Out of Time: Museum Hours & The Art of Life

Jem Cohen’s recent release Museum Hours, takes an interesting look at life, art and history in Vienna from the vantage point of the city’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The film has a cinematic kinship with Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark in the manner in which both films use the museum as a place to discover and live the past. However, where Sokurov’s has one overarching experimental idea in the form of a single take, Cohen experiments with form relentlessly, jumping from voice-overs to conversations to documentary-like museum tours and beyond to expand the range of what the museum as an institution actually represents, outside its original conception or the mandates of the curators.

The Vienna of Museum Hours is unromantic, concrete, blank like a canvas. Cohen is not attempting to dazzle us with surface beauty, he is trying to make us wonder by making our eyes and our minds wander. His method is outlined explicitly when a museum tour-guide argues with a museum-goer about the paintings of Bruegel. She believes that in none of Bruegel’s vast paintings (she describes as documentary-like but anyone who has explored the pictures in a Where’s Wally? book will see the similarities with Bruegel) is the actual subject matter the point. For example, the painting ‘The Conversion of Paul’, she believes, is as much about the boy under the tree with the helmet covering his eyes as it is about the conversion of Paul. With this in mind Cohen shoots his film. He dedicates a shot to this boy in the middle of the painting. Later he dedicates a shot to some discarded clothing on the streets of Vienna, or to three bored teenagers in the museum itself. They are all of equal importance in the larger picture.

Have A Look Around

The Louvre opened on 10 August 1793, displaying works of art that had heretofore never been displayed to the public. Until this time art was visible only to the rich who displayed it on their walls as possessions, the way the middle-classes now display artefacts collected from their travels, bought from street-side vendors. As places in which conservation and education could take place, the intentions focused on both the past and the future, the museums became places for both the academics and the public.

But today there is a feeling of exclusivity around art museums. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people nowadays expect the acts of looking, interpreting and understanding to be almost simultaneous as it is when they watch the most popular movies. Films like The Hangover operate on simple laughs and instantaneous rewards. When you see a naked Chinese guy jumping out of a car boot you don’t have to stop and think about it like you do when Groucho Marx recounts his trip to Africa in Animal Crackers: “We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren’t developed, but we’re going back again in a couple of weeks”. That’s the kind of joke that makes the connections in your brain rework, changing the meaning of words and possibly questioning whether you’re offended or not. The meaning doesn’t knock you over the head, it has to be thought about, which is why some people who attend museums, particularly the famous ones, seem to consider relentlessly photographing everything they see to be an apt form of engagement, rather than thinking what is the meaning and what are my reactions to it.

There’s no exclusively “right” way to engage with art, but the mentality of feeling compelled to visit a museum and photograph everything you see – for what? to show it to your friends? “I saw this,” – is a sad and vacuous imitation of an experience, exactly identical with people who record gigs on their phones rather than using their eyes and minds to allow it to affect them in some way. My own favourite museum is the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as it houses one of the biggest collections of Impressionist paintings on the planet. The Impressionist idea of painting light rather than solid objects is, to me, a fascinating one. In this style Monet clearly had the most soul but there’s something endlessly endearing about Degas’ ballerinas or Renoir’s girls. These paintings, in complete opposition to Cohen’s film, express the surface beauty of the world, telling no stories and giving no real insights into the characters, which in a way is a liberating kind of art where the world is inherently both beautiful and meaningless.

Step Outside

This way of not engaging with art in museums is symptomatic of a way of taking the world completely at face value, a thing Jem Cohen tries to get beyond with the decidedly unbeautiful photography of Vienna in his film. There’s a moment in Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities in which Rüdiger Vogler photographs the front of a house and when he sees the polaroid he laments that the camera never captures what he sees with his bare eyes, that is, whatever it was that gave him the inspiration to point his camera in the first place. For Cohen the potential for inspiration is everywhere. When he points his camera it is not to say “look at this, it’s so deep and profound and moving,” it’s more to say “here is our world” and if you find something in it that sticks with you then that’s your business.

Of course anyone who has ever wandered the streets of a city, familiar or unfamiliar, knows that inspiration is only ever a breath away. Where you look when you walk the streets changes your experience. If you (as you sometimes must in a city like Dublin) watch only the footpath, then how will you ever see the scenes of life that play out through the shop windows or in the side-streets or on the tables and chairs in front of the cafés? What do you miss when you block out the world with your headphones or by staring at a phone screen? Replicate your experience of life by buying a ticket to Museum Hours and doing just that. You’ll understand the film just as well as you understand how to live.

The most essential idea Cohen puts forth in this film is that there is nothing in our day-to-day experience that is truly negligible. Of course we feel moments of exalted joy above what we deem to be “ordinary” but where we set the bar of the everyday is completely up to us. There is a piece of graffiti in Temple Bar that is scrawled unevenly in marker on the wall of a building that reads “In the streets of Dublin, where I met my love…” that I honestly feel if it were to disappear tomorrow I would miss far more than if the Mona Lisa was carried off in the night. As feeling thinking humans it is within our capabilities to decide for ourselves what we find to be the remarkable things in our lives. It is a personal compulsion we all have, that too often is suppressed in favour of conformity and hollow conceivable experiences.

Nothing quite captures this idea with such brilliant simplicity as the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’. It is about the word “fuck” that someone has scrawled in crayon on a subway wall, nothing to inspire much reflection – Holden Caulfield had a particularly depressive reaction to a derivation of that piece of graffiti on a wall in his sister’s school – but for Paul Simon taking that extra moment to consider the story behind the word, not even the personality of the writer but the actions that led to the writing appearing on the wall, transforms the initial reaction – the one Holden builds on and gets depressed by – and makes something out of it, not something good necessarily but something not malignant either. Like this, Jem Cohen’s latest film is a wonderful attestation to the act of stepping outside and having a look around.

My full review of Museum Hours can be found here: http://www.meg.ie/museum-hours

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