It’s a bizarre sight: On hands and knees, seven police officers are crawling on the ground. In their dark blue uniform, body armor and knee pads, they look like members of a counter-terrorist unit. A few of them carry a Kalashnikov on their back. They huddle behind each other in a neat row, as if to stay out of sight and shot by a dangerous suspect. The funny thing is: the scene is a nice residential area where nothing seems to be in the air. There is no suspect, no threat, only the seemingly aimless behavior of the police.
‘People often say that my work is so absurd, but in fact everyday life itself is absurd,’ says the artist Aernout Mik (60). ‘For example, why do we take it for granted to obey someone in uniform?’ We are in his new exhibition Double bond / threshold barriers in the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and looks at the images of the stealthy officers on a large video screen. Two video installations by the Dutch artist can be seen on the top floor of the Kunsthal, a 140-meter-long building from 1986 that is considered one of the most important art venues in Europe. One is new and was made especially for the exhibition.
That there is a new exhibition of Mik, within train distance from the Netherlands, is special. In 2012, the artist showed his work for the last time in his homeland, then as a large overview in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. At that time, Mik had already completed almost all the highlights of an art career: twice representing the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale (in 1997 and 2007), and in 2009 a solo exhibition at MoMa in New York, the most important contemporary art museum. in the world. The artist, who lives in Amsterdam and teaches at the art academy in Munster, Germany, has exhibited mainly in Asia in recent years, including in Japan and Korea.
Mik is known for paying close attention to the spatial design of his installations and this can also be seen in Schirn. The two videos are shown on large screens facing each other in the room with a large gray bench in the middle, reminiscent of a roadblock.
The police play an important role in both works. IN Double bound agents perform absurd acts in a city while being largely ignored by passers-by. The new one, specially made for this exhibition Threshold barriers depicts a confrontation between the police and a group of protesters. In a huge maze made of crush barriers and tarps, the two groups perform a kind of dance. Sometimes it seems like a power struggle, sometimes a game. Both videos raise the question: who really protects the police?
It’s a question that has become more pressing since Black Lives Matter and the international discussion about police brutality. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 made it clear once again that the police, especially in the United States, but also in other countries, do not represent a protection for large groups of people, but rather a threat. Some pictures from Double bound seems directly inspired by Floyd’s murder. So you see a colored cop pressing his own head against the asphalt, gasping for breath. ‘I can not breathe‘, you think to yourself.
Yet they cannot be direct references because Double bound was made in 2018. Mik never refers to concrete events in his video installations. However, he collects images from current events that eventually find their way into his work. ‘In this case I started with a different image’, says Mik, ‘namely the presence of groups of armed anti-terrorist agents who were often seen standing next to buildings after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Antwerp and Paris. A kind of ghosts I call them; they were very showy and at the same time everyone tried to ignore them as much as possible.’
These images of armed agents in the city have now largely disappeared from the collective consciousness, according to the artist. “That’s how fast it goes.” Not that it really matters, because Mik’s video installations have the special quality of feeling current and timeless at the same time. Mik sketches worlds that we know all too well from newsreels and newspaper pictures. In those worlds, there are actors who often act as soldiers or agents. What exactly is going on and where exactly the scene takes place is never entirely clear. There is more of a vague feeling that matches the zeitgeist. For example: the paradox of armed police that should evoke a sense of protection but radiate unease and danger.
Threshold barriers the second video was made especially for this exhibition in April this year. This new artwork began with an image we know all too well from the past few years: the confrontation between the police and a group of protesters. Whether it’s the demonstrations against corona measures, Black Lives Matter or the demonstrations in Hong Kong: you can see it all in it. At the same time, the world is inside Threshold barriers all by himself. Sometimes the protesters gain the upper hand and manage to disarm the police, who are then left confused and powerless. Then there is a sudden flashback to an officer brutally attacking a protester, while there are also moments where it appears that protesters and police are working together.
‘I’m interested in the moments when two extremes suddenly merge,’ says Mik. “Where does control spill over from one group to another?” Whether his work is political depends on what you mean by that, he believes. ‘I especially want to show that the way we organize society and who has the power in it is based on elections. From there you can ask questions. For example: Can we imagine the police institute differently?’
Shooting days are an exercise in letting go of control for Mik. He prepares the videos very precisely in advance with sketches and annotations of images that must be included in any case. There are no exercises. The actors come to the set with only a rough idea of what to do, from there a lot is improvised. “I don’t know in advance what exactly is going to happen. It depends on the dynamics between the actors, such a group of people automatically becomes a kind of organism that takes on a life of its own.’
This unpredictability is one of the reasons why Mik has had problems financing his video installations for years: ‘These are obviously impossible projects. I always play at least two days, at Double bound there were at least five. The scope is huge, there are always many people working on it. And then it is often unclear what exactly will come out of it’. The productions are realized with a mixture of money from foundations, own money and a contribution from a museum. Schirn Kunsthalle contributed to the new work. But it has become more difficult to get the money together, says Mik: ‘Ever since the credit crisis in 2008, it has scraped every time.’
The pandemic brought a forced break and led to reflection: in the future he will work less. Fewer large groups of people together, more zoom in. In what form, we shall see. “There is a plan for a feature film.” Despite the uncertainty, Mik looks positively at the future, he concludes: ‘Up until now I have always been able to do what I wanted to do.’
Aernout Mik: Double Bind / Threshold Barriers can be seen at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt until 3 October.
Balcony: Creaking uniforms
Normally, Aernout Mik does not use sound. It makes for a strange viewing experience: while large groups of people move like ants across the screen, it remains unreal. threshold barriers, has a very present soundtrack. It’s just as alienating. You hear the breathing of the officers, the crackle of dry blades of grass and the creak of uniforms. All sounds are extremely magnified:. Mik: ‘You’re literally close to the cops.’