The opening piece of David Claerbout's latest exhibition 'The Time that Remains' at the Parasol Unit clearly sets a tone of unnerving, probing spectatorship. Entering a pitch-black room, the eyes strain to see what might lay ahead, eventually deciphering Claerbout's The Orchestra looming out of the darkness. But what slowly emerges is an image of a conductor and audience staring straight back, enquiring, and reversing the role of subject onto the viewer. Immersed in near-complete darkness, you are forced to squint and gaze intently at the dimly lit image, only to be viewed just as intently in return, and hence made conscious of the act of looking.
It is this self-awareness that pervades Claerbout's first solo London exhibition, as he attempts to investigate our experience of visual representation. The show features a variety of photographic, film and interactive works that the Belgian artist has produced since 2000, and they are all united by an avid focus on the everyday and the mundane: a beach at high tide; a maid cleaning at dawn; a brief domestic drama. But this is what makes the pieces so unnerving. Drawn into what we might observe in our everyday lives, any sense of normality is skilfully removed, and in some cases made epic in their unravelling.
One work, The Algiers' Section of a Happy Moment, comprises a film featuring a set of images taken on a small rooftop football pitch on the Casbah in Algiers, played to some light instrumental guitar music. The game has paused, and both young and elderly spectators look on as one player stops to feed a flock of seagulls. The images change at a slow pace, depicting each of the players' gestures and expressions, the angles of the birds in flight, perched on the surrounding wire fence, observed from every available angle. But checking the information on the piece, I realised that this was not a series of images capturing the various carefree movements of a group in time, but one single moment recorded from all angles at the same time. What I had assumed to be a normal narrative collection of photographs was transformed into a hugely impressive feat, the detailed recording of one single, isolated movement. The show of images became absorbing: they were so numerous it would take quite some time to sit through all of them, and each one was captured in great detail with an interesting, individual composition. Claerbout forces the viewer into the moment and the relaxation of what he calls 'the suspicious gaze'; normal narrative is distorted and only subjective experience remains.
The scale of this piece is perhaps only matched by Claerbout's other major work on display, Bordeaux Piece. Very nearly 14 hours long, the film plays out the same tense scenes at ten-minute intervals between three distinctly unpleasant characters at a modernist house in Bordeaux. Initially, it seems that the film is on an endless loop, just as A Happy Moment at first seems to conform to an established form, as a straightforward series of attractive images. However, Claerbout again completely breaks down any sense of normal narrative time, as the actors in fact repeat the scenes again and again, with only the intonation of their dialogue and gestures changing subtly, and the focus instead shifting gradually to the constantly changing movements of the sun and the change of light. At such a length, the film can't be viewed in one sitting, whilst on show at least, so a full viewing experience is not possible. Claerbout has shaped time so that the film can not be consumed entirely; so a definite conclusion can not be drawn, and we are instead left with a kind of subjective, abstract experience.
Claerbout's visual works demand that the viewer slow down and take time, and in this way the title 'The Time that Remains' becomes particularly apt. It is this that makes these pieces so consuming, as he takes the onlooker into his own unique time-frame, dismantling any established viewing experience. You might find your self staying considerably longer than you thought.