M+M shortly before fiveBy Renate Puvogel for M+M
M+M shortly before five
by Renate Puvogel
All M+M's photographic tableaux show scenes taking place at the same time, that is shortly before five o'clock central European time. This is well known to be the vague changeover time between day and night, the time of dusk, what the French like to call 'l'heure bleue', the hour of taking a deep breath after having completed work; it is also the time of the unexplained, of the greatest possible openness. M+M take this time of day that is perceived with some indifference to form the basis for their ongoing photographic series. They favour bright summer light without long shadows to fill an atmospherically vibrating vacuum with content that has varying directions. However, the afternoon hour merely provides the European starting point, one that is consciously left volatile, for scenes that take place simultaneously but at different places. This can mean that people in the USA are just beginning their daily business while in China night has long since set in. The strategy of the two artists enables them to use their photographic work to capture the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. Thus a stage of consciousness is achieved that causes observers to put their personal lives into relation to global occurrences. Particularly in view of a world that is becoming increasingly networked, this parallelism is experi-enced as both enriching and alarming.
Meanwhile the series shortly before five has grown to comprise ten large photographic tableaux. Each photograph consists of exactly 4290 tiny, on-going film stills. They were each taken from an approximately three-minute-long film that captures different people each of them in his/her specific surroundings. M+M think up the short episodes themselves, getting actors in small teams to perform them before processing the film material with computer without the intermediate stage of the negative. It is cut there and then, put together to form the overall picture and mounted on photographic paper. Each photograph tells of something happening at a particular place, something that could well have happened right there; this makes the specific nature of the place particularly graphic. For instance, since Princeton's elite university was and still is the domain of leading scholars, it makes sense for an occurrence with a dramatic ending to be set in the university's library. In contrast to this, New York as the colourfully mixed, an-onymous milling crowd forms the background for a surprisingly profound encounter. The fact that the Danish island of Bornholm on the Baltic Sea is not only a nature paradise but also supplies fish to the Mc-Donald's chain is something we learn in passing through what starts off as a search for evidence out in the open and ends up as the consumption of a fishburger. But does this mean that an occur-rence is being disclosed to the observer?
The observer's first glance at a large-sized photograph reveals an abstract structure characterised by concentrated colour and vibrating horizontal lines. In their random stringency they are rather like a cloth woven with coloured thread; and yet it could also be the surface of a field of pixels. By gradually ap- proaching the picture the impenetrable threading that is nevertheless dominated by one colour joins together to form a matrix, i.e. to form a system of single elements belonging together, such as the page of a book printed in colour. This is where we sense that the moments of movement and statics are rhythmically balanced. It is not until we get extremely close that the single colour fields reveal their graphic origin. Now the individual image sequences can be pursued in great detail, but the small individual picture only leads a limited life of its own, which means that it gains its status solely from its integration into the rest of the line. The curiosity to completely decode an occurrence becomes surprisingly insignificant. The observer is much more busy with the baffling alternation between abstract matrix and the image of what is real, especially since none of the locations seem satisfactory; instead the observer is constantly tempted to take near and far and exchange them. M+M address a general phenomenon of a human perception schooled in exterior reality; it is demonstrated to us by the film in its effort to illustrate this. Consequently, the artists reveal production procedures of the film by spreading out the material upon the surface into a painted image composition. However, the way a painting is perceived is precisely the other way around: what is seen as the subject of a painting when studied from a certain distance dissolves into mere colour particles when looked at from close up.
The artists do indeed see very few points of contact with the art of painting; this makes them feel all the more drawn towards as well as inspired by film. The very fact that they base their photographs on minor original occurrences makes them into storytellers; these stories live purely from the picture and, like silent films, manage surprisingly well without language and sound. In order to make up for the absence of any verbal statement, particular emphasis is given to mimicry and gesture in the film sequences. Furthermore, particular attention is paid to the portrayal of the location. This is all the more so when there are tiny, barely perceivable rapports between the individual tableaux. Thus the numerous small single pictures of a photographic tableau end, for instance, with a shot being fired from the weapon of a completely unsuspicious car driver. The bullet hits a remote-control zapper in another picture who, after substantial enjoyment of pornographic films, has now stepped towards the window with curious interest, lured by noises. Places are skilfully swapped between inside and out, between the private and the public sphere. Planned interactions that are brought about as if by accident, links of form and content between the photographs, such as colours, people or props that appear unexpectedly at several places; these all make the photographs into an increasingly complicated - complex - interweaving. Various means of ex-pressing movement and communication such as the telephone, mobile phone or even the hand gesture of some-one calling, bicycles or birds carry messages from one tableau to another and can build bridges. These extremely subtle associations, often only touched upon, are capable of shattering the unity of people, place and time shown in the pictures; they supply the observer with the first apparent indication of a fundamental intention on the part of M+M to find image metaphors for the diversity and disparateness of simultaneous world events.
In their minimal stories the artist duo cover a broad spectrum of still, seemingly poetic everyday rituals from funny situations to criminal incidents. The tiny scenes capture the most contrasting life situations, tell of happiness and suffering, of poverty and richness; they confront politically and socially differing systems and bring the various metropolises closer towards a single global city. At the same time M+M ask the fundamental question of how you can even begin to gain control over such an abundance of information - comparable to filmmakers like Robert Altman or Mike Figgis who also experimented with parallel occurrences and linked heterogeneous spheres with each other.
When the artist duo's work shortly before five is put into the context of its own oeuvre, several features may be concentrated on which pop up repeatedly and thus form fundamental characteristics. First and foremost there is a narrative moment that plays a role in almost all oeuvres and which led to the creation of certain pieces. The two artists' sense for criminology is always blended into the lyrically composed scenes. They are capable of linking scenes reduced to colour and form to ones in which the action fulfils the essential role. Even the process of linking private scenes to ones set in public is common to all works. There is, however, one criterion common to most oeuvres that could be characterised with a preference for serial processing. Sequences and series are forms of portrayal that infringe the individual picture, guarantee a chronological order of events and produce a balanced side-by-side perspective. In order to grant a multi-part oeuvre the value of a cycle, values are required that standardise with re-gard to composition and content. And this is the case with this work. Due to its form structure and its coordination of content, shortly before five could increasingly act as a prime example of a cyclically conceived composition. By definition the cycle is a "mode of presentation in which indi- vidual, isolated and autonomous work units are joined according to an overall idea to form a more comprehensive artistic union which, alongside heightened artistic reflection, also adheres to functional reasons." (Lexikon der Kunst/Encyclopaedia of Art) Within the interwoven structure of a cycle diverse linkages criss-cross which make it a simultaneous expression of a kind of microcosmic-like totality. This is where artistic creation also touches the cinematic eye. The largest gain of cyclically constructed artwork, however, comes from the maxim that the entire thing gives more than the sum of its components.