Wednesday, 16 April 2008


Johanna Billing, Missing Out, 2000, DVD 03:14/LOOP

Having read about the films before seeing them I was interested how different they were to what I'd imagined. One aspect was the amount of psychological tension that comes from your focus on faces and gestures. What status or presence or meaning do you give to a face or a gesture? What do we learn from such an attention to body language?

I cannot say exactly what we learn as this I think is very individual. But I do give a lot of meaning to bodily actions in the film. This is because I try to make films about things I found difficult to verbalise or talk about. Also I am interesting to try to connect to things that we push away inside of us.

And so the people that take part in the films, are many times doing something they would not normally do, or they are put in a situation that is a little bit unusual for them and so they need to concentrate a lot on being there, performing the task at hand. Many times I would talk a lot about what I am interested in and so on, with the people taking part, but some things I can not also explain to people, there are not always given directions. And so the way they respond to the situation is probably that there are a lot of things going on in their minds, they are thinking about what they do while they are doing it, and this often leads to an uncertainty that I believe can say quite a lot of things.

There's a sense of mystery. What holds these groups together? What constitutes their collectivity? What is the point of these groups? Amongst the contributors to Taking the Matter into Common Hands there's an interest in Chantal Mouffe's notion of antagonistic communities. Is that how you would describe the groups here?

Yes, it is a bit of a mystery. And I also somehow want to keep it like that. I like the way you – as a viewer – have to ask yourself these questions. I never work with already consisting groups, or community groups. Many artists today are sometimes asked to do projects with these existing groups in society. I have never been part of that movement. I don’t see my work in that field. The people that take part in my films come from different places and are not normally together as a group. I try to bring different people together for different reasons, depending on what the film is about. In, for example, Missing Out, the people that took part in that film were all from the same generation as me and had been part of a similar activity in kindergarten school when they were six years old: a kind of breathing exercises that was very common in the 70s in Sweden. Apart from that there was not anything else binding them together.

Also, I want to add that, even if it might sound strange here, I never look at the films as being about groups, I always respond to these persons as individuals. The reason I work with groups is perhaps more like a trick to get even closer to the individual. But then of course some films, like these two we are talking about now, are also directly referring to my background, having being brought up in the 70s in the Social Democrat’s Sweden, and having the experience of being in a gap between the memories of more group related activities in society and at the same time being one of the first generations to being able to fully invest in an individual career and personal self fulfilment. So, yes in away there is definitely an antagonistic set up in the back of all this.

But since you brought up the symposium and book Taking the Matter into Common Hands, which I was part of organizing, I have to just quickly say – because it is interesting to make that distinction - that I don’t see my films so connected to these topics in the book as they are not any result of or about collaboration in that way. The films are more films about frustrated situations and isolation, not really social or collaborative actually…The reason I worked with the symposium had more to do with my background of working in a collaborative way with other projects, like an artist run gallery I used to be part of here in Stockholm and also for example a record label, “Make it happen” I am running with my brother since 1997.

Johanna Billing, Project for a revolution, 2000, DVD 03:14/LOOP

I wonder how the films position themselves with regard to experience. In Project for a Revolution I feel I could be watching the activity or the response to some activity, the aftermath or the waiting beforehand. Watching the people in Project for a Revolution also reminded me of being in lectures where everyone is numb, listening to the authority figure speaking. But here there seems to be no lecturer. So then it reminds me of the psychologist Carl Rogers' description of person-centred teaching where there is anger and frustration at his refusal to set the agenda. Do you read the films mood in terms of this anxiety of self determination at the lack of teacher.

It is funny. I have heard this many times. But never actually thought about it as a classroom in that way, that there would /could be a teacher missing. For me it was more about the inability to organize – or break a pattern- about being stuck in something. But I never expected anybody else coming to tell you what to do. For me this was about something not functioning within our selves. It is up to all of us to act. But a general atmosphere – or a dominating way of behaving - in society – or in a room- can prevent you from it.

Do symbols and icons make you uncomfortable? I'm struck by the use of powerful visual symbols in both films - the city of vertical cranes in Missing Out, the blank photocopies in Project for a Revolution - but also how these are made ordinary and mundane within the films. The same is true of your use of moments of dramatic tension - the entrance of the figure into the room that is a non-entrance in Project, for example.

