Melik Ohanian: Seven Minutes Before
South London Gallery
November 16, 2006–January 14, 2007
Melik Ohanian’s film installation Seven Minutes Before (2004) contains a number of seductive images. There’s a raptor buffeted by the wind, struggling to keep aloft as it’s held by its handler and filmed on the back of a moving truck; there’s a caged wolf that springs back and then leaps at the camera again and again, snarling and scratching at the floor. A constellation of fairy lights glisten in the grass on the side of a hill, and on the roadside a weather-beaten man raises his hands and gently shuffles his feet in the brief outline of a dance. Ohanian also presents some great pyrotechnics: two underwater booms that thump impressively, thanks to the installation’s hefty surround sound; a fountain firework, which fizzes away in a field a few meters from where the raptor has been tethered; and an explosion inside a caravan that subsequently bursts into flames.
These scenes and events — and others not quite so impressive, including a plethora of shots of pastoral surroundings — are accompanied by an Armenian and a Japanese musician playing traditional instruments — two mournful and ethereal performances — and some vaguely philosophical rants by a Senegalese slammer. The action was filmed in one valley in France, by seven cameras, during the course of a continuous twenty-one-minute shoot, following a sequence meticulously choreographed by Ohanian (the plotted topography is displayed as a map in a side room at the South London Gallery). The end result is projected on seven large screens arranged in a line that fills the gallery’s space; the soundtrack booms on twenty-eight speakers and seven bass modules. This somewhat overwhelming installation represents Ohanian’s attempt at constructing what he calls a “cosmography,” a means of presenting film through space rather than time. Physically, the work can’t be viewed in its entirety from any one point — the viewer has to move in order to see each screen — and filmically, events, dense and allusive as they are, occur seemingly at random, rather than being structured into any sort of linear narrative.
This grandiose schema ultimately disappoints. Despite being fortified with sexy space/time theory (a book, Cosmograms, produced with theorist Jean-Christophe Royoux, accompanies the installation), starting with a heraldic roll of thunder, and ending with an explosion, as a viewing experience Seven Minutes Before falls strangely flat. As in much of Ohanian’s work, there’s no cause or effect relating any of the events that dot the seven screens, and nothing gets explained. While it’s probably safe to presume that this elusiveness is intentional, for the most part it remains unconvincing.
Perhaps there is one significant connection to be made: a voice over at the work’s beginning tells the story of forty-three horses who panicked during a storm in France in 1993 and fell to their deaths in the valley below. The horses were descended from Arabians that had been crossbred with a local French mountain herd to produce a type specially suited to the region. Thus Seven Minutes Before might be about the difficulties of cultural adaptation and the loss of tradition. Like the horses, which ultimately couldn’t acclimate, the Armenian kamantcha and the Japanese koto have become rare and could be said to be dying out. The bird of prey trapped in the wind tunnel and the caged wolf are also out of place. But even such a tentative tracing feels forced. To be spoonfed associations would be frustrating — but it would be nice to be left with some lingering unease, not just a sense of the futility of any attempt to connect the dots.
Unfortunately, like Isaac Julien, whose split-screen projections are intended to represent a fractured, postcolonial identity, Ohanian appears to have succumbed to technical and theoretical whimsy. Ohanian, like Julien, loves the grandeur of film, as distinct from video art, but seems unwilling to go wholehog and actually make films, to forsake some of the admittedly sexy wizardry of video work for a more rigorous interrogation of meaning. Instead, Seven Minutes Before comes across as bits from a film, characterized by high-definition slickness and flagged with convenient ethnic markers — traces of Ohanian’s Armenian roots — to no cohesive purpose. (You’ve probably already noticed that we live in a fractured world.)
Toward the end of the film, a white truck drives around a corner; an off-road motorbike suddenly appears in its path. There’s a half-assed collision, the biker is thrown, and the truck overturns. Nothing else. No one so much as struggles to get out of the truck. The biker lies still on the road, the camera steadily moves on. So much for showmanship.