Thuistezien 179 — 16.02.2021

Bjørn Melhus
The Oral Thing

The Theory of Freedom was a three-part project organized by West. Part I took place at De Kunsthal in Rotterdam and consisted of the premiere of the film project ‘World Theory’. Part III took place as part of the Rotterdam International Film Festival and showed five of his older films. Part II was presented at West in The Hague. I want to shine a light on one of these six videos by examining a short yet complex and loaded, 2-minute excerpt from his video work ‘The Oral Thing’.

The excerpt kicks off with a clear reference to late 80s overdramatic television stylings. We see a man speaking to the camera. He turns out to be a sci-fi TV evangelist type character. New overtly dated visual effects absorb him, adding a further kitsch dramatic flair to his appearance and attempting to imply that he possesses some sort of supernatural powers. He glides down a staircase as if descending from the heavens. Out of nowhere an applauding audience appears. The quasi-religious man introduces two characters, they could be his guests or his victims. With their arms folded beneath their clothes they seem monk-like, and are seen restrained in brightly colored tubes that reduce them to a childish and limited talk. We find ourselves in the midst of a surreal and uncomfortable-feeling american TV show, one in which the depicted audience also plays a strong participatory role.

The repeated use of small fragments of sampled spoken words add to the bizarreness of the situation, creating a conversation that keeps getting weirder as it goes on, and also emphasizing a ritualistic aspect inherent in the spectacle as the use of short phrases take on a mantra-like effect. It’s worth noting also the rhythmic effect the sampled audio has in combination with the muzak-like sonic accompaniment, which aids the performative and ritualistic world the artist.

The situation the mock-evangelist is investigating is unclear, but hints at a series of violent incidents and possibly even refers to some form of possible child abuse. The audience in the film reacts to the spectacle with an engaged and fully engrossed abhorrence. There is a lack of subtlety in examining the discussed situation, the desire is to assign blame as the situation turns into something similar to a public witch trial. Drawing parallels to religion and televangelism allows Melhuis to not only underline the increasingly central place that TV has in our lives, but also to ask to question some of the truths we take for granted about our world.

The screen has become our truth, and also our altar. In front of it perform our personal rituals. We are endlessly watching, reading and listening in order to entertain ourselves, yet it goes much deeper. As the outer world becomes smaller, and our inner world intensifies, we seek out understanding, guidance and something to believe in. We need rituals now more than ever to keep us sane.

‘The art of living is to be at home as if one were traveling’ — Godfried Bomans

Text: Thijs Jaeger