PETER AERSCHMANN [ video art ]

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REALITY UNWOUND

Advances in contemporary culture, in communications and media have instilled in us a new kind of visual perception: our ability to recognise the familiar, abstracted into a synthetic reflection of itself. This is the context for Peter Aerschmann’s constructions of figures, trapped in their own repetitious movements against stage-set backdrops - mediated landscapes and city scenes that have themselves already been manipulated with software.

Perhaps it is this constant shift between what we know and experience and how we represent or imagine it that creates a melancholy kind of humour in Aerschmann’s work. In Pudel, for example, the bizarre juxtaposition of the duplicated dog and police van is simultaneously amusing and unnerving, just as the repetitious walking on the spot in many of the videos is both comic and bathetic. When the figures are no longer progressing, but merely suspended in a Beckettian state of waiting, as in Stop or People, their vulnerability becomes more painful. The various elements that Aerschmann collages together in his DVDs usually appear to have more in common than the surreal pairing of the dog and police van, yet even in the scenes of people brought together by their urban environments – standing at bus stops, waiting to cross a road, traversing a square - the individuals remain hermetically sealed from each other. We inevitably attempt to decipher narratives and relationships but, although digitally transported there by the artist from video clips taken in different places, people’s eyes never meet. In videos that present the same figure, repeated but several seconds apart - the workers on the roof in Zeitlupe 13 and cleaning the streets in Stassenfeger 5 - their isolation from each other intensifies their obsessive engagement with their immediate environment. Although Aerschmann never judges his characters – they are not lost, heroic or placed in a hierarchy - he plays at being God with their environments, digitally manipulating sequences that he has filmed in order to take apart and reconstruct combinations of people and backgrounds. A central element of the increasing openness of his compositions is the interaction of visitors with the work. This collaboration between the artist, the computer programme and the audience in deciding which protagonists should leave or enter the scene and how they should negotiate the space they occupy reflects the banal decisions we make unreflectingly hundreds of times a day. The interchange between transformation and continuity lies at the heart of Aerschmann’s work: the details are in perpetual flux but the basic structures and appearances remain the same. Hof is typical of the formal patterns that Aerschmann playfully weaves from this theme. With a staccato rhythm, a new element is always introduced into the image from the left – a middle-aged woman clasping flowers, a waddling pigeon or a portaloo – dramatising the horizontal composition of the image while the stasis of the building facade maintains the sense of continuity.

In all his work, Aerschmann experiments with archetypes, objective material that has been socially constructed into the subject matter of collective memory. Although a projection of a landscape rather than an urban environment, Variable 7 also intersperses the repeated pylons, trees and tractor with new features such as a house or a group of cows. The work is made from video clips taken on a walk from Bern to Murten. Although it relies on what the artist’s attention was attracted by, followed by editing out the scenes he had not remembered, this specificity is undercut by the stereotypical image of the Swiss countryside.

The relationship between control and chance lies at the heart of Aerschmann’s work as a reflection of the way we negotiate the everyday. In some videos Aerschmann uses the formal patterns that he perceives in public spaces to communicate the push and pull between coincidence and design, for example through the contrast in Görlitzer Park where a cyclist navigates the neat paths that intersect the grass on which a dog is chasing pigeons. Strassenfeger begins in an orderly way with the street cleaner methodically sweeping the road, but with time the chaotic choreography of the repeated orange-clad figures provokes uncertainty as to whether it is one and the same person. Once Aerschmann has programmed the computer with certain instructions, it is this that determines the sequence of events, necessarily limiting the involvement of the audience to a small number of actions. However, the repositioning of a car, tree or person take on disproportionate significance and can be used to create almost endless combinations. The intervention is particularly tight in Variable 4 where a press of the single red button causes one of the workers to move and the block of flats to sink comically into the ground.

Blocks of flats recur in Aerschmann’s work as both the most familiar aspect of the urban experience and as pattern-making structures. Mitte works with a minimal number of images – the windows of the anonymous grey building and the sea of umbrellas – to abstract reality into vertical and horizontal lines, geometric order and flux, monotony and colour. The formal and the thematic merge as the loop structure of the video is mirrored by the repetition of the windows. Aerschmann uses his databank of images as a painter would a palette, selecting, mixing, editing and experimenting with ever new combinations. Details that we would pass by in the street are emphasised and invested with new meaning, whether the colour of a woman’s coat, the amusing gait of a dog or the way in which architecture acts as a backdrop to human activity.

Devoid of metaphysical overtone, the everyday purposefulness of Aerschmann’s characters and the lightness of touch with which they are occupied with their environments charges the work with a deeper sense of meaning. We are permitted to intervene in the internal life of their world but, as in a Marthaler drama, the non-verbal co-existence of the figures resists external logic: the ordinary becomes the surreal.

Felicity Lunn, 2004