Her face is only visible in profile, it is as though she were turning away from me. Is she really, or is my memory playing tricks? Am I only imagining that you could tell just by looking at her, as people say, that she is about to leave (to go where exactly)? Am I simply drifting in my own projections and am I constructing a language around her actions - in fact around the absence of any kind of action - only to trip myself up? Does the filter of this imagined language, unspoken and only alive in my mind, merely underline the enormous distance between her - the figure - and me - the viewer - without ever providing the key to her intentions, her thoughts and desires? I imagine my language were no more than the incomprehensible babbling of a child or that I were speaking in tongues.
Time after time, in Vittorio Santoro's multi-part work Split: Fragment 1-4, 2000-02, we encounter a face either turning away or unrecognisable. And in the process it is not only the features of these faces that are closed to us, not only very physiognomy of the individual characters, the anecdotes that seem to attach to the facial expression of one or the other. Rather it is the place that otherwise invites us to identify with a character, that is to say an ultimately placating receptor that absorbs our projections, however wild or - ghostly - they may be.
1 To lose face: lost honour, lost individuality, death itself. Are not all of these and more, metaphorically and otherwise, implicit in this image?
Santoro's work does not serve this need, does not stoop to bartering solipsistic aesthetics that suggest dialogue but never make it possible. Rather it revolves around the possibilities and limits of finding a place for oneself, be it in relationship to others, to the unfamiliar within, the unknown without, or even - symbolically - the alienation induced by medial conditioning.
The installation Split: Fragment 1-4 is made up of different zones: visitors enter a strange kind of drama that consists of four acts one after the other. The characters are occupied with prosaic tasks. Yet they are spectacular in the way the relationships between them are constructed (never simply from the surface of the images). For the characters are caught in a loose yet subtle net of pointers, shifts and breaks, where what look like symmetries and reflections, reversals and echoes predominate. Their ritual behaviour leaves us initially at a loss - like the silent, unmoving face of the woman whom we encounter on a monitor in the passage.
2 As though on a slope - her face - I have to locate the angle that will support my body - my gaze.
And yet it is as though these characters have immense 'presence'. As we approach the installation Split: Fragment 1-4, passing through a wedge-shaped area illuminated in green, we hear - but don't see - two women elaborately greeting each other after a period of separation.
3 This short sequence is taken from the film Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (1972) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a melodrama portraying a woman anaesthetised by convention and, at the same time, an allegory of the repressed nature of the middle classes.
More than once their behaviour borders on parody, with the dialogue and their manner of speech resembling those of automata which can only mimic real feelings: Ah, Sidonie. Where emotion is expected of them as human beings, they ooze almost unbearably with sentimentality, where a conversation is expected of them, they take cover on either side of a wall of hollow language, gleaned from elsewhere.
Round a bend in the corridor we find a screen on the floor. On the right half two figures are greeting each other, the wordless pictures that go with the dialogue we heard a moment ago. The theatrical gestures of the two women can only be seen between the slats of a Venetian blind at a window in the background. On the left half of the image in the foreground, a third woman, in black, is leaning on the window, motionless, her head bent slightly down, her right hand flat up against the window pane. She is in a different place to the other two women, but due to the L-shaped layout of the apartment where the scene is being played out, she is in the same line of vision: apart yet connected.
The short scene, running here as a loop, is, as we have seen, in fact separated from the sound track, and shows a woman who does not let on whether she is looking inwards, listening to the two women talking, thinking about them or just standing there, lost to the world or perhaps dumbfounded. As though this were not just a shot of a certain woman but of some kind of a shield (maybe her face) that is diverting our gaze.
After making a second turn we enter a darkened internal room that reflects the proportions of the actual exhibition space. In this room we see two projections across the corners, again without sound, that seem to punch two bright windows into the wall. In them we see similar scenes: an anonymous young man seen from behind - the same man twice? - in a shirt and trousers, at a table leafing through newspapers, although without looking at the pages. He is not reading what is there, instead - never pausing as he turns over page after page - he subjects our gaze to the full impact of the news in a march-past of headlines. Meanwhile he stares rigidly ahead, as though hypnotised by the siren song of the news media.
But the identity of the figures in the two projections is misleading.
In one the camera shifts restlessly from side to side, as though tentatively trying to catch a glimpse of the man's face or of the paper he is leafing through at top speed; and although the pages follow each other at such a pace, isolated headlines sting our consciousness like tattoos: OKLAHOMA BOMBER STARB SCHWEIGEND, AMERICA WAS HIT BY GOD, DER RENNER VON SCHULTHESS, MIT LEICHENBERG KONFRONTIERT, BLESS THE CHILD, LE CARNET DU JOUR, LA PANTOFLE EN ETAT DE GRACE, WENN DAS DISNEY WÜSSTE, EN ATTENDANT 'LE TEMPS DU LYRISME', JUST SAY YES TO 'SAVING GRACE'. Finding a place for oneself in off-the-shelf reality, where any differences are ironed out, finding oneself in the progressive transformation of mass (as in quantity) into the masses (as in conditioned citizens) - in Split the problem is not raised by resorting to anecdote but sketched in as we watch, with a few, deft strokes.
