Another image, a different song. On Mathias Poledna at Secession, Vienna

— Benjamin Hirte

The film material, projected large-scale in the main hall of the Secession, is four minutes, 35mm, in black and white, showing a couple engaged in a duet in the style of an early film musical. Everything in the image is a very precise recreation of the interior of a large spacious New York apartment of the 1930s/1940s, a look especially propagated by Hollywood at that time.

Mathias Poledna’s work, A Village by the Sea, applies a method he previously developed, and which is also seen in his presentation for this year’s Austrian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It can most readily be compared to mockumentary[1] films: he recreates something that has never existed. Without coming across as a parody, the video comes so close to an imagined historical trope, that it is at first unnerving.

In the field of animation, the term “uncanny valley” is used when the animation is so realistic that the observer finds it repulsive (this applies above all to depictions of humans and is responsible, among other things, for the flops of large digital productions like The Polar Express.) Sigmund Freud spoke of the “uncanny” as something that is alien in itself, yet seems to be very familiar. In some ways this is true of Poledna’s film, in the thoughts and feeling it evokes one is caught off guard. Despite the very familiar surface, it’s difficult to categorize this filmic gesture.

The musical point of departure is the French chanson hit “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?” produced by Charles Trenet with LeÅLo Chauliac in 1942; a line from which gives the title to Francois Truffaut’s film Baiser Voles. Several versions of the song exist in different languages, ranging from very kitsch to Jazz classics by Chet Baker, Joao Gilberto, even Frank Sinatra.

This new interpretation of the song features a thirty-piece orchestra recorded in one of the oldest recording studios in Hollywood, with new English lyrics by Poledna himself. Compared with the simple lightness of the video, the scale of the production was enormous. The list in the entryway credits eighty contributors, including the orchestra, which, along with a “1st and 2nd assistant director” initially comes across as a bit over the top in the art context for a barely four-minute video.

However, Austrian-born Poledna has lived in Los Angeles for some time and in relation to the local film industry, his production is actually quite moderate, well crafted and has the intention of clearly reproducing and making transparent its classical production lineage.

By combining specific popular characteristics of an era, he recreates a false past using furniture, clothing, musical style, and choreography—an example of a 1930s/1940s filmic atmosphere from Hollywood’s heyday. Everything appears strangely familiar, including the actor’s faces.

The two actors are the Californian musician Blake Sennett and Allison Pill, who became a film star after playing several important roles in recent Woody Allen movies. The choreography has the character of a dress rehearsal, somewhat rough yet very concentrated. Pill first appears halfway through the clip and chimes in at a moment that turns what follows into a dream sequence: At first a tracking shot reveals the apartment with Sennett prancing around alone. After a glance into a small mirror on a table, Pill suddenly appears, sitting on the previously empty sofa, and a duet follows. A fata morgana, corresponding with Trenet’s original text: “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?” (What remains of our loves?).

Poledna’s new lyrics behave similarly to the original text by Trenet, creating a universal romance, albeit with contemporary references: “A picture captured in celluloid / Words idly spoken into the void” in a Brechtian wink of the eye directed at the audience. On the other hand, lines such as “Where is what once was me and you, the days of spring, the rendezvous” sounds more like a Gassenhauer (sentimental pop).

Musicians such as Charles Trenet stood at the beginning of the development of popular music and songwriting, which have today transformed into a kind of readymade— sampled and reconstructed in a relatively limitless range of quality increments.

The song “Touch” from Daft Punk’s new album, Random Access Memories, which was released with much brouhaha and is already a digital blockbuster, has a long opening sequence with a remarkable similarity to Poledna’s cover. Not only in terms of pitch, lyric construction and style, but also a certain self-irony and awareness in relation to one’s own practice that comes through in their text: “A tourist in a dream / A visitor it seems … a room within a room / A door behind a door.” Perhaps the two musicians visited the Buchholz Galerie in Berlin as early as the spring of 2012, when Poledna’s film was shown. On the Daft Punk album, moreover, we hear the voice of disco music pioneer Giorgio Moroder—whose repertoire has been extensively appropriated by the two musicians. Here he’s telling the story of his genesis as a musician, and by association, the synthetic disco sound.

All of this reveals the formation of a central line in Poledna’s work: Pop as “meme.” The word meme is currently used primarily for phenomena that spread quickly on the internet, in some ways disproportionate to the meaning of the term. The internet variant is like a hydrogen bomb compared with the original sociological concept developed by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. His book The Selfish Gen[2] introduced a cultural equivalent to biological genetics, a cultural behaviour or style that is adapted, replicated, and is easily imitated or slightly altered. Just as most pop songs are only variations taken from a large pool, a digital nirvana.

Memetics in pop culture, and other cultural fields, for example in painting (as Gene Mc Hugh wraps it up quite nicely in his post-internet blog[3]), has the advantage of subsuming variations as certain components and standards that we have internalized and that hold recognition value. What in painting is the brush stroke, the canvas itself, the grid, or the color field, are in pop certain guitar riffs, or currently the overused ubiquitous “auto tune,” or familiar textual formulations and phrases such as: “I miss you like the deserts miss the rain,” “up all night,” or, as Poledna writes “what once was me and you.”

By going back in his video production to the beginning of the pop timeline and there creating a minimalistic idea of a meme, he makes this discreetly clear and adds an absurd note. Despite the cinematic effort, the video has a casual aura: it is not scientific in the true sense, rather it is charming in an analytical way. The context, Poledna’s reproduction and articulation, give his work a timeliness dressed in nostalgia. By doing so, he shows how.

Translated from German by Charlotte Eckler

  1. [1] A mockumentary film is a fake documentary that looks like a real one.
  2. [2]  Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).
  3. [3]