Museum Stills


Museum Vivants
Jennifer Fisher and Jim Drobnick

Adad Hannah’s Stills appropriate the museum as the mise-en-scène for a series of performance-based videos. Staged in the dignified spaces of the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, Hannah reimagines the Baroque galleries in which paintings appear to be golden-cased windows onto other worlds and where the architecture lends itself to ceremonial rituals and rarified experiences. In the series of stills excerpted and discussed here, what we call “museum vivants,” people are viewed posing in pictures, for pictures and as pictures – with uncanny resonances occurring between the various levels of representation, reality and mediation.

- essay continues below videos -

2002, SD video, 5 min. Edition of 5


2002, SD video, 5 min. Edition of 5


2002, SD video, 5 min. Edition of 5


Portrait of a Gentleman
2002, SD video, 5 min. Edition of 5


4 Chairs
2002, SD video, 5 min. Edition of 5


2002, SD video, 5 min. Edition of 5

Drawing upon his work as a performance artist and a set dresser for TV commercials, Hannah contemporizes for the digital era the nineteenth-century practice of tableaux vivants (“living pictures”). Each still consists of a continuous videotaping of individuals specifically arranged in the context of art or in the act of aesthetic apprehension. Over the past 250 years, tableaux vivants have evolved as a theatrical device, popular amusement, and kinaesthetic exercise. Typically, participants molded their bodies to enact works of art – imitating figures found in sculptures and paintings, interpreting literary and mythic themes, or portraying cultural icons. Posing in a tableau vivant challenges models to hold their posture for extended periods of time – to remain “still as a statue.”1

Whereas video art has often worked as an extension of, or an alternative to, film and television, Hannah brings video into an association with photography. Like the use of stills to publicize Hollywood films, Hannah’s Stills convey provocative moments in which narrative, psychology, personality and social relations are compressed or implied. Projected like large-format photographs, these fixed moments open into an expanded sense of time in which action is frozen, but subtleties are exaggerated: a finger twitch, a swaying torso, an eye blink, and other micro-details of sentience. These aspects of “liveness” provoke the eye to undo the totality of the composition and to see the image not as an emblem of thanatos, à la Barthes, but as an ongoing, vital presence.2

The six stills chosen for this exhibition at SAW Gallery centre on modes of aesthetic experience – both idiosyncratic and conventional.3 Given the tradition of Kantian “disinterested contemplation” as the standard of museum demeanour in beholding art, as curators we selected stills that focused on two extremes: excessive or engaged interest on the one hand, and banal or disengaged disinterest on the other. Projected in two cycles of three videos, each museum vivant lasts five minutes and loops continuously with the others.

The first cycle portrays the museum as a site of aspiration – one of its traditional roles as a place where citizens are formed according to civilizing rituals.4 But here, beholders exceed museum propriety as they overidentify with the artworks. Tribute depicts a woman with an arm outstretched to Philippe de Champaigne’s The Tribute Money (1650-55). Her gesture reacts to the painting’s depiction of the tense meeting between Christ and a Pharisee, who demanded to know whether the Messiah’s spiritual beliefs advocated disobedience to Roman authority. Christ is reported to have uttered “Render ... unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,”5 thus skillfully negotiating the apparent incompatibility between religious and political allegiance. The woman’s hand rises to meet the hands of the two men and silently inserts herself into the interaction, complicating the significance of the mytho-historical moment by virtue of her contemporary living presence and gender.