The camera in the second, vertical projection is static, and the image is determined by a slow-motion version of the act of leafing through the papers on the table - and by a line that cuts through the full height of the projection, from top to bottom. The image falls into two halves, deceptively like a reflection of each other. The vertical fissure runs through the visual field like a disturbing seam, in fact - depending on the angle, that is to say, most of the time - it swallows up sections of the scene. This not the result of image manipulation but of the space itself, for the right half of the projection wall is set back a few centimeters compared to the left half. The ensuing ambiguity hits home: with subtle force it shakes our belief in the reliability of purely sensual perception.
One last difference is evident in the backgrounds behind the protagonists in the two projections: in one case we see a windowless wall, in the other, the vertical projection, we see a wall with windows cut off to left and to right. A narrow grid of slats obscures the exterior, with the slats themselves functioning like a kind of dialectic instrument of vision that both reveals and conceals.
This alternation of revealing and concealing is at its most dramatic in the characters themselves. A pressing question arises: what is it that makes it hard, even impossible, to identify with the characters in this strange drama? Or more precisely: how does the videographic narration make them so impenetrable?
In the first place this is due to the almost complete absence of a plot or some wider action that would otherwise equip the characters with distinguishing characteristics. And any actions on the part of the characters are entirely without anecdotal touches that would encourage a sense of fellow-feeling. On the contrary, with gestures that are either repetitive or have virtually ground to a halt, the figures seem to be somewhere between the vacuity of automata and the vacant dreaminess of angels.
In addition the opacity of the images derives from the fact that the characters are embedded in anonymous, interchangeable spaces - neither particular interiors, nor particular architecture, nor particular locations. These are alienated worlds in which total ritual seems not to be a danger, but the terrain for an admittedly odd, but invariably individual sensibility (it is not by chance that Split avoids groups or massed crowds). The alienation is not that of an oppressively dark monstrous underworld, but simply - and very significantly - the unreal atmosphere of an overexposed slide. People are distant planets and the events of the day a compressed landscape of hieroglyphs on a page of news sheet.
Whatever we make of the roles played by the woman and the young man, a certain ambiguity is unavoidable. It may well arise from the fact that we cannot determine the 'psychological state' of the characters, the condition of their 'consciousnesses'. Not because we are overwhelmed by an excess of drama or an overabundance of expression, but because of the vacuum that fills this largely silent world of persistent presences. Meanwhile that same vacuum proves to be a medium where we can find a place for ourselves with our own individuality - that is to say with our doubts, our vulnerability and our scepticism.
In other words: in all three video sequences the 'consciousness' of the characters seems to be neither conclusively 'outside' nor 'inside'. If anything it is to be found beyond extremes of mummified lifelessness and burgeoning vitality. It is perfectly conceivable that the characters' attention is both directed inwards - where thoughts, longings, memories and more are lodged - and outwards, where they perceive the phenomena of the world around them.
4 And yet this indecisiveness and the ambivalence that derives from it is not a matter of volatile unknowing, nor of a mystified emotional state.
The ambivalence that we have just ascribed to the characters also affects us, in that we are unable to decode them.
And this ambivalence allows us to consciously participate in the work which, unlike much contemporary narrative video art, has little to do with the widespread psychological identification with protagonists or central characters. In fact Split: Fragment 1-4 barely has a focus of this kind, nor the concomitant modes of reception. This works has more the effect of a chamber work, that is to say a genre where the space between the characters is at least as important as the characters themselves. We notice with some astonishment how the psychological ambivalence of the characters diffuses into two different realms at once: into the public arena of society and into the mental arena of our inner self.
In the film sequence from Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant the two figures do not manage to shake off the hollow nature of their language, their conditioned behaviour, the vice-like grip of Pavlovian reflexes. They look into the world, in perfect mutual misapprehension, through borrowed filters which dispassionately maintain the distance between them. Split: Fragment 1-4 does not pretend to break this 'full circle', this finality. But at least we may recognise the subtlety of some of the codes that surround us: where we think there is Another, in the first instance and more than anything we find ourselves. What are the filters affecting the perception that mediates between I and You, between I and the World? Do we only gain any real insight through the cracks, splits and unevennesses in the visual constellations that make up our world? Split: Fragment 1-4 at least offers a degree of enlightenment in the shape of images that appear and disappear in several places at once.