Fairytales seem the closest thing we know to the bare practice of storytelling. Perhaps because that is where we all started our "audience" lives; perhaps because, as argued by the Russian theoretician Vladimir Propp, the structure of the fairytale contains the basic elements of every possible constructed narrative, however complicated (villains, trickery, difficulties, inversions); or perhaps because, according to Lacan's reworking of Freud's theories, fairytales lend direct form to the cultural stereotypes of our hopes and fears. There is something in fairytales that seems to make them central, a deep-set medium or a simple and sharp means of putting the stories we most want to tell into words. The great narratives and the small fears, the spectres of the past and the nightmares of the present all tend to share this—with varying degrees of explicitness and they begin with the words "Once upon a time".
Once Upon A Time is also the title of an exhibition on at the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum in Berlin until 9 October. Curated by Joan Young, it focuses on the fairytale and fantastic content of video artworks of the late 20th and early 21st century. The exhibition features six video works selected from the Guggenheim collection to highlight the common approach adopted by internationally renowned artists (Francis Alÿs, Cao Fei, Pierre Huyghe, Aleksandra Mir, Mika Rottenberg and Janaina Tschäpe) when narrating the contemporary world—that of creating a myth or writing a fairytale.
Perhaps the most exemplary work is Whose Utopia?, a video made by Chinese artist Cao Fei during a residency lasting several months in the OSRAM production plant in 2006. Whose Utopia?, is divided into four parts and shows the life of the factory and those working in it in a series of "constructed" scenes and pictures/portraits of its everyday life. The background music sways between the poetic/evocative and a rock-like irony and those watching follow a fairy and a worker dancing through empty industrial sheds that gradually fill with workers who seem blind to what is going on around them. In another section of the video, the same workers are seen at their work stations, smiling—or almost. These are young people come from the changing countryside or already run-down suburbs, drawn by the magic spell of the world's fastest expanding industrial district and the promise of a brilliant future that contrasts sharply with their visible conditions. "My future is not a dream", says the accompanying song and we read on their T-shirts at the end. "My future is not a dream" but the angle adopted by the artist suggests quite the opposite, with somewhat bitter irony.
Cao Fei's attempt to narrate reality via the fairytale is mirrored in the exhibition's other ideal extreme—the creation of a myth, which was the clear purpose of the famous project carried out by Belgian Francis Alÿs in 2002, When Faith Moves Mountains. The artist involved 500 people in the laborious task of shifting a mountain, pick and shovel in hand, by just a few centimetres. The performance is recorded in a three-channel projection showing the workers lined up on a hill of dust, like a mirage and made hazy by the scorching heat. They are engaged in an act of faith that turns a game of words into reality—a laborious, poetic—but, of course, pointless—action.
There is, perhaps, something extremely sad or paradoxical in the observation that the truly fantastic effect of Alÿs' action stems from its artificiality (it is, after all, an artist's project—a "myth" planted in reality via a collective action). The same fairytale dimension, adopted by Cao Fei to describe and not to create, is, when all is said and done, ambivalent and bitter. The real fairytales, this observation seems to be saying, are the fake ones. However much we seek it out, the fantastic only exists in real life to the degree that we ourselves put it there.
The same resignation, or hypothetical disappointment, is perceived in the contrast created by the other works. In Dough (2006), Mika Rottenberg creates a ridiculous and surreal assembly line on which the often deformed bodies of a group of female workers play a direct part in the industrial production of dough. But, a little as in Terry Gilliam's Brazil (which seems, perhaps, to have inspired the aesthetic of Dough), the caricature quickly becomes grotesque and what thanks to certain colours and images seems a fantastic factory proves actually to be a Fordist nightmare of total worker submission to production demands. By contrast, First Woman on the Moon (Aleksandra Mir, 1999) has a very different feel. In a mix of joy and a sense of the epic, a group of women role-play the actions of the astronauts who landed on the Moon, on a Dutch beach transformed for the purpose. Again, we are dealing with the creation of a myth (woman landing on the moon) but a false myth that poses awkward questions about real life and, more specifically, the part played by women in the great epic that was the 20th century and on the latter's often mythographic status.