Julian Rosefeldt: The man, the myth, the legend

Art in the Lou

| Art Editor

After months of reading about his work and watching the film “American Night” (2009) on my laptop at home through Vimeo, I finally got the chance to sit down with artist Julian Rosefeldt. The Berlin-based contemporary artist, filmmaker and professor visited last Friday to deliver a lecture at Washington University in conjunction with the opening of his exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Rosefeldt’s piece, “American Night,” is a multichannel film installation. When the viewer enters the dark gallery space, he or she is surrounded by five video screens, each with a different projection, sound and story to tell. Needless to say, this immersive experience was much more inviting than the version I watched on Vimeo.

Julian Rosefeldt, “American Night” (2009).Photo courtesy of Barbara Gross Galerie Munich, Arndt Berlin/Singapore, and Julian Rosefeldt

Julian Rosefeldt, “American Night” (2009).

Just before my precious five-minute interview with Rosefeldt, I sat down on a bench in the gallery and took in each vividly shot, melodramatic scene the way it is meant to be viewed: low to the ground and surrounding the seats of the gallery space like a campfire. The five scenes included a Western town, a saloon, a log cabin with a woman waiting outside the door, a deserted landscape, and an actual cowboys’ campfire. All five of these screens play on for the entirety of the piece—the viewer is clued into each environment simultaneously.

Rosefeldt’s piece aims to comment on and critique the mythology of the American West. He does so using the Western film genre as a basis for the themes in the five projections, as well as various quotes throughout the film. The cowboys’ script also includes quotes from rappers like 50 Cent, and various political figures from current U.S. campaigns. George W. Bush and Barack Obama make an appearance as two puppets in a saloon performance, alluding to American foreign policy while arguing through direct quotes from 1950s Western films like “The Big Trail” and “Bend of the River.” By collapsing the world of the West with current politics and gangsters, Rosefeldt brilliantly makes the case that we still rely on myth-based motifs of violence, as well as the hero of the American Old West, to shape our current culture.

Feeling grounded with these small screens, I was shocked by how much more magnetic the images were in the space. It was very seductive, the way the characters and environments were shot with opulence and with their actions so exaggerated. While the presidential puppets, dancing women and jeering cowboys in the film were quoting serious political campaigns and deconstructing the Western myth, they managed to stay satirical.

Julian Rosefeldt, “American Night” (2009). Photo courtesy of Barbara Gross Galerie Munich, Arndt Berlin/Singapore, and Julian Rosefeldt

Julian Rosefeldt, “American Night” (2009).

I found myself smiling at the carefully crafted, surreal environments and actors, and quickly reorganized my questions for the artist in order to begin with what I needed to know most now that I had seen the work: why is it important to establish a playful, biting tone?

“I find it very interesting that there is a common sense in artistic discourse that art should lack joy,” Rosefeldt laughed. “Which is very funny because if you look at art history, it’s full of joyful expressions, and we really love to see that. But there’s a kind of Calvinistic attitude in the actual discourse of art…it’s almost self-punishing. My theory is that there’s an increasing feeling of guilt in intellectual people nowadays because they know we’re deep into s—; our hands are full of blood.”

Rosefeldt brings the joy back into artwork by collecting quotes from these political and social sources and juxtaposing them with the opulent, aesthetically pleasing images in his films. “I’m always very happy when I see my work in the context of the audience because I can feel that there is a longing for sensuality again,” he said. “I’m presenting a social-political issue in a way that you can access it without reading pages and pages of text-work on a wall in a museum.”

Rosefeldt pointed out that these extravagant images are a result of his work with a team of 40 people on a film set—the work is denser because each person contributes his or her talent to orchestrate a much more profound image. Rosefeldt aims to deconstruct the way we see reality in all of his works, so this process of building up layers within the image goes along with this idea of construction.

Julian Rosefeldt, “American Night” (2009).Photo courtesy of Barbara Gross Galerie Munich, Arndt Berlin/Singapore, and Julian Rosefeldt

Julian Rosefeldt, “American Night” (2009).

“My background is in architecture,” Rosefeldt said. “I guess I was always interested in the way a work was displayed in the space and how it embraces the audience.” The exhibition space at the Kemper certainly embraces its viewers, both through the physical aspect of the campfire seating as well as through the enticing visual elements of the films.

As for the quotations in “American Night” from cowboys, rappers and political campaigns, Rosefeldt admitted he watched hundreds of Western films to find the most “emblematic” sentences of the mythology of the West. “A lot of my work is about the way we function as humans in society,” Rosefeldt stated. “Part of the human nature is reflecting culture, and [it is] built by whatever we have consumed in our life. Every book we have read and every film we have seen—that makes us what we are.”

Rosefeldt’s interest in the “mythmaking machine” of cinemas and how movies influence our culture becomes evident towards the end of “American Night,” when each scene begins to break down and zoom out far enough to expose the camera crew to the viewer. Trucks, props and lighting uncover the staged aspects and myths of filmmaking itself. “I find it very fascinating to show the backside of movie production with the same aesthetical attitude that the actual film has, to show the beauty of mythmaking as well,” Rosefeldt explained.

Experience the myths in “American Night,” the campfire setting, five extravagant film projections and multiple Western characters at the Kemper Museum, on view in the Garen Gallery until August 7.

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