A bureaucracy's stamp of approval
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Jan. 20, 2012
For the run of his exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ali Kazma has transformed the museum's Black Box theater into a shrine to repetitive-stress injury.
The Turkish artist's bizarrely mesmerizing video installation -- which plays in a continuous loop on seven screens -- features footage of a notary public rubber-stamping stacks of documents at a pace so superhuman it will make your carpal tunnel ache.
Called "O.K.," Kazma's multi-channel work documents a simple if wrist-numbingly repetitive action: the stamping of corporate documents with a government seal. According to the artist, Turkish law requires that all of a company's official filings and accounting paperwork be stamped by hand with an inked rubber stamp, authenticating that they have been received by the proper authorities.
That's every single printed page, front and back. It's hard to believe, in the 21st century, that there isn't a machine that can do this, or that such a requirement still exists. But the process is still done manually.
Kazma invited an Istanbul notary who is particularly good at it -- boy, is he good at it -- to demonstrate his craft. The man's hands and fingers fly in a blur of furious action as he flips through reams of paper, stamping all the way.
The soundtrack accompanying Kazma's installation sounds like the production floor of a factory, or a drum solo in a marching band. Out of seven speakers blasts a jazzy, syncopated martial rhythm. It's mysterious, awe-inspiring and a little bit scary.
Kazma's work bears superficial similarity to the work of pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. In the late 19th century, Muybridge documented human and animal locomotion in a famous series of still photos that broke down complex movements (walking, running or jumping, for example) into their component parts. Though Kazma's camera doesn't freeze the action -- in fact, the video seems to be stuck on fast forward -- he does examine it from multiple angles. If you watch long enough, you can almost start to analyze the mechanics.
But unlike with Muybridge, the artist's aims aren't coolly analytical. Rather, a warm and fuzzy nostalgia pervades the show, overwhelming the feeling of soulless busywork. You come away with a sweet affection for old-fashioned human activity, however pointless and debilitating.
"O.K." is a strange homage to a strange, difficult and dying art. Like ballet, it is, at its purest, an expression of punishing beauty.