melvin moti, the black room
11 Sep 2005

Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam is opening the new season with The Black Room (2005), a new film by Melvin Moti (b. 1977, Rotterdam).

The exhibition is Moti’s first solo museum presentation and follows his much-discussed introduction by SMBA at KunstRAI 2004 with the film No Show. That film, too, is included in the exhibition.

The Black Room’s points of reference are the life of French surrealist writer Robert Desnos (1900-1945) and images of the Black Room in the tiny Roman Villa Agrippa at Boscotrecase, not far from Pompeii. Taking its cue from an imaginary interview with Desnos written by Moti, the camera explores the elegant frescos on the walls of the Black Room. For the most part the screen image is abstract and dark, but small ‘floating’ landscapes and ornaments also pass before our eyes.

Meanwhile, ‘Desnos’ talks about the surrealists’ experiments with ‘sleep-writing’, a form of self-hypnosis during which the subjects recorded poems, texts and images. He speaks animatedly about his feelings and fears during the short period between September 1922 and February 1923 when the surrealists engaged in sleep-writing. Desnos was by far the most proficient sleep-writer among the surrealists: during the sessions he would declaim the strangest texts in alexandrines. He also had a natural facility for self-hypnosis, being able to go into a trance in the midst of a busy cafe. 

The experiments with sleep-writing had far-reaching consequences for the mental and physical well-being of those surrealists who practised it. Desnos became addicted to it and developed sleeping and eating disorders. He became suicidal and chased the writer Paul Éluard with a knife. In the end, after several violent episodes in the group, André Breton resolutely put a stop to the experiments. 

Desnos’ mental wanderings find their counterpart in the architectural principle of the black room where the walls effectively dissolve, leaving only a boundless black space.

The production of The Black Room occupied a whole year and is based on exhaustive historical research into the life and work of Robert Desnos. Moti carried out similarly intensive research for his earlier film No Show (2004), which can also be seen at the SMBA. For this film the artist spoke to witnesses of a curious event that took place in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum in 1943. In 1941, as a precaution against possible war damage, the Hermitage’s many thousands of art treasures were taken away for safekeeping, where they remained until 1944. Soldiers were deployed to move the art works. In 1943, a guide showed a group of soldiers through the vacant rooms of the Hermitage. As he led the men past the empty frames he described from memory the paintings by Fra Angelico, Rembrandt and other luminaries from the history of European painting which until recently had hung on these walls. Moti based his work on this event and created a compelling and poignant film about memory, representation and love of art.

SMBA Newsletter No. 88, featuring an essay by Thomas Michelon, will be published to coincide with the exhibition

Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, Rozenstraat 59