveals the reality behind the images.

Géricault’s Raft functioned in 19th-century French society as both commentary and spectacle. The painting depicts the aftermath of a tragic shipwreck that history tells us resulted in cannibalism and madness. French citizens were outraged that such an event had taken place on the high seas. To convincingly represent this catastrophe, Géricault extensively researched the incident and even launched a raft of his own to observe the object’s response to waves and currents. This restaging, along with the artist’s dedicated observation of the dead and dying at local hospitals and morgues, contributed to the painting’s compelling effect on the public. In contrast, Hannah’s project, The Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House), stages the scene in a region of British Columbia that is geographically distant from the original controversy and where the original Géricault has never been exhibited. He imports the spirit of this work to a new location and invites interpretation by his collaborators rather than insisting on a precise remounting. Hannah’s work-in-progress reorients the painting toward the present more than it attempts to galvanize or enliven the past.

Hannah’s approach is not unlike that of the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot, whose public lectures on paintings by Chardin, Vernet, Loutherbourg and others involved tableaux vivants that Diderot would wander through while describing, analyzing and pontificating on the work in question. As the art historian Rebecca Duclos puts it, “Diderot enters into a painting within his critique and describes its scene as if he were strolling within the fictional world created by the painter.” Perverse theatre? Diderot’s audiences were mesmerized. The possibility that a world of activity, a condensed history, exists just behind the varnish of any painting—and can be animated by a combination of wit and imagination—would ply even the most obstinate audience.

Hannah’s Cuba Still (Remake), a six-projector video installation the artist based on a photograph he found in Havana’s Chinatown, was shot in Seoul, Korea. The artist’s friends and acquaintances posed in settings including a restaurant, a cinema, Tapgol Park and a portrait studio. The original silver-print photograph that was Hannah’s source image depicted a motley cast of characters from a long-forgotten film striking affected poses. The project translates a photograph into a three-dimensional tableau into a two-dimensional video. Rather than attempting to duplicate exactly the Cuban version of the image, Hannah chose to respond to the conditions granted by Seoul. According to Hannah, “The props and costumes were chosen to match both the new location and the original photo. I wanted the locations to be unrelated and to seem natural, but I also wanted to match the original photo as closely as possible.” The final result is an image that is a response to rather than a mirroring of the original. Details in Remake are not strict adherences, but impulsive extemporizations.

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) serves as the backdrop and conceptual framework for Hannah’s Two Mirrors, part of a series of works he produced at the Museo Nacional del Prado. The original painting shows Velázquez at his easel alongside a cast of characters that includes the Infanta Margarita and her attendants. A mirror in the background frames an image of King Philip IV and his queen. The painting suggests that the king and queen are interrupting the Infanta’s sitting for a portrait. Hannah’s video positions two young men, who face away from the viewer, in front of Las Meninas; together they hold a mirror, which allows them to look back at the camera. The Infanta is partially obscured by one of the reflected faces in the mirror. The painted king and queen can be seen just above the reflection of Hannah’s interlocutors. A somewhat dizzying tableau due to its tight framing—nothing outside of the painted image’s frame is visible—Two Mirrors is a filmic intervention into the fabric of the 17th-century work. If we take into account the cinematic effect, Two Mirrors contains a total of four mirrors: Velázquez’s in the painting, the mirror the two men hold and then the additional two recorded in Hannah’s video.

Velázquez’s intended meaning for the piece has been much debated; notably, this painting has been viewed as the artist’s attempt to enhance his profile in the court of King Philip. The prominence of the emblem of the Order of Santiago on Velázquez’s chest might be interpreted as a brazen form of self-promotion. Hannah’s work thus becomes troublingly interwoven with the analyses and associations attached to the original painting: perhaps he wishes to validate his practice by suggesting a lineage with Velázquez. Either way, Hannah’s gesture reveals a major obstacle for analyzing Las Meninas, or any artwork or object from the past, for that matter, today: contemporary interpretations are alwaystinted by and tilted toward the present. Our critiques, without fail, will serve contemporary interests, even inadvertently. What the mirror held by these two young men reveals is that the king and queen are no longer in front of the painting, illusionistically speaking; they are no longer alive. Hannah’s models occupy their position. And when the video is exhibited, the viewer in turn takes their position. Only the present moment exists in front of Las Meninas.

Hannah’s Eros and Aphrodite is a video of a two-faced marble bust shown in profile. Marble, under ideal lighting, takes on a lustre, softness and surface complexity reminiscent of human skin. Statues cut from marble have the uncanny ability to both startle and arouse; they seem as though they might come to life at any moment. As Kenneth Gross has written, “It should not be a surprise that many texts depict the statue’s life as something not only elusive but threatening, calling into question our naively benign assumptions about animation, or about the nature of what human life entails.” Animating the inanimate, as Hannah’s work often does, presents the same risk and thrill Gross describes.

On the left-hand side of Hannah’s video, a young woman cranes her neck as if about to kiss the lips of the marble statue. A young man mirrors her pose on the right. The ages of the models seem especially important: the stone busts date to antiquity, while their young suitors are roughly the same age as the technology that renders the artwork possible. This sexually charged image plunges into the melancholic when the viewer becomes aware that Eros and Aphrodite is a moving image, not a still photograph. The reversal is a compelling analogue for romantic relations, and also for the braided histories of photography and cinema.

In the early days of filmmaking, it was thought by some that the entire narrative inventory of the world would be reborn on celluloid. Walter Benjamin quotes Abel Gance: “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films…all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all founders of religion, and the very religions…await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.” The limitless possibilities described by Gance might sound naive—but cinema continues to churn out and craft new interpretations and adaptations of narratives from the past. By reframing the still image in the time-based context of film, Hannah’s work confounds but also fulfills this prediction. Is this a resurrection, or a posthumous grafting?

In either case, there is something libidinal in the artist’s process. Sylviane Agacinski’s Time Passing summarizes the mobile libido hypothesized by Freud, which is “capable of passing easily from one object to another.” These transitions, however, are easily interrupted, since the libido is “liable to fixing itself on certain objects or types of objects, thus demonstrating its rigidity or its viscosity (Klebrigkeit).” Hannah’s practice is an incarnation of a mobile and interrupted libido; in his work, historical traces such as photographs and paintings are love objects, ones for which he expresses a true tenderness. The artist selects a subject, fixates on it, nurtures it and suspends it, realizing a new work by arresting moving images in a suspended state. His artworks do not attempt to duplicate the past exactly, but function as historical interventions that use photographic and cinematic means to grapple with the material of history.

This is an article from the Fall 2009 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.

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