Some of these more stronger, visual or symbolic images are many times the images that the films start with in my head. And like dreamy images many times are, they tend to be quite symbolic. Sometimes the simplicity and the symbolic in them almost embarrass me– but at the same time I find them quite blurry and also many times quite uneasy, and I don’t know exactly what they mean. That for me, many times becomes the reason for making the film. Trying to find out these meanings somehow…so yes, I guess it is true to say that symbols and icons make me quite uncomfortable

Some questions/comments about film style. I didn't experience these films as loops - more like continuations of an event, a continual round of restlessness and personal tics, collapse of time into space.

That is nice to hear, I think of them the same way.

What are you looking for among the groups that leads you to frame a particular arrangement of bodies? Are there certain structures you find appealing - I thought images relating to mirroring often repeated. Do you construct or rehearse images or are they always the result of improvisation?

I am not so much thinking of arranging people… I think a lot of these things are happening just naturally and from improvisation. But then there are – here and there- some more directed parts. For example the birds eye view of people lying on the floor in Missing Out. That was again one of these starting images I had with me in my head.

In 2001 a memory from when I was 6 years old suddenly popped up in my head. I had not thought about it since then, and I have very few visual memories from this period in my life. So I was happy and surprised to be now seeing again this memory from when I was lying on the floor making breathing exercises in the kindergarten school. I remember exactly how it looked like in the room and the more I started to think about it the more I realised that the reason for my remembering this at all, was embarrassingly enough because my teacher had at one point been looking at me and said ”look at Johanna! She is breathing well!” And so the whole idea about memory and that memory is being linked to performance was quite painful but also terrible to realise that even such a basic thing as learning to breath when you are 6 years old can become something that you can become better at than the friend lying next to you.

So this was somehow very interesting for me as it really shows how performance and achievement comes in so early in life, and how much more this has also become part of our stressed life today. So at the same time this memory came up, another image popped up in my head, which was again a breathing exercise –but now with people my own age, and it also confusingly looked like some kind of fashion shooting situation or something, and it was a quite stressful feeling about this well arranged and nice looking image when you looked a little bit closer.

What is the role of the camera? Although it goes through stylistic moves that suggest the creation of dramatic tension or the construction of a coherent space, actually it does not have to fulfill these roles so is free to do something else.

For me it has always been important the way these situations, scenes are framed. It both has to do with the fact again that many times people take part in a situation that is new to them. The participants are also not actors, but many time take part as them selves –but in a constructed situation. So, for me, since the film is not a true documentary it is important to also show that, and to frame it in a way so you can see the construction somehow around it. That is probably what you see as ”stylistic moves” and it creates definitely a fictive aspect in the film. In the end there is always a mix of these fictive framing and at the same time more real elements.

But I am at the same time not specifically interested in the question about what is real and what is fiction. For me the way I move in between these fields have more to do with a wish to create some kind of ambiguity and uncertainty. The way you as a viewer cannot relax when watching it, like you described the feeling of mystery you experience when you have to think a lot about who the people are when watching for example, the same way you perhaps also need to think about what type of film it is, as the film moves back and forth a bit. And when you cannot relax in your mind, I get the feeling there is something else that can come up to the surface – and the film can start to communicate in a sometimes more direct and physical way.

A few questions about the works in the context of the Here We Dance exhibition. A connection you share with other works in the show is of thinking through collectivity or social processes through experiences and/or metaphors of dance and choreography. How did you come to make this connection and how it is useful to you?

All the things we have been talking about here: about wanting to get into a more physical communication- and what meaning I want to give to bodily gestures etc - and also the fact that there is never any verbal communication going on in the films. All those things for me have always made me personally relate some of the films more to choreographies than anything else. The way it is sometimes difficult to find a narrative as well makes it difficult to describe them as short films. So this choreographic aspect of the work has always been very clear and natural to me.

