‘It is not too much to say that modern cinema began with the nickelodeons’
‘You can’t invent a painting from scratch; you are working with an entire tradition … The pictorial language of the twentieth century, from Kurt Schwitters’s collages to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, makes up a range of possibilities that I utilise in order to create a transhistorical figurative painting – a painting of the image as such, of representation’
‘David Lynch came along and gave me the solution … In terms of composition, colours, atmosphere, I borrow many things from cinema’
‘My generation knows what life was like before the Internet. And so you still happen to hear echoes of the old world when you wake up in the morning … Then, you realize that the world is changing its texture, is changing its skin. I am very sensitive to this aspect. The world is beginning to have the texture of easy-to-clean surfaces. It no longer has pores. All the objects around us are beginning to be shinier and shinier’
‘What interests me is the texture of history’
The centrepiece of ‘Darkness for an Hour,’ Adrian Ghenie’s first UK solo show in 2009, Nickelodeon (2008) is a vast and cinematic vision. The work, executed on two panels that together span over four metres in width, presents eight figures amid a dark, cavernous interior. These characters tread the boards as if assembled on a spotlit stage, whose planks are dragged viscerally into being with paint pulled across the canvas. In their heavy overcoats and proprietorial postures, the men look like dictators on a warehouse inspection as much as customers at an early cinema – the ‘nickelodeon’ referred to in the title. Their identities, however, are lost: blurred and swallowed in thick swathes of abstract impasto, or effaced as if by the ravages of time. One figure claws paint from his face in an echo of Pie Fight Study II (2008), from Ghenie’s series which made flesh the slapstick humiliations of early comedy films. Another looks stoic as his pink-drenched visage drips onto his brown trenchcoat. Elsewhere, their bodies recede into the setting’s rich painterly gloom, which shimmers darkly with drips and splashes of paint. Enlivening the morass of sepia browns and antique greens are flashes of bright yellow and turquoise, which glimmer through dim strata like the chromatic palimpsests of Gerhard Richter. Nickelodeon is a virtuoso summation of Ghenie’s practice, which rehearses the role of the image in history in ambiguous, shadowy scenes: he is particularly fascinated by cinema’s intersections with painting, and the powers of both media for the broadcast of truth and illusion. Though replete with references to Europe’s past and to the history of painting, Ghenie’s work is unprecedented in its skilful drama and extraordinary, piercing self-consciousness. ‘I’m looking for a type of painting that might somehow preserve the tradition and the history of the medium, but at the same time might also involve a total break with twentieth-century painting,’ he says. ‘It’s not about whether I succeed in finding this new painting – the idea is that I’m trying to discover the possible resources of painting as a medium, wondering if I can still achieve that image, not necessarily shocking, but brand new’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Mihai Pop,’ Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 83).
Ghenie plays up the layered artifice of his image with the work’s title. Film historian Charles Musser avers that ‘It is not too much to say that modern cinema began with the nickelodeons’ (C. Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Berkeley, 1990, p. 417): these small and often disreputable theatres, so named because entry cost a nickel, were a phenomenon in the early years of the twentieth century. Ghenie thus evokes a pivotal time in the emergence of cinema, and hence in man’s shifting relationship with the world around him. The modern association of Nickelodeon with the children’s TV channel only widens the work’s panoramic view of history, and the different ways it is lived and recorded. Having grown up under Ceau?escu, Ghenie, like millions of other Romanians, watched the dictator executed on television on Christmas Day in 1989. ‘He was suddenly a human being,’ Ghenie recalls (‘Adrian Ghenie: Painting a dictator in the moment before his execution,’ SFMOMA https://www.sfmoma.org/watch/adrian-ghenie-painting-a-dictator-in-the-moment-before-his-execution/ [accessed 12/09/2016]). Television, like the Internet, has a flattening effect on experience: a mere change of channel could switch from cartoon entertainment to the darkest, most pivotal moment in a country’s psyche. In paint, Ghenie finds the perfect medium through which to explore the ways that screens can at once illuminate, disguise and confuse. The men in Nickelodeon seem to enact a state of visual flux or static, masks slipping to reveal reality, projected images exposed as ciphers for the shame and horror that lie beneath. This, for Ghenie, is ‘the texture of history’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu,’ Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 29).
