Manon de Boer: Framed in an Open Window

This review of De-Boer’s exhibition at the South London Gallery was published in Art Monthly issue 343, February 2011

Still from Dissonant, 2010

Suggested trajectories through an exhibition are often interesting to ignore, but taking the errant route through Manon de Boer’s first UK solo show could neutralise its affect. ‘Framed in an Open Window’ presents a selection of five works – a sound piece and four 35 and 16mm films – displayed across the South London Gallery’s two newest spaces. At the show’s core is Dissonant, 2010, de Boer’s new work and the point at which the exhibition begins. It contains and articulates the themes of memory, recall and attention that are present throughout, crystallising the focus of de Boer’s investigation while priming the viewer to receive what is to come. There is a certain sensory preparation at work here, a feeling that we are being taught how to look and listen, how to attend properly to stimuli.

In Dissonant, dancer Cynthia Loemij from the Rosas company performs a 10-minute response to Eugène Ysaÿe’s Three Sonatas for Violin prelude. The film begins with Loemij listening to and internalising the music’s dynamic flow. The prelude ends and she travels through the mirrorless dance studio, extending and contracting her body in an emotive display of tension and release. The first of de Boer’s film reel changes follows, resulting in a flash of white leader and a black screen. While a second reel is loaded the sound of Loemij’s physical exertion continues and is foregrounded. Limbs and feet slide against the studio floor and the respiratory sounds of inhaling and exhaling puncture the darkness. Once the picture returns it becomes apparent that the sensory ratio between sound and vision has been realigned and balanced, and that for a short while the task of remembrance is shifted from Loemij to the viewer. During the dark moments of Dissonant – the changing of reels happens again later – we’re invited to construct what isn’t there from memory, linking the discarnate sounds on film to the movements that produced them before. Two key statements of intention are made here: de Boer is asking us to see and experience recall in Loemij and ourselves, simultaneously creating the conditions for a heightened awareness of those processes.

Switch, 1998, a sound work featuring the singer Alison Goldfrapp, makes use of this heightened sensitivity by presenting Goldfrapp’s vocal responses to people speaking different languages. Instructed to interpret the tone, rhythm and intonation of three short monologues, Goldfrapp’s melismatic vocal abstractions seem perfectly intelligible after Dissonant’s breathy soundtrack. In Sylvia, March 1 & 2, 2001, Hollywood Hills, 2001-05, Sylvia Krystell, the Dutch actress who played the role of Emanuel in the 1970s erotic film series of the same name, is captured in a state of reflection. In both films Krystell begins with her back to the camera, facing it to begin the process of remembrance. She appears nervous, by virtue of a cigarette, seemingly averting the viewer’s gaze. However, it is not whom she is looking away from but what she is looking away to that is important here. It is clear that Krystell is in a state of attendance to the sights, sounds and physical sensations of a memory; it is perhaps fair to say that she is not there at all, inhabiting the past even though she is present.

If Dissonant is the exhibition’s point of exposition, then Two Times 4′ 33″, 2008, is its denouement. Shown alongside Presto, Perfect Sound, 2006, in the gallery’s Clore studio space, Two Times 4′ 33″ takes advantage of the viewer’s pre-prepared receptiveness, leading them through two readings of John Cage’s seminal work. By focusing on Jean-Luc Fafchamps for his first performance, then panning slowly past the audience to an exterior view during his second, de Boer’s film leads us away from the theatricality of the performance and into Cage’s compositional framing of everyday sonic occurrences. As the camera lingers on muted rustling branches, the viewer fills the missing audio with their own aural memory of how the scene should sound, a clever reversal of the same effect of stimulus removal in Dissonant.

‘Framed in an Open Window’ is an elegantly curated exhibition, in which de Boer’s works are given the space to articulate different aspects of her signature themes cumulatively – an effect that is momentarily let down by the unconsidered positioning of Switch, relegated to two pairs of headphones on a plywood bench. The eidetic potential of our visual and aural memories is an untapped resource that can surface unexpectedly – see Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars or Musicophilia. De Boer creates a space in which this lucidity of recall is teased out of the viewer and the subjects in her films, allowing us to travel through time, if only for a little while.

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