Also very much because I used to be involved in dance myself, not professionally but I used to do free dance and classical ballet, from when I was very young up to when I started to do art, so there is also a direct link for me there. But this aspect of the work has very seldom been part of the contexts around the work, in exhibitions etc. So for me, to be involved in this show now with these two works – that have been shown and ”used” in so many other group exhibitions with other very distinct political and social themes- is a very nice thing. It allows more layers – for example the physical aspect of the works - to be more visible. It is amazing how strong different themes and shows can affect different types of work, making them being seen through different "eyes."

Here We Dance juxtaposes Missing Out with some stills from Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextet (1965) and War (1970). It establishes a lot of connections between you - use of casual dress, interest in neutrality of posture, subdued use of props and iconography. Is Rainer a key influence or inspiration for your work? What other influences or traditions?

I did actually not know much of Yvonne Rainer or of this work War, where the visual connection is very strong to Missing out. The curators of the Here we dance show were very surprised how I could have missed to see or hear about that. So my acquaintance with the work of Yvonne Rainer is very new. But I am certainly inspired – and can certainly feel connected to it when I see it now!

Other influences for me I think have been film. I am very inspired– even if it is not clearly visible in what I do – by the films of John Cassavetes, the way he worked with improvisation and his interest in the existential. But also the practical aspect of his work, the way he continued to work in an alternative and independent way, not playing by the rules of the film industry. Parallel to film I work a lot with music in different ways, so that is also a big part of my influences. I am also very interested in history, and the way our personal history relates to the more official one.

The key difference is Rainer's use of a conventional performance event set-up with an audience. Where/ what/Who/when is the audience in your films?

Good question. This is a very blurry border for me many times. In some of my earlier projects in the 90s I had a direct wish to go directly to the ”audience” or what I thought could be the audience for specific works or themes, and making them become engaged and part of the project from the beginning. This was very much the case also with for example the film Project for a revolution. Some of the people I wanted to communicate the film to were the same as the ones taking part in the film. Then there is also the other audience that comes in later of course.

It is also interesting to think about how the function of the audience really changed over time. When I first showed Project for a revolution in 2000 in Sweden, I tried to make the film as a catalyst for discussions. The discussion was never in actual silent film, but came after, about how to look at – and talk about the revolutionary engagement without getting stuck in nostalgic images. When it is shown in other countries, it has become something quite different-, something already analysed many times, also years later. But for me it is not less interesting.

Johanna Billing, This is how we walk on the moon, 2007, DVD 27:20 min/LOOP

Finally I wondered if there are key ways you think your work has changed and developed in the films you have made since Missing Out and Project for a Revolution.

I think the question about the audience is probably something that has changed, also because I have been able to show a lot – and experiences from interpretations etc come in and affects how you think. I mean I have been able to understand that it is possible to make something extremely personal and it can still be open and mean something to many different people. That is not as easy when you live in a smaller country with a smaller scene. It is more difficult to focus on the alternative. To meet many different type of audiences in different places has inspired me to dare to be even more personal.

So the fact that I have been working mostly outside of Sweden since I made these two films has changed the work in many ways. From working in a very local focus, dealing with local issues, I have been forced to adapt my work to new situations. This is of course a luxury situation to be able to travel and work like this, but it is still problematic for me to find a balance –between the personal history, and working in new places. You don’t want to end up making superficial comments on other cultures, and you also don’t want to loose your history. That is I guess some of the things I am struggling with right now…

This interview between David Berridge and Johanna Billing took place via e-mail in March- April 2008. Missing Out and Project for a Revolution can be seen as part of Here We Dance at Tate Modern 14 March-26 May 2008.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008


Two films called Paris (2004) and London (2008) – on show as part of the Daniel Pflumm exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery 2 April-9 May – suggest connections between Pflumm’s work and the city-symphony, as it was developed in films such as Walter Ruttman’s Berlin (1928) and Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manahatta (1921). In an interview included on the gallery hand-out, however, Pflumm seems to repudiate this, observing: “the video is only called ‘London’ following my tradition of giving videos the name of the city they are first shown in. This doesn’t naturally mean that there is no London in it. It consists of a series of loops followed by a succession of atmospheric situations underlined by electronic music.”

