A handheld vision of a place: trees and a skyline trembling the way only a camera can make them. Then a close-up of a face appears, a girl neither smiling nor frowning. As the film progresses, a pattern emerges. It seems we are going around in circles, and with each passing we see more of the girl. Now she holds a camera, she is riding a bicycle around a fountain. Is she us, or are we her camera?
In the second film the loop is completed, and now the girl appears again, though this time it’s another girl, and slowly we find out that she is holding another camera. As the circles repeat we have almost forgotten what the first girl looked like; the two are similar: not similar enough to be confused when together, but not different enough to be remembered when apart.
We begin to understand that the two girls are filming each other as they cycle around the circular fountain. As I write this phrase, the Smiths’ song “Reel around the fountain” pops into my head and I try to remember what it sounds like, it’s been a few years.
The video repeats and I continue to look for clues as to where it was filmed. Is it Oslo? I remember playing around a circular fountain as a kid there, but it’s not this one. I try to recognize the skyline but it’s generic, it could be anywhere in northern Europe. Still, the fountain of my memories persists and I think of the small park below the hill where the fountain was, and playing in the grass with my brother and Mum. And I remember imagining how this park would be in winter, covered in snow, and me sliding down the snow and maybe laughing happily. My memories always seem to be happy – perhaps I intentionally block out everything bad.
As the girls’ faces appear and reappear on the screen, I think about familiarity and how we see other peoples’ faces, what we read into them. Most of the people’s faces I know I see only in their social media profile pictures. Those images become their faces, the parts that I recognize immediately, the imagery I identify them with. Perhaps that’s why its so disconcerting to see the faces of the two bicycle girls over and over. It’s a kind of familiarity that I am not used to any more. I try to read emotions into their faces, and somehow I seem to be looking for sadness, I try to read their problems, try to guess what is troubling them. I wonder if that face is what they would post as their profile pic, and if that’s how their friends would think of them. With each circling of the fountain, I realize that the segment where I see the landscape is agonizing – I am waiting to see a face again.
I think of the geometry of their movement, obviously a circle. I guess that’s the best way to repeat anything, going around in circles. I remember hearing about the significance of the circle in logo design, and how Apple computers were slowly changing all their logos into circles, to prepare us for the branding potential of their circular headquarters. At that time I bought a circular door mat, because somehow I believed in that vague importance of the circle, and I expected the years to become circular. Sure enough more Apple logos became circular, and perhaps they moved into their circular headquarters, although I stopped paying attention to that kind of architecture long ago. Still, that unfulfilled expectation of the dominance of the circle seems to have persisted, because how else can I explain that it popped into my head as I watched Mai’s work? The circle here was just a device generated by the roundness of the fountain. Maybe the location was picked for that very roundness, so we could repeatedly see the girl with the camera passing by. Everything else except her face is unimportant: the skyline, the trees, the random people passing by in the background. And yet, after so many repetitions, the faces are no less familiar. I don’t know anything about her apart from the fact that she is riding a bicycle and filming herself. Wait, she is not filming herself, why did I think that? She is filming her other self, which is the other girl riding around the fountain at the same time. I somehow wish their timing would go off and suddenly we would catch one of them riding without facing us, as we would a passing stranger. Or I imagine myself sitting on a bench in that park, looking at the two women circling the fountain over and over. Now I want to go back to the video to check every last detail carefully: How many times did they circle the fountain; was it the same number for both or were they different? If they were different I guess my assumption that they were filming each other would collapse.
The film was installed in what looks like a subway entrance or underground passage of some sort. That means that only passing strangers would happen upon these two bicycling women, because the space is clearly not an art gallery. I wonder if all the passers-by would have similar thoughts to mine about the films, or if each one would imagine something different. An underground passage of this sort is of course the site of a repetition like the one we experience in the film. We go to work in the morning, we pass by strangers’ faces, we come home in the afternoon, with similar strangers walking in the opposite direction. The passage is not circular, but it directs our movement, like almost every other part of a city. The repetition of seeing strangers’ faces is not as frequent as in the film, but it goes on for much longer.
The show is titled Father, and I begin to think of the two women as daughters. Did Father pass away? Why would I immediately think of death? Once your parents pass away, I guess that association becomes permanent, or maybe I’m just not used to it yet.
I go back to the videos only to realize that the two girls are not always riding their bicycles. Sometimes they just walk around the fountain. Why would I be so fixated on the idea of the bicycle that I didn’t notice the walking? Did I accidentally slip into associating the round wheels of the bicycle with the round fountain and the circular movement? Mai Hofstad Gunnes’ work seems to produce a lot of these accidental associative slips, confusions between what is real and what is imagined, and now that I think about it, maybe that’s what is most fascinating about life: how you imagine it can be just as real as how it is. In fact life never happens outside our imagination; everything we see is part of our own perception of how life is and how life should be. Maybe the best thing to do is just to go with the flow, accept what life brings and make it part of yourself. Resistance is futile.
I google Mai’s work to look for clues, and I happen on phrases like “will continue to explore ideas connected to production of subjectivity in relation to how we handle and understand images today. Her core artistic method is developed in close collaboration with actors and performers.” Was I the subject of an experiment? Does watching these videos and writing about them make me one of the actors and/or performers? Is that why Mai placed the videos in the underground passage, so strangers could see other strangers and wonder what they are doing, where they are going? I watch an older work, “Baby Snakes Hatching, Ruins Ruins”, a film about the relationship of snakes and architecture. I recognize one of the performers, Helga, a friend I haven’t seen in a while. She is dressed as a building, in a kind of brick toga. I try to imagine how she has been all these years, but inside Mai’s work she is not yet herself, nor is she someone else. She is caught in the limbo that Mai Hofstad Gunnes’ work often produces, the grey area between what is real and what we want the real to be.