Kjetil Røed
Røed is an art critic based in Oslo.

Thomas Østbye renews his gaze upon things and people.

Watching, watching, watching. How often do we this? Constantly, of course, as we orientate ourselves around the world, and locate that which may serve us, be used, look pretty or meet other needs. But, merely watching? We rarely just gaze and gaze, attentive, properly, in depth, at something which not immediately means anything to us, or gives us anything. Yes, only watching a single item, something simple which just happens to be present, devoid of an explanatory context, sans an immediate usage.

Things by Thomas Østbye is a film precisely about things – what else – which provides us with a prolonged and steady gaze. Few of us probably take the time to watch like this  whilst reflecting.

Things follow thing. First, we watch a stone. It is somewhat covered in moss, perhaps from a forest, tough and heavy – it is not from the mountains at least, or so I believe; surrounded by autumnal, yellow bunches of straw, and partly rounded by the weather. I can see that it is heavy, and it is as if the camera’s slight lurching (or swaying) is echoed in the stone’s discrete massiveness where it lays, and probably has been for ages. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. How many more people have looked at this stone?

I do not know, but this is what I am thinking as Thomas Østbye’s camera gazes, and I stare through it with him, along with the director and everyone else who looks at the stone with him and I. A community watchers through the medium of film. It feels good.

Stillness in motion. Next we are shown an unmade bed. Not dirty, it has merely been slept in for a couple of nights. The fabric has creased into little mounds after it has been slept in by a body, or perhaps two bodies? The more I watch, the more I project stories into what I see, the thing, into the sheets’ testament to events (sex and sleep), and I start to make things up. Is it not a couple who just woke up? Is the man preparing breakfast, as the woman fetches a newspaper whilst thinking that she would like some fresh orange juice as she lets the cat in?

None of this is evident in the items – the bed, the crumpled sheets, or even the duvets with their mismatched covers (one white, the other stripy) – but still. This is what I see when I spend a long time watching.

Standstill and movement. As I look at these things, I start to see more. People using the items, some that have been near them and shortly will return to reuse them. Or just to watch, like Thomas Østbye.

I love this honesty, this visual weightlessness, the floating images that lift my thoughts.

Later on, I see a windscreen with the rain splashing against it. I look at it from the inside, as a driver or the passenger in the front.  Her we are not standing still, the car drives fast but at the same time, the thing itself – the windscreen , which is what I am looking at – standing still. The driving and the rain create the drama, the fierce movements. The surrounding dynamics pull the still windscreen into a story about bad weather and hasty transitions. All the while remaining still itself.

I love this honesty, this visual weightlessness, the floating images that lift my thoughts, make me narrate as a viewer, but as if the entire road is rooted in the items presented to me.

But why are we just watching, and why so long?

 The power of patience. The next image: a small shell on a beach, late at night. This I can tell because the shell’s shadow stretches theatrically along the beach to the left of the item. In the background, I hear the surf lapping. The shadow extends, as a small spire or a shadow sword, as the evening wears on.

I watch and watch. But, why are we just looking, and why so long? Because: in order to notice that the world is there as anything but useful. To teach us the patience needed to pay attention to something other than what we already notice. To realise that we can create narratives and connection even in a world that tries to make us consume story after story about money and usefulness.

It is this simplicity – which lies at the root of what it means to be aware of one’s surroundings – which Østbye wants to revive, perhaps even renew with Things.

Leth and Østbye. In his previous film, Humans, Østbye was watching people for us.  As in Things, we were here introduced to a simplistic gaze – humans, only humans set against an abstract, dark backdrop. People with their facial expressions, gestures, mimicry. People looking at each other, and people looking at you. This view is, in a fundamental sense, analytical, as it shows the life of faces and bodies through the way they express themselves. There are no attempts at explaining, all merely presented as it is, to the core.

Humans is reminiscent of Jørgen Leth’s The Perfect Human in the sense that we are shown human bodies performing ordinary things. However, Østbye makes it simpler, purer. Leth’s epic impulse, a poetic complacency in the product’s fantastic quality, which introduces a mildly indulgent tone to the expression. This does not happen with Østbye. Leth’s film is a masterpiece, but Østbye’s film is truer, more direct, and less theatrical, through his close focus on face, body and life.

These are visual meditations which teach us the art of simply watching.

An effective lesson in watching.  In Things, he stretches this analysis further by eliminating all mimicry, bodies, faces, and expressions for purpose, moods and communicative movements. We are left with the things themselves, and the analytical is connected with the potential lesson we are given by following Østbye’s patient showing (or evoking?) of patiently watching for us. In the end, we also see a child, as if to mark that the gaze we are given, and are pulled into, is akin a birth, a new beginning. Things do not only feature objects, but also a human.

As such, the film is a lesson. Because, if we are impatient, we become restless – but are we nonetheless able to withstand this, what we watch will reveal something more, something unseen. These are visual meditations which teach us the art of simply watching, and reveal to us that what is true, what exists, is already present if only we watch and look. This is why it is a good thing that this film exists also – because it watches for us when we ourselves are unable. And when it does, our vision is returned to us.

The film is screened at Kunstnernes Hus (The House of Artists) in Oslo, March 29th, at 6pm.


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