Untitled (The Trials and Tribulations of Mickey Baker) is a ten-minute single-screen video work by Sutapa Biswas. It comprises one static shot of a portly naked man standing in the light of a bay window; he rocks slightly on his feet as he breathes, while leaves stir in sunlight outside the window in front of which he stands, projecting light and shadows onto the rug beneath his feet. There is little other movement and no sound.
The film takes the painting A Woman in the Sun 1961 by the American artist Edward Hopper (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) as its source material. This work shows a naked woman in her bedroom, standing in the light cast through a window the viewer cannot see. In Biswas’s film the subject has been changed from a woman to a man reversing the traditional relationship between (male) artist and (female) model and the voyeurism of Hopper’s painting. Biswas’s representation of the male figure highlights his vulnerability, as well as the aging process and the passing of time.
Since the mid-1990s Biswas has explored themes of time, gender, cultural identity and desire in relation to space or systems of knowledge and power. The curator and critic Guy Brett has written, ‘Biswas’s … work is a device for awakening memory, gaining a foothold in the flux of time and conveying an insight into human lives.’ (Guy Brett, ‘Spaces Inside Time’, in Institute of International Visual Arts 2004, p.43.) For Biswas the film and its evocation of identity and memory derive from her manipulation of duration within filmmaking. Her aim is to ‘slow time down’ in such a way as to ask ‘How to weigh a sense of time?’ (Quoted in International Visual Arts 2004, p.43.) Her investigation of time relates to the enigmatic quality of painters such as Johannes Vermeer (c.1632–1675), George Stubbs (1724–1806) and Hopper, whose works seem to offer a moment of pause in an ambiguous narrative.
With Untitled (The Trials and Tribulations of Mickey Baker) the evocation of time passing (and being stilled) suggests the vulnerability and fragility of the human condition. Writing about the work, Biswas has described how the man ‘stands vulnerable in the light’, and his ‘presence is bathed by the light which enters the room, and which changes its intensities, rendering the way in which the viewer/spectator begins to engage with the subject in the context of the strange setting.’ (Email correspondence with Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 8 May 2012.)
Mickey Baker is the name of the man in the film, an actor specialising in background shots and playing dead. Untitled (The Trials and Tribulations of Mickey Baker) 1997 was first exhibited in the group exhibition Krishna: The Divine Lover at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1997 and then in From Tarzan to Rambo at Tate Modern, London in 2002–3 (for which it was re-mastered).
Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966–1996, exhibition catalogue, Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, New York 1997.
Sutapa Biswas, exhibition catalogue, Institute of International Visual Arts, London 2004.