Although wary of illusion presented as truth, Ghenie works with a profound sense of admiration for the silver screen and its hold over our lives: he has long been on the hunt for its mesmeric power in his painting. Citing David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock as major influences, he explains that ‘These two mediums – painting and cinematography – are, paradoxically speaking, related to the visual. I don’t know whether painting can necessarily be enriched by something coming from cinema, but this is one experiment I’m highly interested in. I guess everything stems from a peculiar complex I’ve developed about cinema. I’m jealous of the specific power of cinema to build a virtual state, and of its capacity to break with reality. For two hours you’re completely under its spell! And there’s something spectacular and seductive about this entire story which has become so familiar to us; we’ve been going to the cinema for one hundred years already, so it’s almost routine and we don’t even analyse how incredible this cinematographic medium really is. I’d like to bring something of this magic, of this entire force, into painting. That’s why my mock-ups used for designing space and composing image have a certain filmic quality, because, as I’ve said cinema, something that gives it power and makes it so spectacular for millions of people, melts and passes into the medium of painting. Even if in the beginning cinema used to distil its images using instruments coming from painting, it has gradually become so autonomous and vast that it can now be considered a sovereign medium. I’d like to retrace the same road’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Mihai Pop,’ Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, pp. 82-83).
Beyond this dialogue with film, it is Ghenie’s engagement with the painting of the past that elevates Nickelodeon to epic metatheatrical spectacle. Caught in the flash like paparazzi victims, his figures reveal layer upon layer of painterly allusion. Veiled and blurred with streaks and washes of pigment, art-historical visions flicker before our eyes: Richter’s squeegeed panoramas, Bacon’s bodily distortions, the stately poise of Caravaggio emerging from the blackness. ‘You can’t invent a painting from scratch; you are working with an entire tradition,’ Ghenie says. ‘The pictorial language of the twentieth century, from Kurt Schwitters’s collages to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, makes up a range of possibilities that I utilise in order to create a transhistorical figurative painting – a painting of the image as such, of representation’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu,’ Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 31). Cross-examining painting itself, Ghenie creates a coruscating compound image: in the work’s deep Old Masterly shadows, myriad stories linger.
Though haunted by the tragic ghosts of Europe’s history, Nickelodeon is fundamentally a vision alive with potential. The power of paint pulsates in its astonishing surface. For all that Ghenie’s characters seem like fossils – shuttered in petrified depths of gaze upon mediated gaze – his keen eye and consummate skill take the medium into new zones beyond light and dark. Texture, form and colour are rejuvenated as modes of narrative in themselves, subsuming the mirages of the motion picture into a panoramic tableau that revels in dirtiness, damage and difficulty. Ghenie, whose source images are invariably viewed first on a laptop, sees painting through screens as a way of ‘rematerialising’ the digital world we live in. In taking us into the hazy melancholy of the past, he commandeers the strata of illusion that overlay our present. Ultimately, the very thrill of this remarkable work proposes painting as an object of hope – something paradoxically real in a world of slick, thoughtless virtuality. ‘My generation knows what life was like before the Internet. And so you still happen to hear echoes of the old world when you wake up in the morning … Then, you realize that the world is changing its texture, is changing its skin. I am very sensitive to this aspect. The world is beginning to have the texture of easy-to-clean surfaces. It no longer has pores. All the objects around us are beginning to be shinier and shinier’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu,’ Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 32).
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Please note the correct medium for this work is: oil, acrylic and tape on canvas (in two parts)
signed and dated 'Ghenie 2008' (on the reverse)
Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)
Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool Biennial 2008, 2008
London, Haunch of Venison, Darkness for an Hour, 2009.
Bucharest, National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), Adrian Ghenie, 2009-2010.
J. Jurdin, A. Hüsch and M. Price (eds.), Adrian Ghenie, Ostfildern 2009, p.92 (illustrated in colour, p. 93).
Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., The Romanian Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, 2015 (illustrated in colour, p. 82).
Haunch of Venison, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.