Mathias Poledna at the Austrian Pavilion: Fooling With Me
A little tune’s been going through my head for days now: “I’ve Got A Feeling You’re Fooling”, a song from the 1930s, now the soundtrack for Los Angeles-based Austrian artist Mathias Poledna’s film Imitation of Life, showing in the Austrian pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. The film is a three-minute animated cartoon of a small donkey in a sailor suit, first sleeping on a floating log and contemplating where he came from; then dancing as he sings the song. It’s a Poledna-typical reenactment—this time of something an animation studio like Disney would have done 70 or 80 years ago, but the "something like" is the hook. It could be Disney, but it’s not. The cute donkey looks familiar, but can't be.
The exhibition material claims the film’s at least in part about the labor that went into its analogue production—more than 5,000 handmade animation cells, watercolors and other materials were created by LA-based animators. The song was re-recorded with a contemporary singer and 70-piece orchestra. Even so, at first it doesn’t seem like much. At the opening, lots of viewers, clearly irritated at the strip’s brevity and apparent levity, grumbled about exactly this (and not only the insane labor, but also the insane cost: Austria’s cultural coffers might be fuller and more generous than those of other countries, but the cool million this apparently cost, much of it from patrons in addition to state funds, was a big topic of discussion).
My first reaction? A sense that I’m maybe, no, definitely too American to see the point of reenacting the past. A hunch I was missing the meta level. But then, after a second viewing (in the rain, on Thursday, almost alone) I realized that the little film was starting to get to me. The codes of western-world visual culture are so deeply imbedded in us that even something new can feel eerily hashed out when placed in such a familiar “frame” (one lyric from the song: “I’ve got a feelin’ it’s all a frame”). Had I seen Poledna’s donkey on YouTube with my little girl (we watch a lot of old Disney), I would have unquestioningly pushed “repeat” and wondered which Silly Symphony it had come from. Here, it’s a reminder of the pervasiveness and now universality of American entertainment culture, the fallibility of memory, a commentary on what we think we know and what we’ve been trained to perceive and enjoy.
Poledna’s use of the modernist pavilion is quite brilliant – in the airy entrance halls are nothing but some spare drawings, from the animation process, on the wall; the central part of the building is a womb-like, blacked-out screening room. If one measure of Venice Biennale success is making sure viewers remember the work and continue to think about it, Poledna managed to hit it. Fooling with me indeed.
(and here's a clip for those who'd like to hear the song, in an earlier incarnation)