Experimental Reviews

Ceci ñ’est pas un bateau (2021) – 2 stars

Director: Jerke Setz

Running time: 2mins

I must confess that part of my reaction to any surrealist art is always a rather knee-jerk attempt to show it up as fallacious nonsense. It may be something of the age of pedantry we currently occupy that has provoked this response.

Amid the tireless efforts of overscrupulous conspiracists – excessively concerning themselves with minor details of any situation to deny the occurrence of a school-shooting, the latest advent of police brutality, or the existence of the Moon – everyone seems to have become a tiresome, dime-store logician.

Ultimately, this brand of philosophy boils conveniently down to a rather reductive brand of conservative nihilism. The only true knowledge that can exist now is that everything is a hoax – and conveniently this means that a generation of basement-dwelling neo-fascists don’t have to think about changing their behaviours in any way.

It is possibly a little unfair to view René Magritte’s infamous Ceci n’est pas une pipe through this context. For anyone who spent the last century living under a rock, the oil on canvas contains an image of a pipe, with the disclaimer “This is not a pipe” written underneath.

At the time, it was part of the growing surrealist movement, pulling back the curtain on long-standing artistic and societal conventions – trying to prompt audiences to think how the proverbial sausage of normative discourse was constructed. With that being said, as is often the case with any revolutionary artistic moment, it tends to be the blandest work that stands the test of time, as it is the most commodifiable.

The painting is a representation of a pipe. It is not itself a pipe. The rendition of a pipe here is not especially remarkable, so the whole talking point becomes Magritte’s flagging up of a linguistic convention based around convenience.

If we were to say, “Isn’t that a nice pipe,” (ignoring the caption of the piece, and the fact it’s a pretty rudimentary work), who in the room would believe we were literally discussing a pipe we could smoke from? Most people would continue with the discussion, in the knowledge this is shorthand for “Isn’t that a nice depiction of a pipe?” Only the most irksome know-it-all in the vicinity would feel the need to demonstrate their High-IQ status, by pointing out everyone else is silly as this is not an actual pipe to be smoked from.

With huge swathes of more creative or introspective surrealist work now largely buried, the picture of the pipe is still plastered on t-shirts, mugs and memes from the previously mentioned pedants. We can’t know anything; we can’t treat anything but direct, lived experience as evidence to inform actions for change; and anyone who tries is a fool. Look, here’s Pepe as a pipe! Nothing matters!

In many ways, it is unfair to tie up my feelings toward Jerke Setz’s Ceci ñ’est pas un bateau with all this. At the same time, as it consists of less than two minutes of footage of a paper-boat floating on a pond, how are we supposed to extract it from that context? Yes, we know, this is not a boat, it is just a filmic representation of one. We often talk about films of things as though they were the items themselves. What else have you got for us?

I should note, this is listed as a student project, so it may be that this is Setz experimenting with camera techniques, while still trying to use the odds and ends he collected from that time into a film for distribution. Admittedly the camera work is pretty nice, and emphasises the warm glint of the rising sun against the cool tones of the misty boating lake. Meanwhile, by largely repackaging someone else’s groundwork, Setz has managed to play that off as a cohesive, if uninspired, product. I hope that is what was going on here, anyway, because aside from some very good cinematography, there really isn’t much else to it.

In 100 seconds of film, there was arguably more room to dissect the subject than Magritte had on his canvas – and this is a wasted chance for elaboration; for building on the work of early surrealism without becoming a derivative tribute act. For example, if we are being told flatly this is not a boat, we might have got into the matter of questioning, who says so?

Indeed, failing to question this lends itself to a prescriptivist stance on the production of language, rather than understanding how words actually develop. Prescriptivists often concern themselves with minute details of usage and grammar, such as split infinitives or dangling participles, and condemn anyone who “falls into the trap” of failing to recognise the “correct” form as “uneducated” or “backward” – but words, and their meanings, come about through popular use. When people discuss a coach these days, for example, they are much more likely to be discussing a bus than something drawn by horses. And in a century’s time, when pipe-smoking is completely extinct, if some quirk of language saw pipe become a word for painting – or if someone were to roll it up and smoke it – insisting it was still not a pipe would be an ironic fallacy.

At the same time, who gets to say that this production is not a boat of some kind? If a boat is a small, man-made vessel, constructed for carrying things over water, is a backward-looking dictionary definition enough to say Setz has not crafted one here? If a short film is the tiny receptacle for the ideas of a filmmaker, and if – considering its country of origin is listed as the US, while its country of filming is noted as the Netherlands – it has transported these ideas back and forth across the Atlantic, it seems like there might be a case to be answered. Or perhaps I’m the one being obtuse now.

Je suis un pedant.

The surrealist tradition of art is always guaranteed to prompt lengthy existential discussions – but beyond these discussions which long pre-date Ceci ñ’est pas un bateau, the film does nothing of its own to get us talking. It is a quiet, and aimless nod to more famous works, which does nothing to build upon them.  

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: