A video that asks, ‘Who’s teasing whom?’

Breda Beban’s stunning two-screen video installation, “The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha,” currently at the New Center for Contemporary Art, documents a mutually seductive encounter between a beautiful belly dancer and an inebriated young man at a Romany brass band festival in Serbia. Although the two videos run more than 25 minutes altogether, their slippage between hot sensory overload and cool low-information underload, where viewer participation is necessary to complete the narrative, makes it feel like only a few minutes.

In real time and in slow motion, their encounter begins to unfold in a 10-foot by 12-foot video projection in the first gallery. The man, with a bill between his lips, leans slowly toward the glittering belly of the dancer as she leans up toward his lips. They look as if they will kiss until she tries to snatch the bill with her teeth. To her surprise, he suddenly pulls back. She laughs. He is teasing her. Their roles are reversed.

That is how Beban plays with and repositions the viewer, too. The artist’s editing teases and pulls the viewer into a vortex of wondering if there is real chemistry between the dancer and the young man. In the microscope of slow motion, the signs of true love or readiness for a partner appear decipherable. The preening of the male when he adjusts his hat, his pouting lips and her outreached arms are all signals of the intention to touch, according to anthropologist David Givens, who has studied such things.
But is it real?

The second video, in the adjacent gallery, runs 18 minutes and provides more information and clues. It is essentially the unedited version of the first video, which runs eight minutes. The camera follows the dancer as she encounters other men, creates a stage on a table and plays an instrument. “The way the woman goes from dancer to musician to dancer gets people thinking about wiles vs. talents,” notes Louisville artist Chris Radtke, “and are they one and the same?”

Julien Robson, curator of contemporary art at the Speed Art Museum, saw the piece at the Venice Biennale this year and was impressed by its intensity. He wanted to add the work to the Speed’s collection as a memorial to Minx Auerbach, the late Louisville philanthropist and activist. But several major world collections — including the Tate Gallery in London, where Beban lives — wanted this third edition, too.

Ultimately, however, it was the story of Auerbach that persuaded Beban; she picked the Speed. “Minx came across as an action lady with genuine concerns about the society she lived in,” Beban told me via e-mail. “My kind of a lady …”

New Center director Jay Jordan has noticed the buzz around the piece, and the controversy. He calls it “a real living memorial,” and speculates that the conflict may be centered on the scopophilia — a dynamic that comes into play with film/video and provocative performers, wherein the viewer thinks he or she can control others by merely observing or watching them.

Louisville artist Cynthia Reynolds explores this idea further, noting that “she is objectifying herself plays to the male gaze.”

In this artwork, Beban exposes the power of editing, but not without first seducing and engaging the viewer. With “The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha,” you can have your cake and eat it, too — because this cake has a whole grain, anti-oxidant, omega-3 excellence running through it.
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‘The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha’
Through Nov. 24
The New Center for Contemporary Art
742 E. Market St.
Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.