Nonetheless, far from negating a connection to the city-symphony, Pflumm’s comments can be read as indicating changing notions of film, city, and their relationship between 1920 and 2008. Take, for example, Ruttman’s own description of Berlin – reprinted in Kevin MacDonald and Mark Counsin’s anthology Imagining Reality - as “making something out of life, of creating a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of the big city.” (74) Consider, too, Siegfried Kracauer’s critique of Berlin as:

A film without a real plot, it attempts to allow the metropolis to arise out of a series of microscopic individual traits… leaves the thousands of details unconnected, one next to the other, inserting at most some arbitrarily conceived transitions that are meaningless… There is nothing to see in this symphony because it has not exposed a single meaningful relationship. (Imagining Reality, 75)

Such ideas are in dialogue with Pflumm’s description of his work above, and also with Nicholas Bourriaud’s comments on Pflumm in Post-Production, highlighting a mesh of continuities and developments in the urban milieu and its artistic representation. Bourriaud’s ideas about Pflumm and his generation of artists include: a refusal of metonymy; shifting from a static sense of site or place to one of a place of production; site as the “socius” where all “the channels that distribute information and products” (71) are present. In the relationship of the individual and group, any individual component is part of a body but one whose parts can be detached, altered and rearranged, as if comprised of prosthetic limbs. All these ideas can be related both to the artist and to the city itself.

If much writing and art about the city continues to evoke ideas of flaneur and dérive, then, via Pflumm and Postproduction, it is possible to identify some new tactics out of the role of the artist as a “phantom employee” concerned with liberating forms, who “blackmails the economy that he parasites” (80) and whose resulting images are:

The products of an analogous micro-utopia, in which supply and demand are disturbed by individual initiatives, a world where free time generates work, and vice versa, a world where works meets computer hacking…[and the artist-programmer is engaged in] a search for tension between the iconographic source and the abstract form. (80-81)

This Pirate’s Gallery of Pflumm’s images, derives from scanning the extensive open source image archives of Pflumm’s web site and thinking through these questions after viewing Paris and London at the Whitechapel Gallery, whose looped screening also includes Questions and Answers CNN (1997) and Europäischer Hof (2002).

Monday, 7 April 2008


Mario Garcia Torres, My Westphalia Days (2008). 16mm film. Approx.15 mins. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London).

Les Blank: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Seventeen, 27th Febuary-22nd March 2008

Mario Garcia Torres, White Cube Hoxton Square, 29th February-29th March

Before Werner Herzog ate his shoe he threw himself into a cactus. Whilst shooting Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), one of the cast caught fire. Herzog uses his own body as a fire blanket, promising to throw himself into the cactus if his actor survives. Herzog narrates this story in Les Blank’s excellent chronicle of a later Herzog vow, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1979), noting it was not done out of self-destructiveness but from a desire to "show them that I understood some of some of the problems they faced... and to provide some fun in exchange." For this second vow - described to Paul Cronin in Herzog on Herzog – he tells his friend Errol Morris to stop making excuses and just start making his first film: “And the day I see the finished work I am going to eat my shoe.” Herzog continues:

When I arrived in Berkeley I was wearing the same shoes as when I had made my vow to Errol. The problem was that when I cooked them, that day at the restaurant, they had duck as a main course and there was a huge pot of duck fat sitting there. I had reckoned that the duck fat would come to a boiling point at around 140C and I would be better off cooking the shoes in the fat than in the boiling water. What happened was that the hot fat made the leather shrink and it became even tougher. There was absolutely no way to eat it unless I cut the leather into tiny fragments with a pair of poultry shears and swallowed it down with a lot of beer. I had a whole six-pack of beer which I drank and I remember kind of staggering out of this place pretty drunk. But don’t worry, leather is very easy to digest. And Tom Luddy, who was up on the stage with me, started distributing small pieces around the audience. (165-6)

Blank’s film about this incident was on show recently, looped at the Seventeen gallery in Shoreditch. It was a curious context for it because, encountered cold, it could have suggested an alternative lineage of, say, body art and Viennese Actionism, not ones usually proposed for Herzog’s own artistic excesses. Or the conceptual clarity of the title and the pieces central idea could suggest a relation to Fluxus scores or one of Lawrence Weiner’s Statements.

