Images in Search of a Narrative

Jeremy Shaw’s 7 Minutes is an arresting work of video art.  Currently in the loop of 25 videos that comprise Thermostat: Video and the Pacific Northwest in SAM’s Ketcham Forum Gallery, I pass the installation daily when moving between my cube and the museum galleries.  I also passed it daily for a period of time while working at the Henry, where it was installed on the screen near the door for the Mouth Open, Teeth Showing exhibition last year (see a write up by Adriana Grant of the Seattle Weekly for a plot synopsis).  Both installation spaces are transitional, with Shaw’s blurred figures entering their hazy fistfights among intermittent foot traffic.  Of the 25 videos cycling through Thermostat, 7 Minutes is the only one I cannot pass without stopping, drawn into the simple sequence immediately: push, punch, fall, recover.

Jeremy Shaw.  7 Minutes. 1995/2002. Video installation.  Image from

Inevitably, 7 Minutes has more narrative structure than other videos in Thermostat, such as the pigeons eating rhythms on electric guitars in Ron Tran’s The Peckers. Beyond its filmic structure, 7 Minutes establishes a direct relationship with the spectator in a way that contributes to its draw.  In the video, a group of spectators surround the action, including Shaw and his camera.  The viewers of the video become part of that group, either by intentionally seeking out the installation or happening upon it the same way passersby are naturally stopped by an actual fight.

In his essay “Imaginary Signifier”, Christian Metz explores the role of the spectator in cinema:

“…the spectator is absent from the screen as perceived, but also (the two things inevitably go together) present there and even “all-present” as perceiver. At every moment I am in the film by my look’s caress.  The presence often remains diffuse, geographically undifferentiated, evenly distributed over the whole surface of the screen; or more precisely hovering, like the psychoanalyst’s listening, ready to catch on preferentially to some motif in the film…” (Film: Psychology, Society, and Ideology 732)

In 7 Minutes, we as spectators become part of the conflict through the camera’s presence during the actual altercation; in the camera’s absence, it is difficult to anticipate how the violence would have proceeded (would things have been more violent in the absence of a permanent record of the event or less violent without the heightened drama of the camera added to the situation?).

In contrast, Suzanne Opton’s Soldier’s Face series creates the presence of the camera in places where it is absent- areas of American military presence.  In Iraq in particular, American citizens are not Metz’s perceivers, due to the lack of media imagery available.  Films and documentaries such as Iraq in Fragments create an opportunity to experience Iraq visually, but not in an immediate way.  Opton’s photographs are  similar to Shaw’s video in that they are equally arresting, inviting perceivers into a very present, violent narrative.

Suzanne Opton. Soldier Morris, Fort Drum, NY: 100 Days in Iraq. 2005. Lambda Print.  Image from Stephen Cohen Gallery.

However, Opton’s narrative begins through an emotional view of the soldiers that creates a different sense of immediacy, in the absence of dialogue or being shot “on-location”.   The movie still-like images instead suggest the larger narrative by provoking some of the same questions as 7 Minutes (who is this person, what has happened to him/her, why has it happened).  These photographs ultimately make viewers aware of what they are not seeing on the news at this very moment.  Not surprisingly, as The Guardian reported, it was CBS Outdoor, owned by CBS news, who refused to post the images as billboards during the Republican National Convention this year, preferring to keep the narrative continuously out of sight.

Opton’s work is on view at Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles through October 25.