Walking into “All Roads Lead” at 836M Gallery is like walking into a surreal Hollywood editing room where video screens are everywhere, and each one is narrating a different scene from a world where pain and pleasure exist in combustible ways. People are on the precipice in Agnès Guillaume’s and John Sanborn’s collaborative video exhibit, especially in Guillaume’s Souls, a five-screen work where distorted faces appear to be trapped in water tunnels, waves of liquid reconfiguring their mouths, foreheads, and cheekbones against their collective will.
Without knowing Guillaume’s motivation in Souls, her pentaptych video could be interpreted as a kind of existential horror show. But Guillaume tells SF Weekly that Souls — which is getting its premiere at 836M — shows the essence of her subjects’ faces through a unique approach: Guillaume asked different people to pose in an intense way “but without any facial expression” while she filmed their reflection on moving water. Guillaume directed her assistants to move the water at different speeds, and in post-production, Guillaume chose a particular background shade of brown that painters use because it works well with all skin tones.
“I discovered that with this process of filming, it shows things about the internal world — I don’t want to say psychologically or whatever — that becomes visible,” Guillaume, who’s based between Paris and Brussels, said on a video chat. “With portraits, a good painter or a good photographer has always tried to make visible the characteristics of what makes people complex, and here this comes without expressions. I didn’t know all the models, but some of them I knew, and I tell you: It really shows something from them that is there.”
Whether Gulliaume’s subjects like what they see is another matter, but for visitors to ”All Roads Lead,” Souls is a memorable work whose accompanying sounds (featuring a thumping that resembles a heartbeat) adds to its moodiness. Like Souls, Sanborn’s four-screen Give Me a Second also distorts its character, albeit briefly, and albeit in a shroud of smoke that consumes his face into a cloudy nothingness. Give Me a Second is a darkly funny look at how Sanborn imagines his death, with slow-motion set-ups that show a fill-in character hit with a pie and hit by a car as he crosses the street. We also see an open grave, from the perspective of the coffin. “This piece is explicitly about my death,” jokes Sanborn in an interview at the gallery. “Carlos (the actor portraying Sanborn) is a better looking, sexier version of me. . . . And (the grave) is, of course, the last real estate you’ll ever own.”
“All Roads Lead” also features Guillaume’s triple diptych called Are You My Friend? and Sanborn’s intricate And in Conclusion, a new 22-screen video work that juxtaposes images of environmental degradation and earthly phenomena like lava flows and melting glaciers with everyday scenes of eyeball movements and selfie poses. Sanborn, who’s based in Berkeley and met Guilliaume several years ago in Paris when he had a show there, jokes that he’s the “maximalist” of the two who incorporates lots of video and ideas while Guillaume is the “minimalist” who anchors her works with a single theme. But both Sanborn and Guillaume have been making art for decades (Guillaume turned to art from music in 2010), and each of their videos at 836M is after the same endgame: Prompt the visitor to ask bigger questions about the lives they see on the many screens before them.
“All Roads Lead.” Through Sept. 30 at 836M Gallery, 836 Montgomery, S.F. Free with appointment.
Also On View
“Zarouhie Abdalian: We can decide.” Through April 24 at Atman Siegel, 1150 25th St., S.F. Free with appointment.
The centerpiece of this exhibit is ostensibly the sound sculpture called threnody for the unwilling martyrs, a memorial composed of five black-cased gold bells that hum and ring with varying degrees of loudness. You almost have to strain to hear the bells — which makes it more interactive since you have to move in closely to really listen. But the bells and the exhibit’s other artworks (like the old combustion engine and the splayed-out bulk bag) are physical objects that Abdalian references in a written poem that’s printed out and juxtaposes humanity’s ability to do harm and do well, as in: “We made bulk bags. We made fighter jets. We made neonatal incubators . . . . We can decide.” The poem changes everything about threnody for the unwilling martyrs and the exhibit’s other artwork. No longer are they ambiguous or decontextualized. Instead, they become visual and auditory portals into systems of commerce and culture that have rewarded millions but have also destroyed millions of lives.