At the same time as the show at Seventeen, I saw two works by Mario Garcia Torres at White Cube Hoxton Square. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (2007) is a slide show. With beaches, hills and harbour views, the first half is a tourist brochure of the Greek Island of Syros, until the comment that Syros will be “telling about the way culture has been discussed in the last few decades.” The slides then present an abandoned abattoir, found and used as an art school by the German artist Martin Kippenberger. The film narrates the history of the school through its absence: it no longer exists and events and exhibitions were not documented. So we are left with a site of possibility as much conceptual as physical, amidst a Greek landscape itself redolent with traces of former civilizations and philosophies. As a film it’s deliberately a bit awkward and nostalgic, like a B movie version of Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque (1969)

Garcia Torres has not been to famous art schools that don’t exist before. In 2005 he wrote to the Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo Dr.Atl – who had died in 1964 – discussing with him the Guggenheim’s plans for a new museum in Mexico, in Barranca de Oblatos, on the outskirts of Guadalajara. Instead of a once-existing museum that he could re-imagine, this is a landscape in the process of being imagined as a museum by the trustee's of a major and very real American museum. As in What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger, it is an imaginative gesture entwined with the history of modern art; a personal dialogue across history linking painting and conceptualism (or, more accurately, painters and conceptualists); a response in forms deliberately adrift in time, including Super 8, letters, and slide shows. In an interview with Gabrielle Cram (in the catalogue for Other Than Yourself at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna) Garcia Torres observes:

I am interested in talking about something that is not here with us in this moment, and to be able to bring it up to have a new discussion about it. I think the potential of this spaces [sic] that were apparently lost could lead us to think about the way we deal with history but also the way we deal with legitimating actions and artistic gestures nowadays. (25)

Blank’s film seems to show Herzog as a celebrity: arriving in California by plane for the night of shoe eating. We see posters announcing the public event, and a large audience gathering expectantly to see Herzog performing. Herzog duly performs, but actually the film shows more of Herzog in "private" moments: being interviewed in the back of the car; preparing the shoes in a restaurant kitchen by stuffing them with garlic, putting them in a saucepan, adding seasoning, chatting and philosophising as he does so. As a public event, the film's trajectory is towards Herzog’s back stage revelation that the film-maker will always be turned into a clown by the immaterial nature of his medium. The private side is manifested in Herzog’s desire for “right livelihood” - a man, he says, should cook his own dinner from scratch at least once a week – amongst a Western civilization lacking “adequate images.” For Herzog the images of commericals and TV quiz and talk shows are equivalent to other forms of pollution and ecological devastation. Herzog calls for a “holy war” against such images.

The White Cube show includes another film by Garcia Torres. My Westphalia Days (2008) responds to another art event: this time the disappearance of Michael Asher’s artwork of a commonplace caravan, which was removed during its participation in Sculpture Project Munster, and found a few days later in a forest outside the city. Garcia Torres' film imagines the caravan’s journey, although it only tells you the context at the end. What you see is a 30-year old Mercedez Benz leaving a residential city street at dawn to travel along motorways, country lanes, and dirt tracks. The caravan is left in a field, and we follow the driver back into the city. A long shot of the abandoned caravan in the field at sun set could be a dissolve in real time, but Garcia Torres gets impatient and speeds up nature. It’s a sign of the restless, anxious relation of art and everyday life that underlies the film, the very real doubt and insecurity beyond its smooth surface. Shot on grainy 16mm it also looks like a piece of New German Cinema, notably – with its shots of or from cars, and a random, drifting subject - Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road.

Both these shows highlight how Herzog and Garcia Torres relate to Brian Holmes' notion - working out of Foucault and Guattari in his contribution to Taking the Matter into Common Hands - of the oppositional device:

a deliberately abnormal, fictional, satirical, delirious, antagonistic or even violent pattern of behaviour that inserts itself into, and distorts, a corporeal, technical and symbolic configuration of normalised, social relations, in such a way as to provoke dissenting public speech. (37)

Both Herzog and Garcia Torres make works that function as such devices – working within communities and attitudes of art and film worlds respectively in order to open up again into broader concerns with pedagogy and lifestyle. If they seek different ways of working with the violence and entropy in their respective outlooks, both find some resolution in paradox. For Herzog the emphasis is on an action – but a public one that in its very showmanship retreats or collapses into the private; an epic will-to-power always balanced by a fall into becoming clown. For Torres the device is immaterial, suggestive, a hint, echo, and absence that keeps even the talk of utopia within its no place, but which similarly balances its ambition against the threat of a glib, amusing, art world confined insularity.

