Melvin Moti

By Andrew Maerkle

Cluster Illusion (detail) (2014), dyed silk, 120 x 175 cm. Courtesy Meyer Riegger, Berlin and Karlsruhe. Photo Sugiyama Gosuke. All images: Courtesy Melvin Moti and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

Born in 1977, Melvin Moti has become known for his intensively researched films combining enigmatic imagery with narrative voiceovers that explore hallucinatory phenomena. He has also made installations exploring the dynamics of institutional space and practice, and handcrafted projects incorporating glassblowing and weaving. It is this latter thread of his practice that has been developed for his current exhibition as part of the Mori Art Museum’s MAM Project series, “Cluster Illusion.” Researching traditional kimono patterns, and working with a master dyer, Moti has created a suite of new textile pieces that shift between aspects of decoration, abstraction and representation. ART iT met with Moti in Tokyo to learn more about the current project and how it relates to his broader creative concerns.

The exhibition – the artist’s first in Japan – remains on view through August 31.


ART iT: Quite a few of your projects seem to be situated in or originate from institutional contexts, from working with objects from the Victoria & Albert Museum collection as in the video Eigengrau (2011-12) to creating a specific display for an institutional space, as with “The Art of Orientation” (2011-12) at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, or building up a narrative through archival research, as in the early video No Show (2004), which reconstructs a tour of the Hermitage Museum that took place during World War II, when all the works had been removed from their frames for safe-keeping. How do you consider the institution as it relates to your practice, and do all of your works in a sense carry with them a context that structures them in someway?

MM: I have worked in a number of different ways with institutions. For example, I often find a backdoor that allows things to become unpredictable and experimental. I indeed made a film about collection pieces from the V&A, but the museum never knew I was doing that. I went to the V&A as a regular visitor and never involved the staff in the production. I saw the museum as a public space or inventory I could use for my work. The V&A collection includes vacuum cleaners, shoes, all the Macintosh computers, different consumer products and fashion and antiques, many of which were mass-produced, and can be found at shops or antique markets. The objects I used were identical to those in the museum, but were not owned by the museum. That was a practical issue because the museum would never have allowed me to do the things that I did to the objects.
No Show was also done more or less through the backdoor. I had permission from the Hermitage to do research there, but they never knew exactly what I was doing, and were not very interested because at the time I was 23 years old. They left me alone and never asked me questions or contacted me afterwards. With these two works I did not engage the institutions because for me they extend beyond the space of the museum.
“The Art of Orientation” was perhaps the most straightforward experience I had in terms of thinking about my role in relation to the institution. This project was part of an ongoing series whereby the museum invites an artist to do whatever they want with the collection. From the start I thought about what it meant for me as an artist to undertake such a project. Would I be a curator or not? Would this be an installation or not? How much of this project would be an autonomous work and how much of it a service to the museum, so to speak? Ultimately I tried to turn the question back to the museum: if they said I could do anything I want, would they also allow me to undermine the structure of the collection?
To put it simply, I made a display using some of the ugliest works in the collection. The collection includes about 50 paintings by a local artist who bequeathed his entire studio to the museum when he died, some time in the 1950s, but these works are never shown because he was an awful painter. There is another local artist who is never shown because he had a problematic relationship to the Nazi regime and now his whole body of work is tainted and it’s difficult to justify showing it because of its historical baggage. I tried to formalize a conceptual framework that could be generous and open enough for such works to be shown in the museum, even though they normally wouldn’t see the light of day. I was very conscious about engaging in this type of subversion, but it really had to do with straightforward questions of what happens when you ask an artist to take responsibility for part of the collection.

Top: Eigengrau (2011), 35mm film, 26 min. Bottom: “The Art of Orientation,” installation view at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 2011.

ART iT: For example, through works that subvert the authority of the institution are you interested in the idea of problematizing history itself? Although they have a historical or institutional background, works like Eigengrau or even The Black Room (2005), are very decontextualized, so it’s not immediately evident at first viewing.

