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Olaf Breuning: Metro Pictures

Olaf Breuning, still from the film
Olaf Breuning, still from the film "Home," (2003) Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures.

"Home," a thirty-minute, two-channel video installation by Swiss artist Olaf Breuning, turns immaturity into an absorbing and entertaining spectacle of dream-like narratives. Individual segments are presented in color featuring a bizarre combination of characters, masks, and locations, while Breuning radiates an exhausted intensity as the narrator in black and white on the adjacent screen. Wearing a pair of boxers, a stained wife-beater with cosmetic contact lenses and tiny pupils recounts something like a very odd travelogue.

The large projections are presented in an enclosed, carpeted space at the back of the gallery, surrounded by wooden patio fencing. The warm and enveloping interior echoes the theme of negotiating different spaces—from domestic interiors to rural landscapes—that constitute different notions of home. A single self-reflexive moment between Breuning as narrator and character signals a possible end, but the video is non-linear in nature. Perhaps recovering from his travels, the narrator by turns recounts and interprets the stories on the adjacent screen.

At one point from the hotel bathtub, Breuning tells the story of a couple that is stranded on a desert island after their sailboat drifts away and they are unable to catch up. They survive on fruit and entertain themselves by bowling. The beautiful woman inexplicably grows a full beard and develops a masculine appearance that doesn’t bother her partner in the least. The illogical implausibility of the events suggests that Breuning is recounting a dream. The apparent simplicity masks deeper questions of gender and sexual identity. As artist, Breuning seems to be positioning the viewer in the role of interpreter to allow for multiple readings of his imagery.

Between each story, the right screen fades to black, giving the video an episodic quality. The saccharine events of the previous story turn nightmarish. Out of the bathtub, the narrator explains a trip to Amish country with a group of friends. Dressed as thugs they travel out into the countryside and accost a young Amish man. Wielding golf clubs they forcibly put an E.T. mask on the young man, strip him nude, and pursue him across the open fields. The riotously funny scene resonates with the cruel logic of an embarrassing nightmare. The narrator blithely states, "We were so happy that day," almost as a punch line.

The rest of the stories are recounted with a similar dream logic that blends surreal events with banal reality, although two scenes that are more like music videos change the tone of the installation. In one, a group of European kids, perhaps a family, romp around their house spraying shaving cream, drinking beer, lip-synching death metal, and partying it up. A heavy-set teen lip-synchs the death metal soundtrack while wearing strange masks, including one beautiful one of briars that cover all except his mouth. On the adjacent screen, the narrator dances around playing air guitar and acting nuts in way that is reminiscent of Tom Green’s self-depreciating physical comedy.

All of Breuning’s narratives occur in far-flung locations, from the Swiss Alps to the Lower East Side, in an apparent effort to explore different cultural identities. Breuning’s narrator is something of a global tourist, recounting his bizarre experiences to collide and confuse different cultural stereotypes. In Machu Picchu, Breuning storms around the ancient site as a colorful, hippie trickster with a bull’s head mask amusing and terrifying the locals. As quickly as the trickster establishes a humorous tone, the screen shifts to Las Vegas and a bored looking Breuning drifting about a simulated Venice wearing a "NO WAR" baseball cap, floating in ennui and longing for enlightenment. Instead, he ends up with a hooker in a narrative ripe with cynical irony.

All of Breuning’s stories are lined with a sophomoric humor, but the real strength of the installation is how carefully and thoroughly Breuning explores a limited range of expression through familiar dreams, memories, and stories. "Home" feels like the waking world of television, entertainment, and pop culture, translated into the nocturnal language of dreams. This narrative device frames the emotional complexity of cultural dislocation in a visual language that is at once accessible and entertaining.


William Powhida


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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