Monday, 7 April 2008


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.