Historical categories may separate these two artists, but what seeing these two exhibitions together reveals is the overlap of their endeavours in a shared attempt to activate action, awareness and learning through gestures that are both conceptual, performative, and experiential.


Margaret Salmon, P.S. (2002). 16mm B&W and colour, transferred to DVD. Sound. 8 mins. Courtesy the artist.

Source Book 3/2007: Margaret Salmon. Edited by Zoë Gray and Nicholaus Schafhausen. Published by Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2007. ISBN: 978-90-73362-75-8

I saw Margaret Salmon’s show last year at the Whitechapel Gallery. I remember the three screens of Ninna Nanna (2006), over which three different mothers and babies related to each other within the confines of their apartments; P.S. (2002), where a man tends to his garden, whilst in a monologue reminiscent of Tennesse Williams or Arthur Miller a couple argue intensely and violently about their divorce. In these films – as in Peggy (2003), a portrait of a elderly woman at home following her daily routines - there was a sense of individual personality reaching towards archetype; observed detail alongside uncertainty (is the man in the garden the man arguing on the soundtrack?); an exploration of other styles of representation, be it mother and child imagery in Ninna Nanna or WPA photography in P.S.

So it was interesting, in the BFI book shop before one of the Su Friedrich screenings, to find the excellent Margaret Salmon sourcebook, published on the occasion of her exhibition at Rotterdam’s Witte de With, May through August 2007. As editor Nicolaus Schafhausen points out in his introduction, the intention is not to produce a catalogue but a Reader for an artist at an important stage in their career; and it's an excellent and revealing format. The first half of this small 80-page book is given over to interview and critical essay; the second half follows a selection of stills from Salmon’s films with attempts to contextualise Salmon’s work: reprinting the Raymond Carver short story “Everything Stuck to Him” alongside extracts from Andre Bazin’s “An Aesthetic of Reality:Neorealism.” In some ways this is the format of Phaidon’s Contemporary Artists’ series, but the format is stronger for being seperated from also needing to be a monograph: offering a skeletal but important frame of the artist and the intellectual and artistic threads their work connects to and extends.

The essay and interview cover familiar ground. Bina Von Stauffenberg’s “Portraits in Time: The Films of Margaret Salmon” outlines the basic characteristics of Salmon’s subjects and technique: an interest in subjects that function as universal types; the filming of repetitive rituals by subjects who can seem alone or melancholic. Technically this manifests through a commitement to a 16mm hand held bolex, which lets Salmon work alone without a crew, the camera often moving in an environment structured by rich light and dark contrasts, the filmic atmosphere enhanced by indirect relations of soundtrack to image.

Focussing on Ninna Nanna, Von Stauffenberg places Salmon’s work in a context of other representations of motherhood in contemporary art, tracing a trajectory from Laura Mulvey’s observation that although art often concerns itself with unspeakability “this area of unspeakability [motherhood] has been conspicuous by its absence.” As an example of making present, Von Stauffenberg cites Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (PPD) (1973-79) which, as Kelly herself observed, “shows the reciprocity of the process of socialization in the first few years of life.” (15) More broadly, the style and structure of Salmon’s films evokes connections to American literary realism; the hand-held camera, real locations and non-actors of Italian neo-realism; Melodrama; and triptychs – both the Holy Trinity and filmic trilogies by Fellini and Rosellini. Noting Salmon’s own citing of the influence of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 35 Quai du Commerce. 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Von Stauffenberg concludes that between 1975 and Salmon’s film repeated daily gestures have come to be presented in a manner where the poetic and the political are configured with an emphasis on the former.