MM: The works are a way for me to relate to history, but also to escape chronological order. In terms of the chronological narrative behind The Black Room, what’s strange about the Villa Agrippa is that it doesn’t fit within the historical development of fresco painting in Roman villas, which had very neat developmental styles. The Villa Agrippa represents a gap in that historical continuity, so it becomes both timeless and yet something like a time capsule. In fact, the work started with a single image – the last image in the film – showing two birds looking at each other. This Matthew Barney-esque mythological hybrid of Greek and Egyptian iconography, which was painted 2000 years ago, looked so fresh and visually captivating when I first saw it that I couldn’t believe it was so old. My projects often start from this kind of observation and then I look deeper into it.
The same applies to the V&A, where the museum consciously breaks with a chronological narrative. From the beginning they rejected the idea of a chronological display, and were criticized for that. There are of course parts of the museum that are more conventionally organized, but there are also parts where you’re looking at thousands of ceramic pieces without any narrative of cultural or stylistic development to guide you. It’s basically a museum vomiting. I was fascinated by this extreme confusion, but also I started to think, OK, what could you do if you want to decontextualize the objects even further? And one thing I thought is you could shoot the objects in outer space, because there is no gravity of history or narrative there, there’s nothing but space there. That became the starting point of Eigengrau and how to approach it visually.
So a lot of my thinking happens on site and by looking at things, and then something weird happens and you go home and reflect on it. But I don’t think on a meta-level and could never enter a discussion about problematizing history, because to some extent I’m not interested in that. I’m informed by what I see and what I touch. You can look at an image in a book and it stays with you for several years and then you find out there’s a whole history behind it. That magic is something I can never think of on my own, it hits you unexpectedly and all you have to do is keep your eyes open.
What definitely interests me is seeing how things from the past can control not only the present but also the future. Regarding No Show, I was fascinated that this tour through the empty Hermitage museum was really a conceptual performance, but at the same time, historically speaking, it’s absurd to consider the context of conceptual performance in St Petersburg in the 1940s. So that’s another gap in history. I’m interested in those moments, but I don’t look for them because you can’t really find them. These moments have to find you.

ART iT: Having seen The Black Room, ESP (2007) and No Show, this idea of the frame – or, rather, the empty frame – from the Hermitage tour resonates with all of the works. You have things that are in frame, things that are out of the frame, and then things you project into the frame. This applies not only to the idea of an institution and an art historical narrative, but also to ESP and precognition, and surrealism and the boundaries between states of rationality and irrationality, dream and consciousness.

MM: Yes. For me it is also very strongly related to photographic film and the film frame. As an aside, No Show was an exciting achievement for me because I was able to make people look at nothing for 25 minutes. Today we are flooded with images and information, and within this chaos, to turn nothingness into a spectacle was something that appealed to me. With ESP, and the image of the bursting bubble, the idea of getting people absorbed by something that evaporates so quickly was also a big part of the film. For the last 12 minutes you’re just looking at a little dot on the screen.
I think this is another way of dealing with the responsibility that you assume when you start working with institutions, which generally want to have a spectacle that people can look at. Challenging or exciting the audience through contradictions – proving that you can have some sort of spectacle by offering the audience absolutely nothing – is another way to find a different space within an institutional framework.

Top: No Show (2004), 16mm on video, 25 min. Bottom: ESP (2007), 35mm film, 18 min.

ART iT: Well, to project a narrative onto your practice, it struck me that you have evolved across three distinct stages, from the more documentary-style works Stories from Surinam (2002), Texas Honkytonkin’ (2003) and Top Legs (2005), to the group of works about altered states of consciousness and hallucination, including No Show, The Black Room, ESP and Prisoner’s Cinema (2008), and then recent works that are almost clinically visual like Eigenlicht (2011-12), Eigengrau and The Eightfold Dot (2013).

MM: That’s exactly how I would also sketch the development. A lot of it has to do not so much with what I want to do, but rather with what I want to stop doing. A lot of it has to do with constantly looking for new ways to challenge myself and for new forms of expression.
Regarding the early films you mention, I was just out of art school and was looking for my voice, so I was trying out different things. With No Show, I found something I thought could be a long term interest, which is the strategy of reduction, or reducing something to zero and then finding a way to make it captivating enough so that people look at it. Reduction is also a way to deal with a lot of input by erasing excess and turning it into its opposite. These two mechanisms were important enough for me to sustain over several works, while formally I stumbled across this method of combining an image with a disconnected audio narrative, which people instinctively connect together through a cognitive reflex. In The Black Room I took elements that had nothing to do with each other and put them in the same film, just to see what kind of third narrative would come from that. In ESP I was more interested in the element of the unconscious, but also in the element of the future, so I was looking at these two historical subjects before I became interested in how I could connect this format to thinking about the future.
With Prisoner’s Cinema, I finally bumped into a wall. I thought, I could go on doing this forever, but I don’t want to become that artist, so I’ll stop here, and in my next film I won’t have any sound or voice over at all. That’s part of the reason why Eigenlicht and Eigengrau and Eightfold Dot are more formal, because I challenged myself to tell the story in purely visual terms. It’s still about storytelling and juxtaposing, but because you don’t use sound, you have to be very rigid with how you connect things. It’s harder to connect two images than to connect two short stories, for example.
So again, I don’t have a grand plan, I just have moments where I think, OK , I’m bored and need to shift gears or try something different.
The other thing is that I like to learn things. One thing I got from the project at the Mori is that I’ve learned so much not only technically but also culturally. Making work is a way to get deeper into things that can only enrich my life.

