We are meeting at the museum in Frankfurt where his exhibition, the name of which translates as Pure Necessity, an adaptation of The Jungle Book (1967), is displayed in the garden. The one-hour looped film upturns Walt Disney’s classic animation musical about a young boy called Mowgli and many humanoid animals, based on Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories. Claerbout has dispensed with the saturation of colour, narration, and singing and dancing. In the black-and-white, hand-drawn frames, Mowgli has vanished and the animals, stripped of all characterisation, are reduced to a portrayal of their species: a panther climbing a tree, a snake slithering over a tree trunk, a bear staring at his reflection in the river, a pack of wolves relaxing in an enclave, and a herd of elephants standing by the water. Their inertness is set against the painstakingly drawn lushness of the moving landscape. The mood is melancholic, while the animals appear indolent, roaming disinterestedly as if inhabiting an enclosure. The film ends with the young girl singing about having to fetch water for a future husband, her destiny – an out-dated perspective by today’s standards.
His method of extracting these anthropomorphic qualities was labour-intensive. He hired 12 animators to work on the project, culminating in 90,000 hand-drawn frames. “Animation drawing is a sort of religion – giving energy to lines and making them appear vivid”, he says. “So what I was asking these animators to do was diametrically opposed to what they were trained to do. Several people came and went, because they didn’t agree or didn’t understand or were afraid of being considered thieves by making something that resembled the original movie.” The project took a year to get going and then three-and-a-half years to complete. “It was a difficult birth, as we had to imagine everything from scratch”, he recounts. “It drained all my resources and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to show it to the public due to copyright problems.” Claerbout consulted lawyers who evaluated how much of it was appropriation versus new artistic input. “They came to the conclusion that while I would certainly win the case [if Walt Disney were to file a lawsuit], I could never afford to pay the lawyers”, he chuckles. “But it was one of those projects that you knew you had to do. Otherwise you’d always think: I wish I had done it.”
SOPHISTICATED REVENGEClaerbout, who is based in Kortrijk but comes from the countryside (cue his interest in nature), worked with an architect, a biologist, and various other experts on the piece. “If you have a wet summer season, it has an effect on plant growth over the coming months”, he informs. The piece moves imperceptibly, as if one is merely observing the architecture and that which surrounds it, from a distance. “One could say it’s a techno hippie piece about weeds growing and trees falling down, naturally overtaking the building in a number of years. After the first 25, the real cracks will start to appear.” Claerbout based his anticipation of the site’s disintegration on the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, where the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986. He’s going to be visiting Pripyat, to generate a clearer understanding of the way nature takes hold.
A GAME OF CATCH-UPClaerbout is also working on real-time in his forthcoming piece, Sections of a Tragic Moment. It follows on from Sections of a Happy Moment (2007), about a Chinese family, and from The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment (2008), about Algerians. Sections of a Tragic Moment takes place at the Lebanese-Israeli border around Nakba Day on 15 May, when Palestinians commemorate the 1948 Palestinian exodus after the creation of Israel. “Every year there’s a festival at the border, where the Palestinians go to mourn their country”, informs Claerbout, who has visited the Israeli side. The piece fuses two of his fascinations: Palestinian-ness and the zombie. “The zombie is the quintessential modern figure that loses his purpose and roams, brainlessly, across the planet, searching for nothing whatsoever. You can shoot him down 20 times and he’ll stand up again and continue on, which is a metaphor for working-class people, canned-in figures who do exactly what they’re trained to do.”
In Sections of a Tragic Moment, the Palestinian diaspora finds personification in the zombie. “Around the 15th of May, you’ll see zombies filling the landscape”, Claerbout says. Their bloodied appearance refers to how 11 Palestinian refugees were killed during Nakba in 2011. “People took photos on their cellphones – there are hundreds of images of what happened. From those, I’ve selected a single image, and each year my camera will go back to that photograph and show it in 3D for a moment. It will look very distant, as if there were surveillance cameras. After that, the image will retreat and spend the rest of the year floating around the landscape. You could say it’s an overtly political piece, but the irony is that (most of the time) you’ll never see anything happening other than weather passing over the terrain. So it will be endlessly frustrating for the people who want me to illustrate something! It’s like biological reality catching up with virtual reality.”
The second piece that Claerbout is working on concerns his “mid-air fascination with confetti when everything looks fine”. It is the falseness of the cliché situation that interests the artist. “Confetti is always about a celebration, a baroque phenomenon”, he says. “I’m trying to confront that with the harsh reality of white, Anglo-Saxon people celebrating a graduation on a Sunday afternoon. And there’s going to be a small black boy in the picture who’ll be the centre of the work.” Without expanding further, Claerbout says, “It would seem as if any action needs some kind of justification – social or aesthetical or ecological – and I’m opposed to that in my work. I don’t function in a very essayistic manner.” Yet every piece by the artist is subtly political, tugging at the visitor to consider not just societal issues but the meaning of photography and the moving image.
Olympia (The Real-Time Disintegration into Ruins of the Berlin Olympic Stadium over the Course of a Thousand Years) is at KINDL Centre for Contemporary Art, Berlin, until 28 May 2017.
David Claerbout: FUTURE is at Museum De Pont in Tilburg, Netherlands, until 29 January 2017.