In her interview with Zoë Gray, Salmon outlines her background in photography, commenting how it taught her to be able to arrive somewhere, meet people and start work, as well as making her aware how “implications of perspective” always counter any notion of “complete, reality based truth”:

When I’m working, what I’m looking to do is to take the details of their lives – where they live, or how they look, gestures they might make everyday – and derive from them an essence that can be related to a bigger, more complex truth…. I recognise and collect these various archetypes in an effort to record and interpret specific cultural moments and personalities.” (20-21)

Salmon unfolds this statement by talking of her desire to continue the ideas of Italian neo-realism, working at conjunctions of gritty realism and a certain cinematic glamour, where her non-actor participants can enter into the fictional realm of the story.

Margaret Salmon, Ninna Nanna (2006). 16mm B&W transferred to DVD. Sound. 8 mins. Courtesy the artist.

The contextual material in the second half of the book is transformed by being placed in dialogue with Salmon’s work. It’s hard not to see Carver’s story as some kind of alternative shooting script for Ninna Nanna, the film mutating across time, gender and context, whilst Bazin’s essay is energised in dialogue with the concerns of Salmon and other contemporary artists.

Most obviously this is because Bazin’s critical strategy reflects a model of engagement that goes deeply into social and historical phenomenon through a focus on how it manifests aesthetically. There is a profitable connection to be made between Salmon’s films and what Bazin finds to be “the realistic trend, the domestic, satirical and social descriptions of everyday life, the social and poetic verism [of Italian cinema].” But what is most informative about reading Bazin in this context is how many micro-details emerge from his carefully weighted prose with startling contemporary relevance. To highlight a few: the relation of film-making and “intellectual speculation”; film “developed in a refuge” against commercialism; how, within a particular social context of “terror” adherence to actuality can become a “revolutionary humanism… a revolutionary flavour in which terror has yet no part.” It is worth revisting Bazin's classic statements on cinematic reality with this sense of contemporary relevance, as in this description of the workings and possible entrapments of any process of artistic depiction:

The same event, the same object, can be represented in various ways. Each representation discards or retains various of the qualities that permit us to recognize the object on the screen. Each introduces, for didactic or aesthetic reasons, abstractions that operate more or less corrosively and thus do not permit the original to subsist in its entirety. At the conclusion of this inevitable and necessary “chemical” action, for the initial reality there has been substituted an illusion of reality composed of a complex of abstraction (black and white, plane surface), of conventions (the rules of montage, for example), and of authentic reality. It is a necessary illusion but it quickly induces a loss of awareness of the reality itself, which becomes identified in the mind of the spectator with its cinematographic representation. (64-65)

Bazin goes on to describe the film-maker who “the moment he has secured this unwitting complicity of the public… is increasingly tempted to ignore reality… no longer able to tell where lies begin or end.. no longer in control of his art. He is its dupe, and hence he is held back from any further conquest of reality.” It is an observation that could be used to unpack works by many contemporary artists involved with history or media representation, such as Willie Doherty and Omer Fast. It is also a suggestive conclusion to an excellent Reader, whose format of article, interview, fiction and theory is usefully applied – both as intellectual game and as a series of books – to other artists.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


Clare Gasson, gimpel fils, 28 February-5 April, 2008.

Expanded cinema often involves the workings of cinema becoming part of a public event – be it the music and image spectacle of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, or the light projector installations of Anthony McCall, recently shown at the Serpentine Gallery. So it was interesting to be thinking of that idea of expanded cinema as I saw Claire Gasson’s exhibition downstairs at the Gimpel Fils gallery in Davies Street. Certainly cinematic practices were being expanded into environment and event, but what was entered into was an entwined realm combining domestic space and the artist’s studio with private and collective memory.

Concepts for shows often run aground on the vagaries of individual viewing. The notes for this show comprised an eight point set of instructions on how to experience the show – “Come into the gallery. Walk down the stairs and stand for a moment in the ante-room” began number one, whilst the final instruction suggested inviting “Clare to read to you at home, in the office, in the park or in a café.” Actually, I didn’t mind these prescriptions, because the work itself was always more than them, it seemed to share their tone but also mock it’s simple phenomenology with its own intelligent, ebullient energy.