ART iT: You’ve made works previously with a glass blower in Lisbon for the exhibition “Echo Chamber” (2012) and a weaver in Brussels for the project “Dust” (2010) at Wiels, and now a kimono dyer in Tokyo. What drives you to engage in these hands-on, productive processes?

MM: It’s fun. I learn from processes and I know how to push a process to make something that I couldn’t imagine or expect beforehand. I’m not particularly interested in the outcome of a process , so it’s different from saying, I would like to have this, and then having someone make it for me.
I don’t like the stuff I make up on my own. If I make something up, it’s often boring to see it finalized in front of me. It was much better in my mind, or I realize that actually it was a bad idea. The nice thing about a process is that while I push the process, the process also pushes me. It’s like rafting: you can give a creative process a direction, but there’s also a lot of direction being given to you. You come up with things that haven’t entered your mind yet, and it’s exciting to discover your own image, so to speak.
When they were completed the images upstairs were as new to me as they are to you. I prepared for them to happen in potential, but what I started with is by far not as good as what we ended with, and that’s a result of concentrating on the work as it unfolds through the process.

Top: The Black Room (2005), 16mm on video, 25m min. Bottom: Prisoner’s Cinema (2008), 35mm film, 22 min.

ART iT: How did you match the imagery to the patterns? For example, why did you pick the Same pattern for these images of the sun emerging from behind the clouds?

MM: I picked the three cloud images through a very intuitive process. The inspiration for the project was a visit to the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US, where I saw a 20-by-20 centimeter sample from a summer kimono pattern. Several lines from the pattern had been erased, which had the effect of evoking cloud imagery within the pattern. There was an illusion of a primitive figurative image. That stuck with me.
Also, the idea of clouds stuck with me – the idea of looking to the sky. I am obsessed with the phenomenon known as Jacob’s Ladder, when the sun shines through a gap in the clouds and you see beams of light. I take a picture every time I see it, But, also, since making Prisoner’s Cinema, I’ve been interested in how to capture light in space, which is very difficult to do, because with a camera you always capture light falling onto a surface. This is another connection between the films and the fabrics. One of the images here is very abstract and impressionistic, so you have this sense of light as something that is hardly perceptible.
Another thing that concerned me with this project was to make works combining the elements of randomness and non-randomness. The constellations are a perfect example of randomness. They are perfectly random, because they are organized in clusters with gaps in between, as opposed to being evenly spread out, which is comparable to visualizations of randomized data. If you research car accidents, for example, the data tends to cluster in one place and then another. Since the stars are a perfect example of randomness, and since they are always photogenic, even when they just appear to be a couple of dots, I wanted to stick with stars, and I was looking for something that could be a contrasting component, so it made sense to keep looking at the sky, and that’s why I also looked at the sun and sun beams.
Ironically, the sample that I found at RISD was included in an exhibition about Op Art, so that has actually been my focus throughout. I see this exhibition, or particularly these Japanese patterns, as a form of Op Art.

ART iT: Usually you work with the time-based medium of film. Is there a time element that applies to these intensive, process-based projects as well?

MM: It doesn’t feel much different from making a film. What happens with film is that you prepare for a long time and then you always have a limited amount of time where everything needs to happen. In my case, this is usually three or four days, because that’s all I can afford in terms of renting a set and paying people. These few days are incredibly intense, and you need to finish all your work in that time period. In fact, this time around we only had four days with the kimono dyer as well. So you put in a lot of preparation for something that happens all at once. All the decisions have to be made on the spot – there’s no going back – and then at the end of the three days, that’s your work. That concentration is not so different, but of course with a film viewers spend 20 minutes watching and all the connections have to happen for them within that time. On the other hand, with an exhibition you can play with time in different ways. Things come in instantly. I like that a lot.

Installation view of “MAM Project 021: Melvin Moti” at the Mori Art Museum, 2014. Photo Sugiyama Gosuke, courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

ART iT: How would you describe the life of your finished works?

That’s an interesting and difficult question. Films are archival material, so they usually end up on the rack of some institution, and it’s very hard to say what the life of that is. Once something gets put away, you have no control over when it comes out again, and you have no control over its urgency or relevance. You just have to see what happens.
But in general I’ve noticed that none of my work is very immediate. It takes a while before a work begins to circulate or finds its way to the right context. I will be showing No Show at the upcoming Yokohama Triennale, and this gives me a chance to reconfigure the work some 10 years after it was finished. It feels fresh enough for me to do that, and it’s mainly because during the whole period in between the film was only shown infrequently. I’ve shown the work in other places, but partly because the medium of film itself moves slowly, it takes time until a film really comes to life. Then once it’s alive it stays floating for a while until eventually it gets locked up. I try to guide it as best I can, but there’s no way to really do that.

Melvin Moti: Unconscious Frames

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