The artist’s supercut of Indian films’ use of Switzerland is a whitewash.
If you’ve seen any Bollywood films lately, you may be familiar with the “cut to Switzerland.” No matter what precedes it, when the music swells, it’s time for a quick costume change and an even quicker teleportation to an alpine dreamscape some 5,000 miles away. Perhaps the lovers—and it’s nearly always the lovers—run to each other in a springy, buttercup-studded meadow. Perhaps they’re in the mountains or sharing chaste almost-kisses by the lake under an impossibly clear sky. In the other filmic staple, a sudden torrential downpour sets the stage for a conveniently soaked sari and passionate almost-clench, but it’s always sunny in Switzerland.
Cut to Gstaad, a picturesque Swiss ski resort, sometime in 2012. The Swiss artist and musician Christian Marclay is standing on a glacier. He’s there to scout locations for “Elevation 1049: Between Heaven and Hell,” a site-specific exhibition of 25 Swiss artists that will open in early 2014. Yet looking around, he sees something strange, surprising. Brown people, and lots of them. These unexpected foreigners are Indian tourists and they’re all location scouting too, trying to find the sites made famous by their favorite Bollywood films.
Mountains, lakes, and meadows have long been bound up with fantasy and escape in the Indian imaginary. Since the earliest days of Bollywood, the natural beauty of the Kashmir valley has made it the dream sequence location of choice. Yet as the Kashmiri conflict grew increasingly more bloody in the 1980s, with militants and the Indian army equally to blame for the brutalities, filmmakers began looking farther afield. Switzerland, with its verdant fields and snowy peaks, proved to be a close enough match. Yes, the buildings looked different and the locals couldn’t dance, but as an ersatz Kashmir, it would do.
Today, heavyweight director Yash Chopra is often cited as popularizing Switzerland as a location, after falling in love with Gstaad while on his honeymoon. He is said to have told his wife that every subsequent movie he made would have one romantic scene or song shot in the country, a promise he managed to keep. Yet the bulk of the credit is due to the Swiss authorities and their aggressive courting of Indian directors. Minimal red tape, help with site scouting, facilitation of travel and visa arrangements, and a ready willingness to comply with even the most unusual of requests have since cemented Switzerland’s place as the new Kashmir.
So it is that the cut to Kashmir segued comfortably into the cut to Switzerland. In turn, Marclay has drawn from this wealth of shot-in-Switzerland scenes for his newest work, Bollywood Goes to Gstaad. Let’s call it BGTG, to mimic a particularly Bollywood mode of shortening its often lengthy film titles. On show at Elevation 1049 earlier this year, the 17-minute video montage was screened both in a cable car that travels partway up the Gondelbahn glacier, as well as in a small theatre in Gstaad. Each of the clips come from films that were shot on location in Gstaad and span several decades to provide a kitschy, if haphazard—there’s more than a faint whiff of Bollylocation emanating from this—picture of Bollywood’s love affair with Switzerland.
Marclay is best known for his 2010 work The Clock, a 24-hour video montage that functions as a cinematic timepiece. It always shows the correct time at the location in which the work is on view. Through the flashing digits of an alarm clock, languid pillow stretches, or bumbling criminals casing their next joint, each minute is announced with a new cut. It isn’t really—the cuts are irregular but presented as otherwise, and it is in these moments, and in the overarching score that subjugates images to his narrative, that we most feel the invisible hand of Marclay. The artifice of editing, of seamless perfection, is at once both exposed and reified in an overwhelmingly immersive experience that makes you keenly feel the passage of time.
In part, The Clock feels like a study of gestures. Take its scenes of the early-hours phone call, with its certain attitudes of holding a rotary-phone receiver, or a tendency to switch on a night light before answering the phone. Repeated in aggregate, it moves from being suggestive to prescriptive. If you’re the kind of person who takes their cues from the screen, “Is this how they do it, then” becomes “Is this how I ought to be doing it?” During The Clock, clock-time and lived time are collapsed into one glowing screen. Rather than being an escape from the vicissitudes of daily life, time is forced onto the aesthetic experience. Nothing exists outside of The Clock, nothing is allowed to exist outside The Clock, and there’s a certain flattening violence in that.
Watching The Clock, you are also made aware of a certain breadth of cinematic history, specifically the Anglophonic kind. While the work largely drew breathy praise, even winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 2011, it was criticized for its myopia in which other cinematic traditions received only the most token of nods. When The Economist queried him as to how he and six full-time research assistants were apparently unable to find any instances of time-marking in Bollywood films, Marclay responded, “I guess it’s a different tradition, with a different concept of time.”
Bollywood and its different conception of time, okay. Was Marclay referring to Indians’ cultural permissiveness of lateness, the hour (or more) of wiggle room that’s sometimes referred to as Indian Standard Time? Or the collective endurance that allows Bollywood films’ 150-plus-minute average running time or a five-day cricket match to remain enjoyable and not arduous marathons? Or the mental acrobatics that allow cinema-goers to accept space-time ruptures like the cut to Switzerland and its analogous cut to reality with ease and at no detriment to their viewing experiences? To take a decidedly determinist turn, does India’s cinematic language mean Indians experience time differently?
Whatever the reason, it’s difficult to avoid dissonance between the beautiful, if cruel, precision of The Clock and BGTG. The film opens with a shot of a train leaving a platform. Minisha Lamba, in green patiala pants, a pink top and a denim jacket, waits at the Rougemont train station in the late 2000s. Kajol, in a yellow and red salwar suit, gets on a train, looks back, and smiles in the mid-1990s. Ravena Tandon and Govinda cavort on the platform in the late ’90s; she’s wearing a red latex-and-netting top and gold lamé trousers. And so on.
