ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: At {Poem 88}, the ambiguity of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” seen through 47 years

Review: At {Poem 88}, the ambiguity of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” seen through 47 years

 Nikita Gale: "The Objective Mutability of Certainty"

Nikita Gale’s installation “The Objective Mutability of Certainty”

There was a time in America when we had to turn to European cinema to find not just moral but factual ambiguity. Pre-Thomas Pynchon as well as pre-Watergate, the notion that not just motives but the actual course of events might be ultimately unknowable was considered intolerable. It was a country in which TV detectives solved the case by the end of each week’s episode, and real life was presumed to be equally explicable.

Movies such as Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” presented a different view of reality, one less concerned with identifying heroes and villains than with finding out whether there was ever enough evidence to assign labels in the first place. Reaching America when it did in the second half of the 1960s, “Blow-Up” was the perfect film to explode U.S. confidence in simplicity, at least for a postwar generation already growing skeptically ironic.

But what does a film like “Blow-Up” mean after we’ve had half a century of increasingly cynical acceptance of ambiguity expressed in every medium from arcane conceptual art to comic books and network television?

The question is worth asking, especially because some Americans now take all our irresolvable ambiguities for granted, while others seem to be living in the certitudes of the 1950s. So it’s valuable to have, through May 25, “Blow-Up,” a visual-art homage to Antonioni’s masterwork at {Poem 88}, for which gallery owner Robin Bernat invited artists to view or re-view the film and produce work in response to its themes and images.

In Kyoung Chun: "Catch it if you can," 2013,. oil on canvas.
In Kyoung Chun’s “Catch It If You Can”

The most intriguingly multicultural, 21st-century take on the movie is also, at first glance, the most illustrational: In Kyoung Chun’s painting “Catch It If You Can.” The scene that has stuck most in many older viewers’ minds (apart from the once sensational, briefly glimpsed purple-paper orgy) is the concluding moment in which the fundamentally bewildered photographer protagonist, after imitating the return of an invisible ball to two mimes who are pretending to play tennis, hears the actual sound of balls hitting rackets as the mimes’ game continues.

Chun replaces the mimes with herself in tennis-playing posture, surrounded by bubbles that suggest tennis balls. Because the images of bubbles are also symbols of the invisible energies and shared assumptions that allow our planet and our society to function, rendering the imaginary balls in terms of visible bubbles is ideal. Are the bubbles an agreed-upon fiction, or is some transaction taking place that doesn’t quite fit our normal definition of reality? We can’t tell, and that condition of undecidability is also where the film “Blow-Up” leaves us.

The notion that our perceptions are a perfect mirror of outward reality has been broken (was broken as early as the poems of Wallace Stevens, but nobody noticed), and Nikita Gale picks up on that broken-mirror metaphor in her contribution to the exhibition. First-person statements about assuming but not seeing appear next to documentary photographs that don’t quite document the broken mirror that appears in them. They seem to show only part of what has happened earlier, rather like the blown-up photographic details in Antonioni’s film, which reveal a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t crime scene in which the clues are swept away as soon as they emerge, leaving only an ambiguous blur from which nothing can be proven.

The emotional life of the London photographer who is the movie’s central character is also an ambiguous blur. Sharon Shapiro’s paintings focus on his relationships with women (or alienated non-relationships, as in his sexualized photo session with the model Veruschka early in the film or literal sex with wannabe models whom Shapiro portrays in “Love Is Blind”). “You’ve Never Seen Me” is a dual portrait of Vanessa Redgrave that acts as a potent visual metaphor of the photographer’s distantiation from the lives and events captured by his camera, or just by his male gaze.

Nancy VanDevender,  "Last Year, in the Mood," installation., 2013. Ink on mylar.
Nancy VanDevender’s installation “Last Year, in the Mood”

Nancy VanDevender synthesizes all these lessons in works that blend “Blow-Up” and “Last Year at Marienbad” with “In the Mood for Love,” a Hong Kong movie that allows her to add Chinese ideographs to key moments from Resnais’ and Antonioni’s films, as she overlays the images bewilderingly in transparent layers. A wallpaper pattern further geometrizes already geometrically composed cinematic images such as the famous clipped trees from “Marienbad’s” formal garden. It also contains identifiable images of persons and statuary that seem to be arranged deliberately, but the reasons for their presence are obscure. Are we, then, living in a world in which our own motives and their consequences are ultimately as unknowable as the motives and events in Antonioni’s film? One is tempted to quip that only VanDevender knows for sure (a joke based on a TV ad that was current  when “Blow-Up” was released), but even she may not, and maybe that is her point.

Ben Steele’s paintings of deconstructed scenery, not produced in response to the film, make a somewhat different point than the film or the other work in the exhibition. Even if we never see what we think we are seeing, we are often alarmingly certain about the details of the imaginatively constructed scene that we think is directly present to our perception. Steele plunges us directly into the condition of being lost, without stopping off in the initial condition of naive certainty. That is a condition of disillusionment, or of taking illusion for granted, that we do not find in Antonioni’s film, or in the aspects of today’s America to which it still addresses a genuine message.

Artist talks: 2 p.m. April 27. 
Antonioni film marathon begins at 7:30 p.m., May 4, and runs through 2 A.M. May 5.  Introduced by Atlanta architect Giancarlo Pirrone.

On our home page: Sharon Shapiro’s “Love Is Blind.”

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