History Lesson


More and more, artists are using bits and pieces of movies like elements lifted from the cultural landscape. A little Hitchcock, some Godard, a snippet of Risky Business, Marlene Dietrich, and presto, you’ve got something that no matter how watered down carries a flash of the original’s radiance. Born of Duchamp, Warhol, Pop, conceptualism, theory, and appropriation, this subgenre is a new strategy.

At the moment, Pierre Huyghe’s debut at Marian Goodman, “Even More Real Than You,” makes a convincing case for this strategy. Well known outside the U.S. and scheduled to represent France in this summer’s Venice Biennale, Huyghe shows two works, both video. One, Two Minutes Out of Time, depicts an animated figure speaking in the voice of a little girl. It’s intriguing and points to a race of cyber-beings who may one day people the airwaves. The other piece, The Third Memory, is a contemporary Rashomon—a work of relative truth set to the rhythms of modern life and the nightly news.

The idea behind this nine-minute, split-screen video is fascinating. Huyghe tracked down John Wojtowicz, the gay bank robber who on August 22, 1972, held up a Bayridge Chase Manhattan branch in order to get money for his lover’s sex change operation. The spectacle was carried live on TV. Now living on welfare in Brooklyn with his mother, Wojtowicz is the man Al Pacino played in Sidney Lumet’s crazed 1975 quasi-true-life film, Dog Day Afternoon.

Third Memory features the strangely charismatic Wojtowicz re-enacting the events of 28 years ago with scenes from the Hollywood version and clips of the real thing spliced in here and there. Burly, silver-haired, and just on the edge of funk, he’s a natural performer—forceful, yet gently matter-of-fact. He could easily be a bouncer or a character in a TV detective series. With the lights, equipment, and cameras of a Paris soundstage visible, Wojtowicz confidently moves actors around an elaborate reconstruction of the bank. He tells people what to say and where to go. He carries a rifle, talks to the camera, and acts solicitous. “I’m still trying to get my movie money from Warner Bros., and they keep giving it to the hostages,” he says. He stands on taped marks and repeats lines he delivered that day: “Who you calling a lousy cocksucker? I’m a good cocksucker,” he barks at an actor/policeman. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to think, as when he speculates that President Nixon ordered the FBI to kill his partner because the TV coverage was cutting into Nixon’s convention acceptance speech in Miami. In many ways, Third Memory is like the weirdest 60 Minutes segment ever made. Imagine the real O.J. re-enacting his ride up the 405 in a white cardboard Bronco, and you’ll get some idea of the video’s eeriness.

If Third Memory weren’t projected large in a darkened gallery, it would probably just be artsy television. Seen big, it is a well crafted example of an unnamed genre made entirely of other genres. Huyghe’s piece, equal parts documentary, true-crime story, and surveillance video, takes place on such an artificial set that it looks like a moving Thomas Demand photograph. That, or a bizarre psycho-historical feedback loop where truth and fiction flip-flop, movies merge with news, and the personal and the public trade places. Wojtowicz has slipped into a twilight zone, an irreal place where he’s both a person and a carrier of narrative—a walking, talking pathogen of history.

Dante believed that sometimes a life can be defined by a single moment. Characters in his hell recount their stories as if they were happening still. August 22, 1972, was Wojtowicz’s moment, and he knows it. His behavior not only suggests something theatrical, but something infernal as well. A martyr, stumblebum, prophet, and cult figure rolled into one, he replays the event as if every day were August 22, 1972. When he gets to the end of his story he pauses, stares blankly, seems to go a little dead, and says, “That’s it.” This and the fact that Wojtowicz’s moment was witnessed by millions of people makes Third Memory that much more diabolical.

Huyghe’s video takes us to what might be the genesis of a type of media spectacle we’re all familiar with. Before Wojtowicz, Americans saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, we saw Vietnam and monks on fire. But those were instants, and mostly after the fact. Wojtowicz’s story may mark the beginning of the ongoing human saga as watched by millions.

Less than a month after Wojtowicz’s debacle, TV captured Arab terrorists murdering Israelis at the Munich Olympics. Subsequently we watched Patty Hearst’s captors burned on live TV, the Iran hostage crisis, the Gulf War, and the L.A. riots. Lately there’s been the bathos of O.J., Elián, and the Florida election fiasco. Events happen in real time; we watch in suspended animation. It’s like some kind of collective seance or shared hallucination. Huyghe is interested in stories that take place in the time that falls between the cracks—some hall-of-mirrors fissure where fantasies come true, truth turns into fiction, and psychopathology becomes history. As Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris said the other day, “It’s time to leave the history behind.”