As with The Clock—or any supercut-style montage, really—there’s a small pleasure in identifying and dating each clip used, whether by knowing the film or flinging guesses based on the actors and what they’re wearing. Sometimes there’s even a conversation across time, such as when a particular cut puts Sridevi and Ranbir Kapoor—each in their own flushes of youth some 20 years apart—across a carriage table from one another. As these images flash by, however, they too become subjugated under Marclay’s master narrative. Minisha/Kajol/Raveena/Sridevi quickly melt in to the one brown body of the woman, there to accompany the man. Two Indians and the Gstaad pastoral: Nothing exists outside it, and nothing changes but the resolution.
From trains we move to motorcycles, where the woman always sits behind the man. Sometimes she raises her arm to whip a high-contrast scarf in the breeze behind her, and sometimes he takes his hands off the handlebars, so as to best illustrate his joyous freedom. Next come convertibles, open roads, and airports. Cue arms flung up in meadows and on mountains, captured from above by what is probably a helicopter but more closely resembles, in its wild swinging, a drunken mosquito. Getting into these aerial views, it is here that Marclay’s choice of site gets interesting. In watching BGTG on my laptop and not lurching several hundred feet up in the air, what is lost? It might be wondered too if the work doesn’t lean too much on its container and its little frissons of turbulence to sex up what is an otherwise lackluster montage.
But lest we dwell on any one thing too long, we’re quickly moved into the playful snowplay and handheld skips downhill portion of the program. At the bottom of the mountain, it appears to always be summer, just in time for chocolate tasting, biking, and rolling in fields of imminent hay fever, more trains, helicopters, cable cars, spinning and dancing, and so on. All the expected tropes are there, each in prim little clusters that keep to themselves, and nothing else.
This time round, Marclay doesn’t look to expose the scaffolding of the editing process so much as to lay bare the elements that constitute a fantasy sequence. It doesn’t require submission or demand, I suspect, your full attention. The organizing principle seems to be an airily homogenizing “this thing looks kind of like these things, so let’s put them together and that’s good enough for now,” with an end result that is akin to pasteurization. BGTG feels nowhere near as meticulously matched and edited as its predecessor. (The sound mixing, in particular, suggests iTunes set to crossfade.) His collage here doesn’t quite tessellate so much as put similar-to-Marclay images—foreigners dancing in Gstaad—in something resembling proximity. He’s put them together, so surely they must be all the same.
If The Clock was a study in small gestures, BGTG feels like a study in movement on a much larger scale. Perhaps it’s the grandeur of the landscape, which is inarguably stunning, that demands these more expansive gestures. Perhaps it was all about Gstaad and its landscape to begin with, and the people are just convenient props. Indeed, there’s something rewarding in this vision of site specificity that Marclay presents. Here is a work that resolutely responds to and is made for the built and natural terrain of the location it exists in. Unlike the infinitely mobile The Clock, BGTG requires Gstaad to breathe.
At the same time, the work turns on the distance that is implicit in the performance of site specificity, in which an artist might make a few site visits or at most, spend a few months. Despite being Swiss, Marclay has spent nearly four decades outside Switzerland and approaches Gstaad as an outsider himself. In an interview on the Elevation 1049 site, Marclay says of BGTG, “It’s a video about Gstaad but seen through the eyes of Indians … I could relate to this distance from this kind of idyllic environment that I knew from my childhood, but now I can look at it with a certain distance and maybe be a bit more critical.”
All the calculated intimacy of The Clock—we sit down to dinner, we toss awake at night, we fall in love—is gone here in favor of a resoundingly reductive “they” in what amounts to a sanitized ethnography. Marclay’s “we” is white. And yes, BGTG drips with exoticization, fetish, cultural appropriation, and all the power dynamics that are implicit in a white man repackaging another browner culture to be consumed by the global jet set and art world fancies that frequent the socially gated Gstaad. How could it not?
Take Marclay’s seeing through the eyes of Indians. There’s a grand old tradition of white directors claiming to access brown subjectivity through montage. (It’s always, always montage. Brown people presumably have different conceptions of time.) Yet while the protagonist usually exits the sequence with some snippet of brown cultural capital to be subsequently leveraged, the only takeaway here is caricature. In instrumentalizing Indians to perform the actual labor of looking, of dissecting the construction of Switzerland, Marclay almost asks you to have that same initial experience that he did back in 2012 on the Gondelbahn glacier. These Indians! In Gstaad! Aren’t they so colorful, so funny, so utterly and totally out of place?
Alpine frolicking, boutique chocolatiers, and the sound of money: This is the Switzerland frozen in time that Marclay chooses to present. He understands that this vision of Switzerland—aspirational luxury that’s on sale to anyone who’s lighter than blue collar—is as manufactured as the cinematic image. He knows it, you the presumed viewer know it, but do those Indians? Look at them dancing, renting helicopters, dropping their tourism francs, aspiring. Do they know it’s cinema?
Cut to reality. Here are some other things that an Indian might see: a 2007 law that requires the votes of all members of a local community to approve citizenship, resulting in the disproportionate rejection of non-Christians and people of African and Asian origin. The banning of minarets, an aggressive deportation policy that is criticized as being in violation of human rights protocol, the chilling rise of the neofascist Swiss People’s Party—currently the largest single party in the country—and its attendant xenophobia and racism. This too is Switzerland, where Bollywood can come but it can’t stay, where Indians may be framed by the landscape as long as it’s understood they don’t really belong within it.