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Of Resonating Surfaces

A portrait makes it possible to explore a subject through an individual life; it's a way of being very precise without being absolute. One's lived experiences are never stable, and that's what interests me in making these portraits. —Manon de Boer

Manon de Boer's work is characterized by complex cinematic compositions in which the viewing experience is destabilized through the distinctive treatment of sound in relation to image. Focusing her camera mostly on single individuals, De Boer (Dutch, born India 1966) makes portraits that engage the artistic agency of her subjects while revealing a larger philosophy of existing in the world infused with creative purpose and a sense of self- determination. Her films investigate the relationship of the human body with the perceptual field, especially with sound, while exploring the space and time in which these relationships take shape. The body as a resonating surface for lived experience is at the center of De Boer's oeuvre and nowhere is that thinking better expressed than in the three films forming the trilogy presented here for the first time in the context of an exhibition.

Manon de Boer: Resonating Surfaces—A Trilogy consists of a series of films where the narratives, voiced by three female protagonists, mesh together disparate personal memories from the 1970s, a transformative decade for each subject. Unifying the trilogy is a strategy of dissonance—the voices of the three women are disconnected from their physical presence on camera. This intentional separation generates a viewing experience intended to slow viewers down and make them aware of the highly subjective nature of recollection, as well as the position of autobiographical accounts in time and space. Engaging with the qualities of film as a medium, the artist fully explores its potential, especially in the context of documentary portraiture.

The first film in the trilogy, Sylvia Kristel–Paris (2003), is a study of the Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, best known for her lead role in the French erotic cult classic Emmanuelle (1974), and herself an icon of the 1970s. De Boer recorded Kristel talking about episodes relating to the start of her acting career, once in November 2000 and again in September 2001. She then edited the two versions in nonchronological order to further emphasize the mutability of memory, an effect that is especially noticeable when details of the same episodes diverge. The soundtrack of the film, which incorporates the muted sounds of Paris with the music of George van Dam, accompanies Kristel's monologues. Present-day Paris is as much a character in this film as Kristel, providing the background for the actress's reminiscences of the tumultuous decade she spent in the city. Using a Super-8 handheld camera, De Boer films Paris starting from a panoramic perspective and zooming down to street level, an approach that mimics the introspective discourse of the protagonist. Adding to the performing character of the autobiographical monologues is the actress's use of French, which is not her native language and recalls her years spent in the city that had shaped her earlier life.

The interviews are punctuated by two intervals of silence—the only times that Kristel herself appears on-screen, smoking pensively. In these moments of quiet contemplation, the voice is replaced by the actress's breathing, which is not synchronized with the projected images. This asynchronous editing can be considered a feminist approach to the subject, particularly relevant when hearing Kristel's account of her career as a celebrated sex symbol in front of the camera. The deliberate choice of allowing a female subject to be heard but not seen disrupts the visual language on which mainstream cinema relies, placing the protagonist beyond the reach of the male gaze and challenging "every conception by means of which we have previously known woman within Hollywood film, since it is precisely as body that she is constructed there." (Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 164.) Throughout the trilogy De Boer subverts the objectifying power of the cinematic lens and allows her subjects to define themselves through narrative alone.

Resonating Surfaces (2005) is the second film in the trilogy and the most complex in its attempt to present both a philosophy of living and the personal story that inspired it. Suely Rolnik is a Brazilian psychoanalyst, cultural critic, curator, and professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, where in 1982 she founded the Subjectivity Studies Centre. De Boer's film presents Rolnik's story unfolding against the images and sounds of her home city, São Paulo, which becomes an additional subject of portraiture in the film. In her narrative Rolnik delves into her life in the 1960s, discussing her involvement with Tropicália; her experiences of conflict with the military dictatorship of Brazil, which led to her imprisonment and exile; as well as her psychoanalytic work in Paris in the company of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and French psychotherapist Félix Guattari. (Tropicália, also known as Tropicalismo, is a Brazilian artistic movement that arose in the late 1960s. It encompassed art forms such as theater, poetry, and music. The movement was characterized by a fusion of traditional Brazilian culture, international influences, popular culture, and the avant-garde.)

