PST, A to Z: Maria Nordman, ‘Film Room: Smoke’ at LACMA


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Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

On a beach in Malibu in 1967, artist Maria Nordman staged a simple scene: two young bohemians, a man and a woman, meet, sit in an upholstered chair (carefully covered with plastic to protect it from the incoming surf) and smoke cigarettes. The end.


Attention spans were probably longer in the late ‘60s. Although nothing much happens, Nordman filmed the two protagonists with two cameras: one static, the other handheld. As part of Pacific Standard Time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nordman projects the synchronized footage side by side, with a small wall jutting out into the room between the screens. The installation is an elegant experiment in the vicissitudes of space, narrative and, perhaps, empathy.

If you stand in the middle of the room — only two people are allowed to enter at a time — you can see both projections simultaneously, although it’s hard not to focus on one or the other. If you move to either side at just the right spot, the wall in the center blocks your view of the opposite side, so that you see only one projection. This shift in perspective draws attention to your interaction with the space and makes you part of the piece. You are simultaneously a point in the installation’s geometry and the editor of your own movie — “cutting” from a wide shot to a close-up and back as you walk across the room.

The projections are just different enough to make you wonder, constantly, what you’re missing. On the side shot with a static camera, the scene is a bit dull, lacking in detail. On the handheld side, it’s all drama, a story of hands, mouths, hair and crashing surf, but without context. At one point the woman walks out of the frame of the static camera — we have lost her — but the roaming camera picks her up on the other side. Then again, in following her, we have missed what the guy is doing.

This all sounds a bit silly in writing, but the experience itself is thought-provoking. Even though the piece is only a little more than four minutes long, it never feels like you’ve seen the whole thing. It reminds us that closure is an illusion — we can never see it all — and that perception is continually shifting; there is no objective point of view. Each of us is the editor of our own feature film.

Nordman concludes the piece with a small shift in the cameras’ behaviors. The heretofore static camera moves its gaze away from the couple, while the footage shot with the roaming camera ends in a freeze frame on the man’s face. This small gesture is hopeful, suggesting that despite being locked in our separate points of view, we might inch toward one another in the end.

-- Sharon Mizota

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Jan. 15. Closed Wednesdays.