The Ante-Room (2008) for example, is an altar suggesting arrangement of objects at the bottom of a staircase. There is a mirror and a candle; an old wooden box with its lid open, too high for anyone who isn’t a giant or standing on a chair, to see in. There is an array of different books: the script of Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, a David Hockney illustrated version of Wallace Stevens’ The Blue Guitar, and a stocky, fat 1000 Masterpieces of European Painting 1300-1850, which when I visited was open at Fuesli’s Titania Caresses the Donkey Headed Bottom. There were photos of a room containing a stool on which were piled three pillows. It was all deliberately careless and everyday, even as it was a high culture evocation of theatricality, aesthetics, and a certain sexualised mystery.

The notes were very keen that between each work one pulled aside a black curtain, as if Gimpel Fils’ basement was suddenly a labyrinthine wonderhouse. The work itself embodied this combination of aspiration and base, although when I visited I could not reproduce this gesture of opening and revealing because all of the black curtains were pinned back. The Washaway Road (2007-8) comprises a small stage with a chair, draped over which was a dressing gown and a scarf, whilst underneath it are some paint brushes, tobacco pouch and cigarette papers. On the far wall there is a folded piece of blue velvet on a shelf, topped by a piece of masonry.

I looked at the objects whilst listening to a looped dialogue. In experiential terms, this conversation was the show’s central feature as it could be heard throughout, even whilst wearing the headphones another work required. In the conversation, a woman is lost backstage in the opera house where she works as a production assistant on La Voix Humaine. She takes a call on her mobile from her ex-boyfriend, a depressive, agoraphobic painter, unwilling to leave his flat. The conversation moves quickly from polite chit-chat to an uneasy excavation of their relationship, the emotional entrapment and failure, linked both to the physical situation of each character in the story, but also to the hermetic world of the installation, creating a powerful set of emotional resonance and echoes amongst texts and objects, whilst never letting the later become too talismanic or too invested in meaning. In both dialogue and setting a balance is created between distinctiveness and cliche, individual and stereotype, spontaneous emotion and script, formality and casualness. Here, a certain haunting by Grotowski’s “poor theatre” and Peter Brook’s “empty space” is a more appropriate reference point than cinema.

Through another black curtain was another chair, the same as the one in The Washaway Road but without any props and not on a stage. Because it was in front of a TV with a set of headphones on it, it seemed right to sit in it – I don’t mean this facetiously: Gasson’s work is attuned to the slight differences that inform behaviour and environment. The Ballad of Albatross Way (2007) comprises a slow, 360º camera movement around what is presumably the artist’s studio, whilst Gasson, to accordian accompaniment, recites a haunting surrealist-inflected ballad.

I found Gasson’s text pleasurably hard to comprehend in its ever accumulating richness, imagistic layering, swirling vernacular, myth and poetry, but upstairs looking at the script – as I was told to do by point seven on my hand out – it seemed to fit a conventional ballad format just fine. Similarly, the camera pan functions to unfold a scenic bibliography of the artists CD, book, DVD and VHS influences, as well as documenting her working environment. One can pick out a photo that also appears in The Ante Room, connect the exhibition to her tattered copy of John Cage’s Silences.

But The Ballad of Albatross Way is also a journey through piles of stuff that could never be fully identified, nor do we know how or if books or films were ever read or viewed, just as the woman whose back and hair form the image for the start and ending of the film, is not revealed to us. This space of the studio is one where theatre set and intimate mental and domestic space meet through a revealing mix of serious and careless, plan and accident. It’s the ballad form that captures the swirl of such spaces within the public and social. Such tension finds musical expression through the accordian’s double presence: as silent, sealed object in the studio and as droning atmosphere and mood on the soundtrack.

I saw Gasson’s show as I was reading Other Than Yourself: an investigation between inner and outer space, the catalogue for a show of video art at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna. Gasson’s work would have fitted well in such a show, as her gatherings of objects and forms do posit inhabitation of space as just such a combination, relating, for example, to Beatriz Colomina’s comments in her catalogue essay on Adolf Loos:

his definition of architecture is really a definition of theatrical architecture. The clothes have become so removed from the body that they require structural support independent of it. They become a stage set. The inhabitant is both covered by the space and detached from it. The tension between sensation of comfort and comfort as control disrupts the role of the house as a traditional form of representation. (46)