A Monumental Young Elvis Made Digital: Guest Post by Jeanie Ambrosio

For the David Claerbout exhibition at USF’s Contemporary Art Museum, the exhibition designer in conjunction with the artist’s studio has formed the space to incorporate four video installations by the artist. Three of these installations produce a large-scale immersive experience for the viewer, while the work displayed at the smallest scale, Radio Piece (Hong Kong) (2015), exists at the size of a standard flat screen to accommodate the intimate experience it produces. The parallelogram shape of the museum is counteracted by a large pyramidal wall with three of the works surrounding each of the sides, two of which are projected onto the surface and meet at the corner edge of the built structure. At the apex of the exhibition is the work KING (after Alfred Wertheimer’s 1956 picture of a young man named Elvis Presley), (2015-16), a three-dimensional rendering based on Alfred Wertheimer’s photograph of Elvis Presley as a youth, just prior to his stardom. In KING, Claerbout has reconstructed a portrait from thousands of images of Elvis’ skin to create a moving image.[1] Claerbout explains that, “Wertheimer portrayed a young man who generously returns every shot the camera takes with an incredible calm, allowing the photographer to come very close and feel at ease with a ‘body’ that will soon transition from casual to monumental.”[2] Claerbout’s quotations around ‘body’ and the reduction of the figure of Elvis to a ‘body’ suggests a link to sculpture, and examines him in context with a form.

David Claerbout installation image. Photo by Don Fuller

When viewing KING, the scene begins by showing the entire space of the living room where Elvis is standing with his family. In the reconstructed image, all of the figures are slightly blurred, even the ones on the same focal range as the Elvis figure. The only figure in clear detail is Elvis, slightly leaning back in a casual stance and looking out of the screen, not toward the viewer but almost symbolically toward what is to come. The view then moves slowly toward and around the Elvis figure, beginning at the base of his feet and panning around the digitally composited body. At one point the entire back of the figure takes up most of the screen, which in turn fills the space of the museum. The viewer becomes aware of the slow change in shadows along the back and shoulder blades as the movement progresses. In my first experience of viewing this work, my initial question was related to Claerbout’s intention. Why recreate this entire scene in three dimensions? What is it about the photograph that he needed to see closer? What is the photograph by Wertheimer not showing that he needs to see? That he needs us to see?

David Claerbout, KING (Elvis Lookalike), 2015
washed ink, felt pen, acrylic pen and pencil on paper, 18 1/8 x 24 inches
© David Claerbout, courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York

A consideration of Claerbout’s relationship to narrative may assist in understanding what it is that he hoped to achieve from recreating this scene in three dimensions. After denouncing the narrative sequences in cinema, he states, “I prefer to observe the potential narratives of a single photograph. How a single photograph can be opened up, how the inner rhetoric of a picture, of a single object, can be put into question.”[3] When Elvis is reconstructed out of images into a three-dimensional body, he takes on the form of sculpture. Though all the attention of the video is constructed around the body, Claerbout chooses to leave out the head and the face of Elvis. This decision to avoid the head and face of Elvis is seen in one of the four drawings included in the exhibition; a bold red line is drawn directly over the chin and the words ‘AVOID 1960’s HAIR CUT = CUT OFF HEAD!’ and ‘OFF HEAD’ are noted to the immediate right of the body. This decision may lead us to believe that a close expression of his face or even an association with the 1960s would have distracted from the sculptural investigation of the body. For it is not just Elvis that we are thinking of but the form and shape of his body. We further inspect his stance, his gesture, looking at any clues that may show us the ‘transition from casual to monumental’. In fact, it seems that Claerbout has made him monumental not to emphasize the narrative created among individuals within the scene, or even the narrative of Elvis himself in this domestic setting; rather it shifts the focus to the creation of a sculptural body. By recreating this sculptural body, the narrative becomes about a physical presentiment of Elvis as the future king of rock. He looks out toward not only his future fame but through the anticipation of becoming an adult and the tribulations that follow. Claerbout privileges us with the ‘moment before’ the ‘decisive moment’ in Elvis’ life, an occasion that many of us can evoke in our narratives. It is a moment of uncertainty and potential, experienced in high definition.

Jeanie Ambrosio
MA Candidate, Art History
School of Art & Art History
University of South Florida

[1] David Claerbout, http://davidclaerbout.com/KING-after-Alfred-Wertheimer-s-1956-picture-of-a-young-man-named-1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] David Claerbout, Interview with Christine Van Assche in David Claerbout: The Shape of Time (Zürich: JRP Ringier, 2008), 12. Exhibition catalog.

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