Marcel Broodthaers 1924-1976
Un Voyage en Mer du Nord (A Voyage on the North Sea) [1973-74]
Reprinted with permission of Michael Ned Holte
Published in Artforum, December 2005
Between 1957 and his death in 1976, Marcel Broodthaers made approximately fifty films. The exact number is difficult to determine: Several no longer exist; some are multipart "programs" assembled from groups of short films (many appropriated from industrial or otherwise "authorless" sources); and others are subtle variations on previous works. A recent exhibition at pioneering curator and collector Thomas Solomon's new gallery, Solo Projects, paired a 16-mm silent film, Un Voyage en Mer du Nord (A Voyage on the North Sea), 1973-74, with a thirty-eight-page, French-bound book that shares its title and ostensible subject matter: the pairing of a late-nineteenth-century amateur painting of an archetypal European ship and a twentieth-century photograph of a pleasure boat against a modern urban backdrop. The roughly four-minute film is projected on a retractable home-movie screen--a Broodthaers motif--and the book displayed on a simple wooden shelf, lit by a single spotlight.
Un Voyage's almost obsolete format and pedagogical presentation gave the show the feeling of a historical document. In each work, Broodthaers "cuts" into the painting and the photograph by focusing on small details. The artist is said to have dated the painting to around 1900, and initially it seems that Un Voyage is delivering a rigorous structural analysis based on formal and historical oppositions marking the divide between the nineteenth century and the twentieth: novel versus cinema; painting versus photography; shipping as commerce versus sailing as leisure. But the work does more than this. By using splicing, binding, and repetition to join these apparent opposites, it performs a complex overlapping of materiality and history. Punctuated by intertitles that demarcate fifteen "pages," the film insinuates a relationship to contemporaneous structuralist cinema--think of the wall-mounted seascape photograph that is central to (and literally at the center of) Michael Snow's forty-five-minute zoom in Wavelength, 1967. But again the comparison unravels as the film in Un Voyage undermines its own apparent logic, repeating "page" five twice, for example, or inserting a brief closeup of cotton weave where one would expect a shot of the painted canvas.
The film and book represent Broodthaers's interest in reproducible media, though the relatively small edition--just one hundred examples of the pair were produced--also suggests that the artist was not aiming for a mass audience. The evidence indicates that Broodthaers was interested in complicating the status of these objects by subverting any notion of an "original" or definitive version. It should be noted that Un Voyage follows directly from several 1973 works not included in the exhibition, among them two 16-mm films--Analyse d'une peinture and Une peinture d'amateur decouverte dans une boutiquede curiosities--and a slide projection, Bateau Tableau. Un Voyage itself in many ways resembles a slide show: Testing the limits of the cinematic, Broodthaers injects a dose of humor by assembling a deliberately inert motion picture from still images.
While Broodthaers's practice is often defined within the limited framework of institutional critique, the breadth and sheer unruliness of his project suggests that one might just as easily place him alongside an artist such as Bruce Conner, with whom he shared both a penchant for found footage and a somewhat after-the-fact Surrealist sense of humor. A 1971 film program by Broodthaers, in which he appropriated the 20th Century Fox logo, also aligns him with Ed Ruscha, who used the same image in 1962, and presages Jack Goldstein's use of the MGM Lion. Solomon's presentation of Un Voyage at this particular moment raises subtle questions about the mediation and proliferation of images, allowing Broodthaers's interrogation of pictures from the past to implicate our digital present.