Saturday, 8 March 2008
ARTSPACE: ARTISTS' FILM IN THE CINEMA
ARTSPACE at Notting Hill Gate Cinema. Tuesday 4 March, Paradise Row: films by Kirk Palmer and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Wednesday 5 March, Workplace Gallery: films by Matt Stokes and Marcus Coates.
One of the most successful recent developments for artists’ film in London has been the showing of work designed for gallery display at the more eclectic of the capital's cinema spaces, such as the Prince Charles, Greenwich Picturehouse or Notting Hill Gate. Already this year there have been a host of well attended events at all of these cinemas, with formats including: presentation of a single work with discussion; themed programmes; assorted ragbags; Sunday screenings with brunch provided; overviews of a particular galleries stable of artists.
This week saw two events at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill as part of the Picturehouse Cinema chains new Artspace initiative. The first night was a showcase for Paradise Row Gallery. Kirk Palmer’s two films were both intense studies of Japanese landscapes. Murmur (2006), was a sequence of shots of Bamboo forests which ranged from close ups of bushes to panorama shots of valleys, often highlighting surreal wind-blown patterns suggesting animated life expressing itself through gesture and communication - a sense highlighted by the alien electronic static of its soundtrack. Hiroshima (2007) documented a sunlit city characterised by its sense of newness, spaciousness, and ease. The film-maker set up a pleasing visual variety, following the grid like pattern of streets, then stepping back to view the city as if it was another bamboo forest within the valley. Having forgotten the title, it was a shock when a sign in English revealed this city was Hiroshima. If the strange sense of life in Murmur had evoked a sense of communication, here it was an entwining of death and regeneration that suddenly became the films pervasive tone. Both works showed a film making of enormous patience and sensitivity to combinations of movement and stillness in landscapes that reminded me of Peter Hutton.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Mini-Israel (2006), documented a themepark in Israel which constructed a miniature – and, initially, somewhat utopian – model of the entire country, which in its relationship to the actual country acquired a political and personal poignancy. Toy figures of an elderly couple stood on a promenade over run by real ants, whilst cars – moved along motorways by spikes on a conveyor belt - were pursued by spikes that had long since lost their accompanying toy car, creating a humorous and threatening atmosphere. Elsewhere in this eight minute film, rows of mechanically jerking people prayed at the wailing wall, suggesting mini-Israel had inadvertently enacted an avant-garde strategy of de-familiarisation. Occasionally there were shots that showed the real-scale world beyond, but these were never more than a distant blurred view of visitors to the park. What was most striking about Mini-Israel was how, shot low down and close up to its buildings and crumbling streets, it allowed mini-Israel to reveal itself on its own terms and scale, rather than relating it to the everyday world. The ants were disturbing because they were part of Mini-Israel, not the eruption of another world and scale. The film made me think often of Fischl and Weiss’ The Way Things Go (1987), a tribute to how Broomberg and Chanarin set up a sense of real world forces and pressures through toy town gestures and architecture.
The screening was followed by a rather chaotic Q&A in which the Picturehouse managed to provide about half a dozen erratically functioning microphones. Nick Hackworth, founder of Paradise Row, began by saying how he had loved Palmers work when he was still a student at RCA because it avoided facile comparisons between rough, low-fi, shaky hand held camera work and some sense of anti-Capitalist authenticity; whereas Palmer’s work was proud of its polished and aesthetic qualities. The swirl of politics and aesthetics this statement evoked suggested the gallery itself as a particular working through of ideas of Utopia, perhaps itself, disturbingly, something of a Mini-Israel.
One of the rules of Artspace is finishing in time for the cinema’s usual evening screening. The second night would ideally have been absorbed into the first, showcasing Workhouse gallery through films by Matt Stokes and Marcus Coates. Two nine minutes films don’t make a programme, which may have been why only a dozen or so people turned up. Stokes’ Cipher showed organists Kevin Bowyer and John Riley on the enormous Victorian-style organ of Usher Hall, Edinburgh, performing compositions developed in collaboration with the Edinburgh music club Fimbulvetr. The film understood music as a relational act performed on a variety of scales: close-up’s of hands and feet alongside wide shots of the tiny organist amongst the dark swell of the organ and Usher Hall itself. This relational quality acquired a metaphorical force through the sheer scale of the instrument, and the awkward shape and scale of its pedals, stops, pipes and keys in relation to the human body. It was also evident through the wider network of collaboration between film-maker, organists, and Fimbulvetr through which Cipher was realised.
Marcus Coates' Radio Shaman (2006) documented a radio interview in the Norwegian town of Stavanger where, on an artist residency, Coates had performed a shamanic ritual to help the town address issues raised by an influx of Nigerian immigrants and social problems of prostitution, poverty, and HIV. The film showed Coates, dressed in suit, tie, stag skin and antlers, being interviewed about his ritual on a local radio station, in-between country and western records. Radio Shaman thus re-trod the territory of Journey to the Lower World (2004), which documented an actual performance in the tiny living room of a council flat in Liverpool, to an audience of local residents. But whereas the earlier film had a thought-provoking and often hilarious tension through its relationship to setting and audience, here the effect was less convincing. Maybe the process of working in Stavanger developed important social relationships, but the film offered no evidence of this, for example through highly problematic shots of Coates walking the night streets of Stavanger making animal sounds amongst Nigerian prostitutes plying for trade. As films, too, Journey to the Lower World built a rich visual currency through juxtapositions of Coates performance with the faces and exchanges amongst its audience. Here, tellingly, the equivalent was a shot from outside the studio, looking back at Coates through sound-proof glass.
Coates was present for a Q&A and talked openly and engagingly about his work. He spoke of the responsibilities of working for “clients” and of how his rituals opened up new solutions for communities working through difficult issues. He has recently been performing in Israel, and suggested his work was only “art” because it was arts organisations and galleries that provided its funding and contexts. He spoke of the humour in his films as an unintentional by-product of its incongruity, but I find that hard to balance with the awareness with which it is constructed. Perhaps, however, the humorous aspects of his shamanic persona is most important for how it diffuses the power and charisma that often accrue – think of Beuys – to the role of artist-shaman.
Although a mixed success in terms of audience and programming, the two nights of Artspace highlighted the value of showing artists’ film in cinemas, raising issues both financial and formal. How, for example does the greater availability of cinema screenings relate to the commercial galleries need for limited editions, and the sale of films as objects. Formally, if such events were seen as part of the context for new work, then perhaps it would prompt artists to new considerations of the relation between the film as single straight-through screening and the film as looped, continuous experience. If nothing else, Artspace adds to the variety of events through which artists’ films can be experienced, taking its place alongside the more longstanding work of, amongst others, LUX Salon, the Scolt Head screenings, Exploding Cinema, SpoolPool, and Light Readings.