On Beat Kuert's works


A War between Narration and Image

Wu Hong


The works of Beat Kuert can not be easily demarcated by a specific art type. In his art, various elements are fused into an organic whole that is hard to be dissected in an analytical way. His rich art experiences contribute much to this fact.

In the stage when film was first born, or the age of the Lumière, the lens of camera imitated human eyes to observe the world. A bit curiously and timidly, it watched the outside world. So is this “world” observed from the camera different from the one that we see with our eyes? The answer is obvious, for otherwise mankind wouldn’t have been so fascinated by what’s shown on the screen. But what on earth is this “difference?" It’s the characteristic of “narration” reflected on the screen. Although the shooting process of the early operator of camera was disordered and subconscious, with the intrinsic logic of images being revealed when they flicker on the screen, human being’s potential of “narration” got demonstrated. Such potential comes from man’s childhood experience, when a child acquires the most basic ability of describing images, he can use this ability to describe a narrative “plot” to you, maybe from his own experience, or perhaps just a fantasy. In short, the moment when image came into being, the possibility of linking what happened “before” and “after” it in time and space had come into existence: centering around “Dasein (existence)”, the linear logic connecting what’s past and after it in time, this is what’s called “narration”. 

The “motion pictures” brought about by the Lumière camera or Edison camera further strengthened image’s function of narration. By this time, what the audience experienced had become the will of “the man behind the camera” and his narrative logic. The great will power embodied by such “narrative logic” even surmounted the role of a traditional playwright or director,for in a traditional play, the will of the playwright or director has to be displayed through the actor’s performance. Furthermore, even the same actor’s actual performance may vary in different shows of play, while “the man behind the camera” can accomplish the dissolution and reorganization of the “linear logic” of time, via free processing of images. The actor’s performance, being recorded on the films and turned into “solidified image”, is now but a trivial element in the process of dissolution and reorganization. Now we can roughly learn the difference between a “play director” and a “movie director”, their different characteristics revealed in the linear logic of time. In a play, though there are techniques of breaking time’s linear logic such as flashback and interspersed flashback, the director can not break the actor’s linear process in live performance. While in a movie, time and space are decomposed into frames, the unit of film. A specific frame of “film unit” is subordinate to a bigger “narrative unit” in the process of narration, meanwhile, it also demonstrates an independent value, which will be cited again in the following discussion.

As stated above, because of its narrative potential, when commercialized, early movies inevitably adopted traditional play’s technique of narrative logic in its development,for repeated “motion pictures” are boring, while a well-knitted narration is attractive. Meanwhile, over-dramatizing also confined film’s self-support as an independent art type.Thus in the first three decades of last century, quite a few independent artists in New York and Paris were engaged in an experiment that was later called “avant-garde film”. The production of avant-garde films was based on the greater background of Modern Movement of fine arts. In this background, the visual “modeling element” was no longer subordinate to the need of narration or modelling. Claiming independence, the “modeling element” sought its own value of existence in two aspects: color and shape. Pursuant to this logic, modern arts kept developing from impressionism, postimpressionism to abstractionism. In the cultural logic of “abstractionism”, “shape” and “color” no longer serve the need of modeling, but directly serve the psychological and spiritual logic on a higher level. Born in such an abstractionist cultural background, the extremity of avant-garde film is self-evident. In the form of avant-garde film, narration and plot are totally abandoned, and what’s expressed through the “motion” of images is a rhythm in step with man’s spiritual and psychological aspects. Here, we might as well regard it as an abstractionist painting “in motion”.

Though avant-garde film in this period was produced in an individual and independent way, its dear cost and alternative aesthetic taste made it impossible to promote its development via the law of commercial investment and returns, or further make it an independent art form.

It’s only after the arising of analog production devices and play devices, and also the arising of three-in-one “videos” with the function of video camera, player and television, that “video art” could possibly exist as an independent art form. But again, the expensive post-production devices forced many independent artists to turn to professional institutes or personnel to finish their artwork. Also, the possibility of image processing is rather limited on an analog video device. So during this period, “video art” that can truly distinguish itself from early films or avant-garde films in the sense of “image” is quite rare. What’s more common is the combination of a video play device and an installation, which turns out to become a subcategory of art form: “video installation art”.In this art form, the relation of time and space “within” images got strengthened, abstracted or extended in an installation in a wider space range.

With the arrival of digital era, the process of post-production can be done on personal computers, so that the complete production process can be truly “personalized”. At the same time, digitalization also enables an artist to process graphics with software programs. It was such a background that made the “digital image art” distinct from the film age and video age possible.

As stated above, in a traditional play, the meaning unit of narration is “show”, the concept of coherent performance; while in a film, the meaning unit of narration is “footage”, the concept of coherent shooting with a camera, and it’s the frame of film that embodies the meaning of image; while in digital image, it’s the pixel dot that embodies the meaning of image. This evolution from “show” to “frame” to “pixel” reflects not only the progress in technology, but also a possibility for “image” to separate from narration and become independent.

What’s said above is exactly the complete process of Beat Kuert’s art experiences.

He started from early avant-garde films, later got involved in shooting and directing commercial films and TV documentaries. Eventually, with the arrival of digital age, he gave up his previous occupation with commercial imaging and dived into the creation of digital image art. Thanks for the richness of his work experience, we can see both diversity and compromise in his works.

Beat Kuert mixed in his works varied “performance” elements such as performance art, narrative performance and chance performance, combining a variety of image processing approaches brought by digital image processing technology. The “narrative” meaning embodied by performance and the “image” meaning embodied by digital image processing constitute two most basic axes of his work. Parallel or intersectant, the relation between the two axes forms the rich and varied visual effect of his work.

As said above, “footage” or “frame” is subordinate to the need of narration as far as a commercial or traditional film director is concerned, while in the hands of an avant-garde film artist, it becomes the tool of deconstructing and overturning linear narrative logic. As for digital image artists, digitalized pixel dots become the element of dissolving, remodeling and reorganizing images.

So in Beat Kuert’s digital image artworks, we can see narrative “performance”, montage “footage” editing, and the dissolution and rebirth of “image” in the sense of pixel dots, the three of which form a progression relationship. During this process, the narrative logic produced by performance in the first place keeps being overturned and deconstructed by footages and pixel dots, like a “war” for meaning, fighting for the right of interpretation.

Some critics are keen on talking about Beat Kuert’s metaphorical symbolism revealed via actress’ performance and their use of props. They are actually falling into his preset trap of “meaning”. When these critics focus on the performing process of the actors, the subject of shooting, they forget that Beat Kuert’s intention of footage employing and digital image processing is not to visually “beautify” the subject. On the contrary, as an independent element, they play an indispensable role in constituting the final meaning of the work. Returning to the old question: Is what we see real? This issue is no longer nouveau in philosophical discussion, yet still has great values when expressed in a way with abundant visual experience. That’s why Beat Kuert’s works also possess an ultimate philosophical value while satisfying our visual sense. 

Now let’s move on to his two-dimensional photography works, which are either selected from motion pictures, or taken in a “motion picture” way, so the above stated viewpoints also apply to the interpretation of his pictures.

Our belief in the essential meaning of this world is based on a transcendentalist “narrative” logic. The “physical world” that can be observed constitutes the narrative element, “image” is a persistence of vision of the physical world, and “pixel” the basic component of image, and finally, it’s “us” who gain control of the form of pixels. In this circulating process of logic, these concepts rely on one another, meanwhile deconstruct one another. They define, and at the same time blur the dividing line between the knowable and unknowable in the world that we live in, or maybe, even “us” is a subject unknowable.