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Tommy Hartung and Uri Aran at White Flag Projects

[uds-billboard name=”hartung”]New York City- based artists Tommy Hartung and Uri Aran are non-collaborating collaborators, friends since art school, each of whom works staunchly in his own style. But, because of their friendship and frequent, influential conversations about their artistic practices, their work is presented at White Flag Projects as having a naturally occurring verbal and thematic exchange.  For this exhibition, the films, drawings, and sculpture of Hartung and Aran are shown, as Aran describes it in the published interview in the gallery guide, like an informal “mutual commission.”

In the interview with gallery founder and director Matthew Strauss the artists often speak of how they might often work in the same medium (film) or with a similar themes (animals), but disagree on their feelings and their approach to it.  And, like any conversation, the sense of connectedness among the works does not always flow smoothly or clearly.  Disorientation pervades the gallery space.  Immediately upon walking in, one finds Aran’s roughly eight minute video, The Donut Gang (2009) is projected on a wall, but the audio comes  from a corner on the opposite wall, creating a constant sense of disorientation as the viewer mistakes the voices in the gallery with the three voices in the film.  Those three voices come from a young woman speaking in a high pitched voice, a formal man’s voice asking questions, and the voice of the artist, Aran.  Essentially, the film is an absurd conversation between the young woman, sitting on her bed in unicorn pajamas, with an unseen man asking her mostly illogical questions, peppered with some interjections by the artist. The Donut Gang plays with themes of repetition, dream-like states and strange, almost Dadaist scenarios.  The woman, at one point, cuddles with a large Elmo doll, and the words, ‘good,’ ‘Dr. Dog,’ and ‘sandwich’ are repeated over and over. Aran’s anti-cinematic approach to film and his engagement with notions of banality and absurdity are perhaps a good introduction to the exhibition.

Hartung’s stand-out work is his five minute color video, set up with chairs and headphones, A Short History of the Cannon (2007).  Hartung pulls out all the stops here, carefully including text at the bottom of the screen to accompany the narrator, but dropping text and only employing the narrator’s voice during a particularly important section. The film begins with a shot of a parent and child reading a passage from a book of Bible-like proportion and manner, and cuts to talk of a “great illusionist” and the division of society (perhaps the art world?) into The Slaves, The Breeders, and the Thinkers, replete with images of action-figure type toys waving flags and Classical half-portrait busts being walked on and trampled.  The Thinkers are given the most attention, although the three groups are described and visually presented as being unable to survive without each other.  But the film ends with a sword stuck in a stone at the bottom of a tank of water, bouncing up and down over and over again, suggesting such a system of division and interdependence is a failure, akin to knocking one’s head on a rock wall over and over.  Similar imagery repeats in Hartung’s longer color HD video, Anna (2011), in which the classical, Greco-Roman portrait busts return, but this time painted crudely, many of them with holes for eyes.  Despite the lack of human beings,  the busts will often ‘interact’ with each other, wherein one bust will be tilted just so to pass a kind of sand or dust into the hole of another.

Aran’s other (anti)filmic work in the exhibition, Untitled (2012), is shown through that relic of art history classes everywhere – the 35mm color slide loop and projector, clicking with each timed change from one slide to the next.  However, instead of canonical or Old Master images presented large on a screen, the device is set on a low table, close to the ground, and the projected images are the parts of puppets – Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, specifically.  Their faces are never shown, just their hands holding a cookie with an ‘X’ through it, or a plate of cookies with a part of the puppet in the background.  As with The Donut Gang’s refusal to take on a narrative just because it is in the film form, so too, Untitled refuses expectations with the medium employed and creates an eerie, almost intrusive encounter with traditionally child-friendly characters.

The only true collaboration in the exhibition is a series of works inspired by The Ascent of Man, a BBC documentary remade by Hartung (and shown at White Flag Projects last summer) and the subject of a series of drawings by Aran.  However, it is rather the other works, the less decidedly collaborative ones, that are more successful, alike in their avant-garde approaches to film and their use of conventional images re-imagined as unsentimental stories about postmodern art-making and intertextuality.

Tommy Hartung & Uri Aran continues at White Flag Projects, located at 4568 Manchester Avenue, Saint Louis, MO through 18 February, 2012. For more information, see http://www.whiteflagprojects.org.

Images courtesy of White Flag Projects.

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