“Style is the manner in which man upholds himself or stands up within himself.” Paul Audi relates style to behaviour and language, the always expressive way in which we stand up within ourselves and that presupposes a strength and a character that ‘does not coincide with an I’ because ‘in the deepest subjectivity there is no I but a special composite entity, an idiosyncrasy, a secret code (…) a Will that plays dice.” 1
In Mooibroek’s work a game takes place, and we are invited to join in. There is something going on, somewhere between an actual event and a poetic idea. The work invites you to take part in a permanent game of translation and interpretation. According to Mooibroek, in her work she is looking for a condensed image language. Complexity becomes visible through reduction and omission.
Language as a game in which everyone takes part, means to act in reality and this is not just a representation of reality. Characteristic of language as a game is moving to- and-fro between various game practices where every practice generates its own rules. 2
Mooibroek herself says she has always been a translator living between different languages. To begin with she resides in the space between her mother’s and her father's native language:
“I found myself between the Zurich dialect of the place, the Bern dialect of my mother and the self-made ‘father’s in-between language’: a deviant German, so everyone would hear at once that he was not a native German. The neighbours spoke Italian, Spanish, or Austrian. The vacations were spent ‘in Dutch’.” In a conversation I had with her in 2006 Mooibroek said that language is like a coat that you can put on and take off. By staying or ‘residing’ in a different language you are never quite the same person, as you are constantly changing place, time, and behaviour, both virtually and imaginary. This in-between position, this always being in a state of transition, is something that can be literally traced in her work. The simultaneous presence of different contexts of time, place, and language is not an exclusive feature of the present global society but has always been there. Nearby villages and regions have known differences in culture and dialect since time immemorial. Being different has always been part of the human condition of living together. In one of her earliest video works, ‘hoe deze genodigden praten- wi die gescht reded’ (how these guests are talking) (1996), we see five elderly men from Emmental eating shrimps and conversing in dialect. The servant, a young man who doesn't speak in the video, serves them an exotic meal. We see them talking and eating. Exotic tastes and exotic sounds meet in the eating and talking mouths of the guests. The simultaneous presence of the Dutch language (the video is announced in Dutch), the Swiss words in dialect (that we see and hear) and the English translation that we read, are evidence of an anthropological interest for this meeting between different cultural and linguistic nuances, that appear in almost all everyday situations.
In a totally 'different' work, the video installation ‘Sprich, Spreek, Speak’ (2004), the eye of the camera goes in and out of a pedestrian's tunnel and breezes in and out with a game of question-and-answer by the artist reciting a text in German about future, utopian architecture. Forward is a question and backward is an answer. You simultaneously see the image, hear the spoken text and read the English translation. The English sentences are shown together with the image, not just supporting it, but making up an intrinsic part of the functioning of this highly condensed work.
In this installation the viewers become part of the work, their shadows (literally) falling on the projection surface, thus becoming part of the image.
This installation zooms in on an unimaginable future, an ‘u-topia’, a ‘nowhere-land’, a place that doesn't yet exist. What are the human conditions of this not yet present, this ‘other’ indefinable reality, which is strange and ‘unheimlich’? Kristeva makes use of Freud’s semantic analysis of the word ‘unheimlich’ to demonstrate the workings and presence of strangeness in our ‘own’ familiar environment.
"Thus, in the very word heimlich, the familiar and intimate are reversed into their opposites, brought together with the contrary meaning of ”uncanny strangeness” harboured in unheimlich. (…) Strange indeed is the encounter with the other - whom we perceive by means of sight, hearing, smell, but do not “frame” within our consciousness. The other leaves us separate, uncoherent; even more so, he can make us feel that we are not in touch with our own feelings, that we reject them or, on the contrary, that we refuse to judge them- we feel ”stupid”, we have been had.” 3
In a number of Mooibroek’s works we also see the political and social ‘otherness’ in language related realities. In the video installation ‘A to O' (2001), passers-by in the Frisian village Beetsterzwaag are confronted with terms and phrases from the asylum policy documents of the Ministry of Justice. In 2001 this village - where in 1999 a girl was brutally murdered, and suspicion initially fell on an asylum seeker - was a good barometer for political sensitivities with regard to the Dutch asylum policy. The alienation which takes place when such jargon infiltrates everyday language is subtly made visible and audible. Audible, as the terms are first read aloud in a peculiar Dutch by off-screen asylum seekers in Amsterdam, and visible when the Frisian Dutch explain what the terms, according to them, may mean. Mooibroek chooses to present all this in a matter-of-fact and neutral way. She takes a step back, not to be distant, but in order to establish an adult communication with a mature audience.
