Adaptations prove worthy as originals

By Cheryl Luce

Guy Ben-Ner, Arturo Herera, and Catherine Sullivan sat at the front of an overcrowded room. The three artists were there to discuss their works in the Smart Museum’s new exhibit, Adaptation, which consists of video installations that explore adaptation as a creative practice. Their work finds common ground in the simple idea that all three artists based their material for this exhibit on an existing source, such as a work of literature, art, music, or film. An audience member asked the artists if they had any reservations about using another work as a starting point. Ben-Ner replied bluntly, “I don’t know any other way, in the history of art, that works. Nothing just comes from the mind.”

Ben-Ner’s response elucidates the way in which Adaptation connects to the idea of cultural recycling. This idea, which finds its evidence at least as far back as the Hellenistic art of the Romans, has since led to a comfortable understanding that culture responds to history and recycles elements of the past. Postmodernism lead theories of cultural recycling to flourish, and today we find a rather intense amount of cultural recycling in forms such as mash-ups and post-punk. In Adaptation, the adapted sources remain explicit, providing a focused exploration of how art responds to a source and what role an original source plays.

Ben-Ner’s videos, as he explains, do not “pay homage” to their sources, but rather make “use” of them. “Wild Child,” adapted from Truffaut’s 1970 film L’Enfant Sauvage, tours the process of a father civilizing his young son by having him get a haircut and put on a fitted shirt. “Moby Dick” adapts both Melville’s novel and John Huston’s 1956 film. However, Ben-Ner mentions that many other sources have informed his work, including Rousseau, Mill, The Jungle Book, and his personal relationship with his son. Though the videos are playful, the actors are himself and his children, adding a level of exposure as well as a level of extreme cuteness.

Herrera’s animated video installation, “Les Noces,” draws its material from a Stravinsky ballet. It consists of two screens on opposite ends of the room, each projecting a collage of scribbled drawings. This work demonstrates how adaptation and the concept of collage are interrelated. In fact, Herrera explains that Stravinsky’s score itself is a collage. To construct the story, Stravinsky turned to a book of anonymous Russian peasant poetry and picked parts from different stories. Sullivan’s multilayered piece “Triangle of Need” adapts a collage of cultural objects such as figure skating and e-mail scams rather than one particular work of art. While this disrupts the unity of the exhibit to a certain degree, it extends the concept of adaptation beyond the creative process and into cultural practice.

Perhaps the exhibit’s most powerful piece is the high-budget, feature-length film titled The Rape of the Sabine Women by Eve Sussman, who was not present at the discussion. Sussman’s film adapts a Roman myth and also its 18th-century representation by painter Jacques-Louis David. The film consists of long and haunting scenes that tell the story in a 1960s Athenian setting. The attention paid to visual and auditory detail allows the film to mesmerize and terrorize the viewer. As the myth ends in war, the film also ends in a scene of graphic and violent human struggle.

The most obvious problem with this exhibit is that the Smart Museum does not offer ample space intended for sound. Sussman’s and Herrera’s works are fortunate enough to be displayed in theaters curtained off from the rest of the museum, but Ben-Ner’s and Sullivan’s works hang next to places with traffic. While Ben-Ner’s videos are silent, Sullivan’s must be experienced through headphones attached to backless wooden benches. Ben-Ner’s “Wild Child” at least uses the open space that it has in a playful way. Viewers watch the film from an Astroturf hill, an effect that mimics what he claims to be a Teletubby portrayal of nature that is socially imposed upon children.

Although Adaptation self-reflexively partakes in the process of cultural recycling, the exhibit ultimately seeks to create new work that is valuable even if the viewer is not familiar with the source. As Sullivan explains, the source is not the most relevant part of her work, but rather a point at which the audience can relate, a “point of entry.” Herrera also admits that his source is so obscure that it is unlikely that the viewer would be able to judge by such a standard. He intends to “create another voice” through which one can experience the ballet. Adaptation finds cultural recycling to be a process of recreation rather than interpretation or revision. If artists respond to the past, it is only to say something about the particular conditions of the present. In Adaptation, the venture of tapping into the present through a source from the past finds recycled success.