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'False Metaphors'
Liselot van der Heijden @ Schroeder Romero, Brooklyn, NY
January 2nd – February 9th, 2004

by Peter Scott

One by-product of mass entertainment's often romantic treatment of nature (Fox's "When Animals Attack" reality show notwithstanding) is to miss a narrative thread between the chaos and violence of the natural world and what might be referred to as the 'reasoned' brutality of humans towards one another. Imagine a graphic depiction of a cheetah ripping an antelope apart broadcast on network television following the prime time glorification of the 'Shock and Awe' bombing of Baghdad. Safely relegated to the knowledge sphere of popular culture like PBS and the Discovery Channel, the bald techniques of survival engaged in by beings that lack our 'reason' acts as a cultural buffer that maintains civilization's psychological hegemony over innocent beasts and their primal ways.

Liselot van der Heijden's exhibition 'False Metaphors' at the Schroeder Romero gallery introduces this tension between civilization and the seemingly brutal world of animals into the setting of an art gallery, a 'high-culture' environment of sublimated conflict that proves a perfect stage for prodding the self-conscious tools that separate us from beasts. 'Aporia' (2004), a video-projection on a four foot high, free- standing wall of an animal in it's dying moments, confronts us with a scene that is both full of pathos and strangely detached, separated as we are from its inevitable fate, as we endure a full framed view of the head of a zebra repeating it's last breath. Reminiscent of a video clip shown in heavy rotation on news channels some years ago of a drowning boy staring towards the camera from well beyond the reach of rescuers but not the news media, 'Aporia' compels us to look, but offers no relief in the form of a tidy narrative. Rather, like the unfortunate rubber-necker who witnesses actual carnage on the highway, this piece confronts a voyeuristic desire for the mundane experience of everyday life to be transformed via spectacle.

Projected in a small room adjacent to the main space, a second video, 'Feast: Homage à Marcel Broodthaers' (2004), offers a more explicit contrast between the complexities of human self-consciousness and the laws of survival that prevail in the natural world. Flashing in bold white type face at steady intervals over looped National Geographic footage of vultures enjoying a midday meal are the following texts: "this is not political;" "a vulture is not an eagle;" and "this has nothing to do with oil." As the vultures relentlessly and endlessly devour their carrion, the soundtrack provided by their screeching exchanges offers a dissonant counterpoint to the deliberate and repetitive messaging of van der Heijden's text. The repetition of these pronouncements and denials over such a grisly scene echoes the detachment of practitioners of Real Politick from those 'on the ground' who are the alleged beneficiaries of their polices. Van der Heijden also brings in to play the slippery nature of language by referencing Marcel Broodthaer's, 'Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles' project in the title of the piece. Broodthaers playfully reworked Magritte's infamous 'this is not a pipe' phrase by labeling an eagle contained within his invented 'museum' with the phrase 'this is not a work of art'. Equating tongue-in-cheek sophistry with the deceptive literalism of political double-speak, this piece offers a skeptical viewpoint on the outwardly benign appearance of most propagandistic texts. Through mind-numbing repetition in the media, absurd and contradictory assertions start to seem plausible, hypnotizing the public into a placid state of acceptance of a 'truth' based on phrases so overused that they're are no longer recognizable as concepts worthy of debate.

Van der Heijden's thematic use of the animal world in 'False Metaphors' could be seen as a challenge to Disney's anthropomorphic fables, which for the most part serve to indoctrinate children into passive acceptance of existing power relations, offering moral fables that take place in the animal kingdom as lessons in the 'naturalness' of the status quo. In van der Heijden's version of nature, the status quo on offer is neither benign nor trustworthy, raising conspicuous challenges to accepted social hierarchies rather than the unconscious reinforcements that serve to maintain them.

In a kind of book-ending of the videos in the gallery's main spaces, two photographs were installed on the outside wall of the gallery, and one at the back wall of the office, visible from the main room. These images, taken of visitors observing displays in natural history museums, are reminiscent of Michelangelo Pistilleto's portraits of the backs of gallery goers printed on mirrors, which playfully mocked the cliché of reflective moments expected from viewers when in the presence of culture. With stuffed gorillas as their backdrops, the figures in van der Heijden's photographs become part of the staged dioramas that are meant to render museological descriptions of the natural world 'authentic', offering a somewhat comical twist on the goal of understanding nature through nineteenth century methods of capture and containment.

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