The film begins with audio recordings of death cries from two operas by Austrian composer Alban Berg, Lulu (1937) and Wozzeck (1925). During her time in Paris, Deleuze gave Rolnik the task of researching and comparing these theatrical death cries and their emotional motivation, a process that provided her with the insight to address her own repressed trauma caused by her experience with the Brazilian military regime. By the end of this healing process, she regained her creative energy and was able to reconnect with her past by returning to Brazil. The operatic screams are followed by views of São Paulo, accompanied by voices identifying, mostly in Portuguese, the many sensorial qualities of the city: sounds, colors, smells, tastes, and sights. This urban atmosphere generates a physical response, and we hear Rolnik for the first time talking about the perception of the body in Brazilian culture as "a sensitive plate capturing the world." Employing the same dissonant approach to sound and image as in Sylvia Kristel–Paris, De Boer presents the narrating voice without simultaneously showing the person who is speaking. Although Rolnik appears in the film, her physical presence is dissociated from her narration in French, the language acquired during her exile in Paris in the 1970s. In retrospect, Rolnik realizes the importance of this second language to her healing process as well as in maintaining a connection to the past and with the country and people who contributed to preserving her vitality. As we listen to her recounting the events of that decade, we learn about a type of being in the world in touch with the body, particularly exemplified by Rolnik's approach to her own analytical work as well as by the Brazilian culture more generally. As the film concludes, we are left with the rhythms and images of the people of São Paulo, Rolnik among them.

Rolnik's approach to a subjectivity shaped by bodily experiences is particularly important to Manon de Boer, as seen in her poetic yet critical investigations into the ways performing arts and the body connect. This correlation is particularly apparent in the final portrait of the trilogy, Think about Wood, Think about Metal (2011). Here, fragments of the life of American percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky are accompanied by musical compositions performed by her on and off camera. The first and most intriguing thing we learn about Schulkowsky is her tactile and aural connection to the possibility of sounds from objects. Filmed and recorded partly in Schulkowsky's studio in Italy, her recollections of the 1970s revolve around her move to Germany in order to be part of that country's thriving avant-garde scene. Strongly influenced by American composer John Cage, Schulkowsky explains how she, "a very naive young woman from the Midwest," joined a profession dominated by men and established herself as one of the leading figures in the field. Her thoughts on the past relate to the challenge of learning how to read and hear a score for percussion and to the excitement of playing "an unfinished instrument that doesn't allow a complete mastery." In addition to studio footage, De Boer includes panoramic views of present-day Berlin and interior and exterior views of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk building, the public broadcasting institution that was the center of German avant-garde music production in the 1970s and 1980s. The vibrating surfaces of the objects used by Schulkowsky in her percussive compositions embody the concept of "resonating surfaces" explored by De Boer in this trilogy, while also becoming visual metaphors for the unlimited world of possibilities available to musicians in particular, and, by extension, to artists in general.

The films in Manon de Boer's trilogy present an alternative, subjective approach to the documentary genre. These three intimate portraits not only question the possibility of a coherent and stable biography, they also reveal the role memories play in defining who one is in the present moment. While focusing on particular individuals and their personal narratives, De Boer portrays a philosophy of life that applies to her subjects as much as it does to herself as an artist—a way of thinking and existing determined by creative impulses. Individual stories, set against particular moments of a recent past, create a parallel history where a nonlinear sense of time is privileged and where the viewer's perception is heightened through an emphasis on sensorial dissonance. Thus the concept of "resonating surfaces" extends beyond the subjects of the films as their recollections reverberate with the viewers, who absorb the diverse range of human experiences that the trilogy so sensuously offers.

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