In Crying a kneeling man clasps his hands in a gallery of religious paintings, tears running down his cheeks. The artwork of his gaze is not visible, but his melodramatic response is unmistakably evident. Is he offering a prayer or just resting his hands? Is he moved by the religious iconography or the beauty of the painting? Are the tears joyful or sad? Whatever the case, the man’s unleashed sentiments overwhelm museal disinterestedness and flood the room with emotion. Such a spectacle of crying recognizes that artworks exist as more than just formal compositions or exemplars of art historical styles; they can also evoke unpredictable feelings. This still confirms the efficacy of the face, as Deleuze suggests, as the prime vehicle of conveying affect.6

Portrait of a Gentleman shows a man who has disrobed and knocked over a velvet rope barrier. He lunges toward a seventeenth-century painting by Bartholomeus Van der Helst (with the same title) in an apparent attempt at carnal union. Two museum guards strive to halt his impassioned careening into the canvas. Caught in the act of what we could call artophilia – an excessive love for and eroticization of art – the naked man exhibits patently ungentlemanly behaviour by rupturing the protocols of museum restraint. His fervent pursuit of consummation with the portrait may be apposite to the violence sought by iconoclasts and vandalizers, yet his disregard for the artwork’s sanctity is similar.

In contrast to the atypical eruptions of excessive identification mentioned above, the second cycle of Hannah’s stills depict, by contrast, the museum quotidian. We observe people in the midst of unremarkable moments, or as they use the museum against-the grain of its intended scripts. In Guided, beholders focus their attention upon a lecturer positioned before Abraham Bloemaert’s Harvest Scene (1625-30). While the docent – the familiar figure who explains art and edifies the public – gestures toward the painting, it is nearly obscured by the huddle of listeners. Our perspective into the scene is that of an outsider unable to perceive precisely what is happening. Looking upon the scene from below, as if from the viewpoint of a child, there is a sense of exclusion from the inner circle of adults and the temptation of prohibited knowledge.

The last two stills present distinctively banal museum experiences. Here we witness the polar opposite of excessive identification: a disengaged disinterestedness. That is, museumgoers utilize the space apart from direct engagement with art. Beyond the museum’s designation as a site of cultural inscription and moral instruction, it is a heterotopic public space often deployed as a “time-out” from the frantic pace of the city. In 4 Chairs, visitors relax in upholstered chairs poised in a compartmentalized, cruciform shape. The individuals in this alienated arrangement relate neither to each other, nor to the art. Are they distracted, dreaming, making plans, or just spacing out? Whatever their thoughts, these individuals are distinctly “alone” despite being together in public.

Ascending/Descending foregrounds the museum’s stairs, a dramatic architectural feature prominent in most universal survey museums. Traditionally, this part of the museum functions as a transitional, ritualistic threshold in which visitors ascend from the mundane world of commerce and expediency to the “higher,” contemplative realm of art. What is fascinating about this still is its disjunctive temporality. While museumgoers stand immobilized on the stairs, in the background we glimpse real-time reflections of passing traffic and pedestrians, each oblivious to the other’s circumstance.

Stills depict a curious state of limbo which problematizes assumptions about each of the referenced media formats: they are performances without action, photography without stasis, videos without editing. Just as the ontological distinctions between media blur, so too do the performers in Stills converge with the figures in the paintings, are flattened by the video camera into the museum environment, and, when projected onto the gallery walls, ultimately become art themselves.

1. For more information on tableaux vivants, see Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, CounterPoses, Montreal: Oboro and DisplayCult, 2002.
2. Indeed, Hannah prefers to work with nonprofessional models whose untrained bodies are more revealing of movement. On the deathliness of photography, see Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard, London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.
3. Stills was curated by DisplayCult and exhibited at SAW Gallery, Ottawa, September 5-28, 2002.
4. See, e.g., Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, New York and London: Routledge, 1995; Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, New York and London: Routledge, 1995; and Donald Horne, The Great Museum: The Representation of History, London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984.
5. The Bible (King James version), Matthew 22: 21.
6. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.


This project has been presented in the following exhibitions:

2010, Peinture de genre comme figure de Still, Musée d'art contemporain des Laurentides, Quebec. 
         Curated by Éloi Desjardins. Catalog produced.
2007, Adad Hannah: Museum Stills, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra, Australia. Curated by David Broker.
2002, Stills, SAW Gallery, Ottawa. Curators: Jennifer Fisher & Jim Drobnick.