Rachel Rose’s Unsettling Video Art

Sometimes, going to the movies can feel like a process of disassembly and reconstitution—not in a lofty, philosophical sense but in a basic, physical one, as though the instruments your body uses to recognize the world have been remade. The artist Rachel Rose had this experience in 2014, when she saw the film “Gravity,” and, leaving the theater, felt “a very confusing sense of displacement from earth.” The video work that she made afterward, “Everything and More,” arose from a desire to deconstruct how this feeling could be produced simply by an encounter with sound emitted from speakers and light particles thrown off a flat surface. The piece, which was the subject of a solo show at the Whitney that opened in 2015, layers the voice of an astronaut talking about how he felt upon returning from space (smells are stronger; his wristwatch feels heavy, “like a bowling ball”) with footage of researchers in a neutral-buoyancy lab and shimmering liquids fusing together and breaking apart. The work suggests that you might think of your body as a kind of sensory sieve, your mind a wisp of consciousness enclosed by a permeable membrane.

Each of Rose’s films has explored how the perceptual experiences of human beings are shaped by the physical, social, economic, and technological structures that are particular to a certain time. In “A Minute Ago” (2014), a piece that Rose made after Hurricane Sandy, she combined a clip of a sudden summer’s day hailstorm on a Siberian beach with footage of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a landmark of modernist architecture. Rose’s cuts impose the beach on the idyll surrounding Johnson’s house in a manner recalling the way that unseasonable weather seems to collapse an uncanny reality into the familiar one. The juxtaposition of glass, the material that has come to define so much of the contemporary built environment, with the seaside revelers’ panic evokes the unique dread triggered by dwelling in structures that feel simultaneously flimsy and futuristic.

“Enclosure,” Rose’s latest work, is set in a slightly fictionalized version of rural England in the year 1699. The film follows a young woman named Recent, an alchemist who belongs to a band of grifters called the Famlee, who travel the countryside cheating peasants out of their land. In exchange for deeds, the Famlee offers counterfeit versions of a new store of value known as cash. They succeed by a combination of seduction and threat, presenting their offers to their marks as the last chance to avoid eviction and penury. It is a plausible fate: by this time, the enclosure movement, in which lords and nobles hedged and fenced off formerly common land, has been unfolding for more than a century.

At the Gladstone Gallery, where “Enclosure” was recently on view, the thirty-minute film was projected onto a semitransparent screen of multiplex-like proportions that hung in the center of the room. The film’s visual scheme, consisting of flashes of the landscape, the villagers, and animals and plants, suggests the enchantment of a world governed not by physics but by a force that stretches across the domains of the human, animal, arboreal, and spiritual—a world where people had the sense that, as Rose put it to me, “one thing can become another, transform into another, with a kind of malleability that maybe feels magical to us.”

When I visited Rose in her studio—two small, brightly lit, white-walled rooms in Manhattan’s Chinatown—she explained that she had been interested in thinking about how the transformations of early modern Europe, and the ways that the landscape was warped at the time, constituted “a kind of root of our economic present.”Rose, who is thirty-five, was wearing black jeans on which old rips had been patched, a white T-shirt, and leather hiking boots. Her hands drifted through their air in a relaxed, slightly professorial manner as she enumerated these transformations, which seemed to traverse the material and the metaphysical. “The landscape literally gets deforested, burned down, cut up, reorganized; and literally, at that moment, is the beginning of the widespread use of cash; and literally, at that moment, also is the shift from a kind of magical thinking into a new form of rational thinking.” The film, which features a black orb in the sky, and a story-within-a-story about the entwinement of bear and human life, dramatizes the shifts in the contours of human consciousness that these transformations precipitated, and conjures a sense of what it would be like to exist in a world where people are immersed in the landscape, and time is “connected to this celestial, seasonal, daily light movement—and contained in that way by those things.”

Historians have regarded the enclosure movement variously as the precursor to wondrous economic growth and as theft. E. P. Thompson, the author of “The Making of the English Working Class,” called it “class robbery, played according to the rules of property and law laid down by a Parliament of property owners and lawyers.” Before enclosure, most rural peasants were able to support themselves using the land, to which they had the right of access. The first enclosures not only took away that right, necessitating the adoption of wage labor, but they also set in motion a process by which that land—valueless, because it could be owned by no one—became a source of prodigious wealth for a small slice of society. By presenting the agents of disenfranchisement as alchemists, Rose invites us to see the film as allegory: both alchemy and enclosure depend on opaque processes practiced by a select group of initiates; both take matter that is base and transfigure it into something precious; often, both are part of a scam. The film prompts one to marvel at the way that such a scam can nonetheless reconfigure the world, ushering in a market economy that fuels the adoption of cash, that cuts people off from nature and from one another, and in doing so leads to the decline of an animism, and the ascendance of a worldview that is rational and mechanical.

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