In Aernout Mik’s videos, we encounter bodies that resemble mere shells that have lost their actual purpose. Freed from all abstract goals, they become newly visible as a negation of social and political power structures.
The soldier, as Hegel stated in his “Elements of the Philosophy of Right” (1820), is the personification of being “ready for sacrifice in the service of the state”. In the person of the soldier, therefore, the individual’s egoistic interest in personal security and the preservation of possessions are united with the concerns of the altruistic, abstract citizen of the state. However, this unification of individual and citizen takes place in a negative way, which allows the soldier on the one hand to kill, while ultimately bringing him his own death on the other – in each case for an abstract goal that does not always directly concern the individual soldier himself.
STATE POWER LAID BARE
Something similar could be said about the members of a special operations unit we see in Aernout Mik’s “Double Bind” (2018). In their martial appearance, the violent sovereignty of state power is suddenly visible, of which the unit’s action forces represent the bearers.
In the three-channel video work, special forces creep through a French city center and suburbs in documentary-like scenes, purposefully and heavily armed in a way that is familiar to us from television, and apparently ready to sacrifice what the state is supposed to protect: their (own) lives. But it doesn’t come to that, as the action forces remain poised during the long shots, without taking any further action. The abstract purpose of their mission seems to have deserted them, leaving behind only empty shells of bodies that are apparently pushed to the ground by gravity and later crawl around on the earth like organic cell structures before finally yielding in grotesque contortions.
EMPTY CHARACTER MASKS REMAIN
Likewise, in the video work “Threshold Barriers” (2022) which Aernout Mik conceived especially for the Schirn, state power can also be seen heavily kitted out. Here it faces a group of protesters, but neither demonstrations nor the intervention of the sovereign can be seen in these scenes either. Instead, the two groups meander between interlocking barriers and sometimes through or over them, sitting laughing in circles of conversation or looking around, sometimes tense, sometimes serene. Here, too, only empty character masks remain, their habitus gradually evaporating. The tense atmosphere that the scenario initially conveys tips over into the grotesque again and again, while the emergency forces are also gradually freed from their heavy protective clothing.
BODIES IMBUED WITH NEW SOULS
While the bodies in the two works presented at the Schirn, “Double Bind” and “Threshold Barrier”, seem like vessels freed from their purpose that have yet to gain control over themselves, those in “Speaking in Tongues” (2013) are animated by supernatural states. In the work, the Dutch artist combines documentary footage from evangelical free-church mega-churches in Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, and Lagos with staged scenes in which over 200 extras participated. The title refers to the Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament of the Bible, according to which the Holy Spirit filled the believers and they began to pray in foreign languages. The artist contrasts the religious ecstasy with the self-shot footage, which is reminiscent of business motivation training and apparently gives the participants similarly vitalizing states of mind. “I’m particularly interested in the parallels between the business world and the sacred world,” Mik explains, recalling the doctrine of the prosperity gospel, according to which those who live a life pleasing to God are bestowed with wealth and recognition.
DISORIENTED IN THE OPERATIONS ROOM
Aernout Mik repeatedly makes use of the architecture of the exhibition space in order to draw the viewer into the events by means of spatial experience. In “Organic Escalator” (2000), bodies form a billowing, symbiotic mass that tries in panic to escape an earthquake via an escalator. While the people do not advance an inch, however, the mobile space changes its dimensions and draws the viewers further and further into the action. For the large Warsaw “Communitas” show, the artist conceived an elaborate exhibition architecture of corridors and branches that not only separated the individual works spatially from one another, but also evoked feelings of disorientation among museum visitors.
And in the current Schirn exhibition, too, the exhibition architecture evokes a kind of loss of control on the part of the viewer, albeit less immediate: Between a total of five screens, one finds oneself exactly in the middle, as if in a central operations room from which events would normally be controlled. While the sound, which the artist usually dispenses with, draws viewers all the closer into the action with bodily sounds of the protagonists’ grunting and chomping, they are nevertheless denied any access to what they are seeing. They are thrown back into the exhibition space and onto their own bodies, in which the nervous inactivity, depending on the emotional state and the time of the choreography shown, is quite likely to provoke a reaction, be it laughter, incredulity, or even tension. The violent sovereignty of which Hegel writes does not stride to action – or certainly not to that which one would expect of it. It remains in a limbo, an in-between world of deviant, confusing actions, the images of which continue to reverberate for a long time.