Review: Jonathan Bouknight creates eerie comic nightmare in video “Nightingales” at MOCA GA

Still from Jonathan Bouknight's video, Nightingales.
Still from Jonathan Bouknight's video, Nightingales.
Still from Jonathan Bouknight's video, Nightingales.
Still from Jonathan Bouknight’s video, Nightingales.

Jonathan Bouknight mixes elements of silent film comedy and nightmare in his video installation Nightingales, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through September 12. The exhibition is one of MOCA GA’s Working Artist Projects, an awards program that provides an Atlanta-based visual artist with project support and exhibition space.

The one-hour video cuts between various surreal vignettes: a neatly coiffed woman in an usher’s uniform tries to carry an enormous gift basket out of which pieces of fruit keep falling, a man in an empty hallway attempts various ways of wearing and utilizing a prosthetic leg, ballet dancers warm up in a studio, a cake decorator covers a man’s upper body in frosting and two young men dressed as chefs wear phallic Pinocchio noses made of butter.

It’s outrageous stuff, but Bouknight presents all of his subjects’ activity in coolly impersonal high-definition video, often in lingering static shots. There’s very little of the natural world, but with its unhurried pace and its absence of language, one often has the sense of watching slow natural processes; the haunting and plaintive soundtrack, which includes piano works by Stravinsky and Chopin, invites that sort of meditative contemplation.

Emotional responses — amusement, confusion, delight, boredom, disgust — emerge and recede slowly. There’s an overarching sense of trial and preparation to the film’s activities, a slow-ticking, anticipatory quality with a vaguely nightmarish undertone. The ballet dancers could be rehearsing for something else quite literally, but many of the vignettes share that sense of some inglorious private preparation for another, more public occurrence, one which may or may not arrive.

Bouknight has projected the video on one wall, and he cleverly lines up the bottom of the projection with the floor of the exhibition room, a simple effect that creates a trippy continuity between physical space and the recorded space of the video. Human figures in the film are often close to life size, or potently, a little larger. We’re distant from these fictive characters and their strange world, but also uncomfortably close.

The film reminded me of Pina Bausch’s 1990 television film Die Klage der Kaiserin (The Complaint of the Empress). Its structure of intercutting between various surreal vignettes is similar, but also the inscrutable interiority of its subjects and the comic-tragic depiction of repetitive human effort that seldom seems to reach satisfactory completion. Over it all there’s the eerie, seductive call of an artist with a slightly wicked sense of humor and broad human sympathies.

Detail of Jonathan Bouknight's installation. (Photo by Amy Kicklighter)
Detail of Jonathan Bouknight’s installation. (Photo by Amy Kicklighter)

A few sculptural works at the back of the screening room seem small and inert when placed alongside the projected video. Still objects can’t compete visually with an enormous screen, so in the end, they don’t really add much to the room’s monumental work, and they don’t seem to stand effectively on their own either. Some plaster fruit baskets nicely echo the film’s Sisyphean task, but other objects — a partial picture frame on the floor or two cherub sculptures stuck on a silver background — don’t capture the imagination as effectively as the film itself. Nightingales is most memorable for the film’s crystalline glimpse into a strange and difficult world.

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