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Ironic dalliance

In videos that form subtexts on Dali's surrealistic vision, artist Jordi Colomer comments on fame, mortality and human expression in a new exhibit at the Dali Museum.

Published May 15, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Many visitors to the Salvador Dali Museum will be perplexed by the dark gallery set up like an art-movie house, in which videos by Jordi Colomer unspool in continuous loop. In one area, three different videos are played on small screens. Arabian Stars, the "feature presentation," has a space of its own, projected large on a wall like a movie.

The recent weekday I visited, the museum was packed, but I sat by myself viewing Colomer's videos. A few curious adults and children wandered through the gallery, which is separated by curtains from the works by the great Spanish surrealist, but kept walking, more interested in the permanent collection than this experimental work.

That's no surprise. Dali's art may be challenging, but it's a familiar challenge. The shock value he delivered in the 1930s has been softened by time and his reputation as a front-ranking 20th century artist.

Colomer, another Catalonian who, as Dali did, lives a large part of the year in Paris, is regarded as Dali was long ago: admired by those who know contemporary art and a puzzle to a larger public who can see that the art is intriguing, even good, without understanding why.

In its new program, "TRACES (of the Avant-garde)," the museum is commissioning work by emerging artists such as Colomer to create contemporary responses to Dali and surrealism. Colomer's Arabian Stars is the second in the series, which began with a collaboration with photographer Joan Fontcuberta in 2004 in which Fontcuberta's landscapes were computer-generated "mappings" and translations of Dali's paintings.

Colomer's video at first seems a more obscure dialogue with Dali's art. In it, adults and children, mostly male, hold cardboard signs with Arabic words as they journey through a desert or a Middle Eastern city on foot, in a boat or in the back of a flatbed truck. A camera follows these journeys, which are met less with curiosity about why someone is holding up a sign than about the camera recording them.

Spending time with the video - and it's a long one at 35 minutes that could try your patience - brings rewards. Arabian Stars is set in Yemen. The camera takes us on a road trip through the barren countryside, which references the vast beaches and rocky outcroppings of Dali's much-painted Cadeques. The cityscapes have a Dalinian resonance, too. Yemen's famous "mud buildings" recall his soft constructions, and the construction sites the camera visits - of buildings going up rather than coming down - are reversals of the cryptic ruins the painter used as metaphors for moral death and decay.

But this is not an homage to Dali or an emulation of his art. Colomer's work has its own integrity, and Arabian Stars is a wry look at celebrity, a subject about which Dali knew much. The crude cardboard placards bear names of real or fictional people with various levels of fame somewhere on the planet either past or present.

A boy in a blue truck rides through a downtown street, his truck swerving through traffic, as he brandishes, in Arabic, "Abo Bakr Saalem," the name of a popular singer in those parts. He gets the same response - practically zero - when he holds up "Mies van der Rohe," a famous 20th century architect who probably has little name recognition in Yemen. Others carry signs with names that begin to accumulate with hilarious irony: Picasso, Michael Jackson, Batman, Madonna, Sherlock Holmes, Homer Simpson, Bruce Lee, Santa Claus, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Zorro, Godzilla, Che Guevara, Barbie, the Ramones, Lolita, Heidi, along with three famous Yeminis, poets Abdulla Albaradoni and Al Zuberi, and Amat al-Alim as-Susua, the Minister of Human Rights there.

The sign-bearers are generally stone-faced, walking with dignity even as crowds gather to mug for the camera. The children have the best time. Several of them trudge through dust, grinning and picking up and discarding other children like pied pipers.

By the end, you realize these anonymous locals are more than stand-ins; they have become the accidental stars of the video with their 15 minutes of fame.

The other videos by Colomer provide a context for this newest one, frames of reference that give the viewer a sense of his overarching aesthetic, much like seeing a group of paintings by a single artist is a richer experience than viewing only one.

Un Crime (A Crime) lasts about five minutes but carries a great visual punch. Colomer spells out a news brief about a woman's murder from a 19th century newspaper in large cardboard letters. Like Arabian Stars, the story is delivered by a group of people who hold the letters up, "creating" the narrative for us to read. They appear to frolic - on a ferry boat, along a canal, as they deliver the gruesome details. Here's part of the sequence: "A crime/whose/real/motives/are not yet/completely known/we think/has been recently/discovered in/Couville/near Cherbourg . . . The station/master, alerted/by an/employee/that a nauseating/smell/was coming/from a box/placed in/the left-luggage office/said to open it./ A corpse/in/decomposition/was inside/

And on it goes until the end, when the group holds up the standard warning broadcast in airports about leaving packages or luggage unattended.

Why is this art?

Videos offer the same sort of cultural interpretations as "still" art, but the more interactive nature of a video, the way it engages us, is different. In this one, for example, Colomer stages a re-creation of sorts of a terrible community event that happened so long ago we have no emotional connection to it. Our connection is with the anonymous community players who tell us the story without saying a word, like the silent chorus of a Greek tragedy transplanted to modern soil. But classic tragedy is alien to contemporary culture, laden with irony, so what we get instead is dark comedy.

That irony infuses another work, Anarchitekton. Colomer began his adult life as an architect, so many of his videos, this one included, have as a subtext how architecture defines and changes us. Here, a man marches around Brasilia, Osaka, Bucharest and Barcelona with a cardboard model of a building in each city mounted on a pole. He's like an acolyte carrying a cross, or as an art historian wrote, a Don Quixote character, striding with equal parts absurdity and nobility through urban landscapes. He is a little figure against backdrops of highrise buildings and, most dramatically, architect Oscar Niemeyer's famous government building in Brasilia. His protest, if that's what it is, comes in parading around them with diminished versions of those monoliths.

Colomer's most elaborately staged video in this collection is Le Dortoir (The Dormitory). He creates its world rather than borrowing a real one, 12 floors of rooms the camera moves up and through. Everyone in them is sleeping off a big party with its detritus scattered around them. Little in the scenes is real: The records stacked on the floor are painted cardboard, as are the furniture and beds in many of the apartments. We are in a collective dream world with these unconscious post-revelers, a motley group that ranges from seniors to a baby. You wonder if they will ever wake up. Or if they would want to.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"TRACES (of the Avant-garde)" with videos by Jordi Colomer is at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through May. Also on view, "Dali Revealed: Land, Myth, Perception and God," works from the permanent collection. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $14 adults, $12 seniors, military and police, $9 students 10-18, $3.50 children 5-10. (727) 823-3767.

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 10:14:04]

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