“As an artist I always try to present facts, people or text with a minimum of manipulation by the medium. I feel very strongly about this. I want to take my viewers serious, not take them by the hand or impose my opinion upon them.”
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, she only shows the mirror in which the viewers may activate and manifest their own thinking and experiences.4
In her film 'Bye Patrick, bye!' (2005) actual social complexities and contrasts are outlined in various ways. On the one hand this film is a documentary report of an actual state of affairs, while on the other hand it plays with visual and language related elements from the story.
In a recent interview Mooibroek tells how one day, in her mother's house, she encountered Patrick W. (an asylum seeker from Pakistan) as her mother's boyfriend. Within the everyday surroundings of her mother's house she notices from little things that this man is a ‘Fremdkörper’ in this setting. Here he misses, but we miss as well, his natural frame of reference and he is seen and felt to be a strange body that doesn't fit. “Myself, I can't place him either. I only know what he himself tells me,” Mooibroek said to me last year. Being together in a place in the world doesn't mean we have common frames of reference. On the contrary, we don't know what frames of reference the other person has. The film shows clashing and diverging games of language that are governed by different moral and legal rules. In an ever-changing landscape, we see and hear the individuals speak aloud the thoughts buzzing around in their heads. As viewers we are forced to ‘find a place’ for these various, sometimes juxtaposed, and often conflicting utterances. These often take the form of short sentence monologues that rarely seem to aim for understanding. The short dialogues between the ‘actors’ or participants in the film often reveal a mutual distance and inaccessibility. What do we as people really know about each other? What does a preference for Lipton tea tell us? And what information is contained in the disapproving bewilderment a Swiss woman displays about this preference? These are little annoyances buzzing around about which we hear parts and fragments. The people we see seem locked inside their own little world where the only messages they get from other people are in the form of rumours. It is as if Mooibroek’s film travels the skies above Italy and Switzerland trying to look inside people’s heads. The film makes us see and hear the buzzing in those heads.
"People are sealed hives full of bees that both attract other bees and keep them off." 5
In the film, and probably in real life as well, Patrick is seen as a ‘Fremdkörper’, an ‘alien body’ that doesn't fit in well with the dominant frames of reference of Swiss mores and law. And although this conclusions seems almost inevitable (despite what viewers may think) it is never actually said so in the film. The political reality is one of many different standards of law, a reality in which refugees and asylum seekers seem to have few rights, if any. Giorgio Agamben calls them ‘hominis sacri’, holy people that have been banned from society. 6
Mooibroek distinguishes herself as an artist and filmmaker not only by her works or her visual style(s) but mainly by her deliberate attention and constant experimenting with visual and cinematic means. With her ‘making’ art is more ‘doing’ art. This process-like and performative approach is closely related to the content of her work, it is not a separate element. In her research, she always questions the traditional notions of ‘work’, ‘author’, ‘actor’, and 'viewer'.
Riet Schennink, October 2007.
1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Losse opmerkingen, Amsterdam, De Balie, 1992, p.125.
Paul Audi explains and comments upon the phrase "Le style c’est l’homme même" in "Superioriteit van de ethiek Van Schopenhauer tot Wittgenstein" Amsterdam 2004, p.205.
Playing dice or gambling refers to Einsteins statement: "God doe not play dice" but also to the Will in Schopenhauer’s work "Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung". This will is not an individual conscious will, but rather the driving and compelling force I feel in my life and over which I have no control. One could also call it ‘the instinct to live’. In a sense, I also see in this Will the unconscious, or Freud’s “Es”.
2 I here refer to the concept of game with Gadamer and Wittgenstein. With Gadamer it is a game of understanding. The being of the game is primary and the mind of the players is secondary. The game unfolds without the players being aware of this. The game itself is the subject of playing. The purpose of the game is the playing itself, no outside goal, only aimed at repeating itself. The game is self-representative, aimed at the spectator. When the game becomes a spectacle, we enter the realm of art. Wittgenstein’s game concept has quite different assumptions from Gadamer’s and places more emphasis on the existence of various language games all with their own rules.
3Julia Kristeva, Strangers to ourselves, New York, 1991 p. 182 and p.187
4 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Oxford 1980, p.18: "I ought to be no more than a mirror, in which my reader can see his own thinking with all its deformations so that, helped in this way, he can put it right."
5 Nussbaum, Martha Craven, The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse - New Literary History - Volume 26, Number 4, Autumn 1995, pp. 731-753. Nussbaum concludes this from the following excerpt: “How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people.” V.Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Penguin books, London, 1975, p.60
6 Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998; Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita, Giulio Einuadi, 1995.