Murder in Three Acts
Alsi Çavuşoğlu at Delfina Foundation, London
Coagulated blood, missing body parts, brilliant deductions, traces of evidence, wild accusations and murder – such is the stuff of Alsi Çavuşoğlu's playful pastiche of popular TV crime dramas, Murder in Three Acts (2012), which was on show (11th – 25th October 2013) throughout the raw spaces of the Delfina Foundation's London space currently in mid-renovation. The films, divided into three acts, were shown in three rooms across two floors of the Delfina building, just one year after they had been originally shot on location at the Frieze Art Fair 2012 as part of Frieze Projects. The screening of the films during this year's Frieze Week, at the home of one of its commissioners, thus marked the closing of a neat spatial and temporal circle.
Murder in Three Acts follows three detectives as they attempt to piece together a series of murders committed at an art fair, contemporary art gallery, and performance. Flashy title sequence graphics, fast edits and a cacophonic accompanying theme all explicitly link the piece to the crime drama genre, and especially shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – now in its thirteenth season – whose plot is driven by the intricacies of forensic science.
Act One opens on the blood splattered white walls of an art fair booth at Frieze. Shots of the curious faces of actual visitors to the fair are included, introducing slices of reality into what is a fictional narrative. Çavuşoğlu's interests as an artist lie in this liminal space between the fictive and real, and how these play out in the construction or writing of history. In her work Pawnbroker Series (2012) she created photograms of Ottoman jewellery based upon archives of precious items worn by the Royal Family who fled the Turkish Republic. These have resurfaced as part of nostalgia for the period sparked by characters wearing copies of the originals in a popular Turkish soap opera 'Muhteşem Yüzyıl' (Magnificent Century).
These feedback loops between the past and the present, fact and fiction as affected through material, are at the heart of Murder in Three Acts. Investigators are lead on a circuitous path through differing intersections of material and its meaning as generated throughout human history. The initial murder weapon is a sculpture made from obsidian, which is, the lead detective divines, 'the material of smoked mirrors, Mexican cult object...priests would use for conjuring up visions…now decorates fancy offices'. Obsidian, silicate, pigments and fiberglass all form a link from killing to killing, their analysis providing another step in the spiral of the investigation.
The narrative flow of the films follows the technique of misdirection developed in crime novels, such as those by Agatha Christie, to keep readers guessing until the final revelation. After all, it is through Christie that Çavuşoğlu probably came to her title – Christie's novel Three Act Tragedy (1934) was later adapted to television to and re-named Murder in Three Acts (1986). However, there is no classic Poirot moment of denouement at the conclusion of Çavuşoğlu's work, rather the establishment of an open ended motive based upon the different use values accrued by each object used as a murder weapon over time. Each has moved from having a ritualistic role to taking on the status of commodity. Perhaps these murders are their final revenge?
The technological terminology used in forensic science has become familiar to audiences through repeat exposure in crime dramas. In Murder in Three Acts, Çavuşoğlu has been clever in her translation of art criticism – with its accompanying jargon and modes of interpretation – into another language of analysis, drawing parallels between the way in which objects are read in the art world and how evidence is read in criminology. This sleight of hand provides the viewer with a new perspective on the mechanisms of art history, whilst satirizing the density of language built up around the practice. There is something absurd in the leaps of cognition made by the detectives when confronted by different pieces of evidence. This gentle satire enables the artist to negotiate the art fair context, and indeed the art world's relationship to the 'real' or social world in language and act. At one stage of the film an investigator declares in exasperation that none of the fair's attendees witnessed or indeed intervened in the first murder as they thought it was part of the artwork. Here, meaning between the two worlds is shown to be slippery, actions bearing different consequences and demanding different modes of interpretation in these contexts, albeit pushed to absurdity.
The work has special relevance and resonance, in the context of this 2013 screening, for its host. Delfina Foundation is currently in a chrysalis stage, to provide anenlarged residency and research centre. The content of these three short films echoes the progress of the architecture that frames them. Stripped back, it reveals bare floorboards, intriguing openings in the building from the basement to the top floor, and luminous skylights that provide a wealth of vistas through which to spy and trace the history of this traditional London town house in its moment of transition.
One room, which will later become a visiting artists bedroom, hosted the same obsidian sculptures that feature in the film. They glowed under the light of UV torches, which, when cast onto the wall, highlighted a splattered substance that could very well have been blood. Here, the film expanded directly into the space of its exhibition, just as the sounds of the other films ricocheted off bare floors and walls as the viewer stood in front of each.
Perhaps one missing element in the experience of visiting the exhibition was that the viewer was not lead from one film to the other, but by dint of their being different lengths, the viewer somehow interrupted Act 2 half-way through, and Act 3 just as a previous loop finished. Yet, this multi-layered and multi-chronologic display choice worked to re-establish the core line of inquiry within the film – that of the building of narrative and history through the analysis of fragments by professional 'readers' whose deductions become official interpretations, transforming the object to artwork, to weapon.