Thursday, 13 November 2008


All images: Daria Martin, Harpstrings and Lava, 2007, 16mm. 13mins. Courtesy

Daria Martin, Harpstrings and Lava, Maureen Paley, until 7 Dec 2008.

Near the end of Daria Martin's film Harpstrings and Lava (2007), Nina Fox - her appearance part wood sprite, part Butoh and part art student - appears confused. Looking around her, the film seems to follow her associative chain of thought, shifting back and forth between her face, some entwining branches, and a glass goblet.

The goblet was there at the beginning of the film, amongst lava and gold, the film's title credits cut into its glass. The branches, too, appeared early, sometimes with verisimilitude, sometimes apparently made of paper, other times morphing into a snake. This, I quickly realise, is a film assertive of its own imaginative theatrical landscape, part Baroque, part Arte Povera. In an expanded sense, too, this is an essay on art and love as forest, be it forests of ideas, vegetation or tin foil.

In the small, compact exhibition using only the ground floor at the Maureen Paley gallery, Harpstrings and Lava is accompanied by a small, side room of paintings, objects and props. These not only confirm the shifting status of the objects in the film, but give the film itself a similar potential metamorphosis into theatre, painting or litter. It's an undemonstrative presentation - water colours pinned casually to the wall, objects placed directly on the floor. More formal ritualistic concepts of performance are confined to the film.

A clap of wooden blocks from a Zen master focusses the film on attention not personality. There is further preparation and awareness-tuning from musician Zeena Parkins, who tunes the harp but whose actions and sounds whilst doing so are a performance in itself. For all its distinctiveness, this is a world that sees its stylisation and theatricality on a continuum with the everyday.

A more literal evocation of forest follows - a tangle of coloured strips of fabric, bark, paper, amongst which we make out a foot. A sleeping figure - Nina Fox, who, like Parkins, has collaborated on several performance and film works with Martin - awakes and stands, moving stiff and robot like. Creature of the forest or art student? Such is the mix of this film, but what meaning unfolds out of these details of its poetic world? It is by inhabiting its plethora of details that we reach..... what?

A CONTEXTUAL INTERLUDE: There are some contemporary connections that unfold here. Watching I thought of the careful, unfolding patience of Runa Islam's studies of people and places (currently in the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain). The sense of high baroque drama created in the artist's own studio with a certain deliberate dumb irreverence, suggested Emily Wardill's Sick Serena & Dregs & Wreck & Wreck; whilst the dark theatrical hi-jinks of masked children in Ben River's Ah! Liberty also came to mind.... 

Not to say these are influences, but they are films coming to related answers about the theatrical contemporary.

Martin's film is distinctive from these others in the tone of its poetic lyricism. A final set piece reveals Parkins, this time adrift in a theatrical set of arches and public squares constructed after the eerie perspective of a De Chrico painting. Again the focus on music is very tactile. It focuses on the hair of the musicians, on the way their hands come into contact with their instruments, pressing or plucking. 

Indeed, hands and hair are key throughout the film. Martin films the musicians so that their own hair is almost as connected to sound and instrument as the strings of the harp. As for hands, when Fox emerges from the fabric forest she smells, hears, and fingers the materials around her. Perhaps she smells and hears through her fingers

Fox finds a drum, rips its paper skin, stuffs her head into the hole, widening it. A hand in the air, finger moving in the light, part enjoying the sun, part her own virtual harp playing, imaginative and physical gesture entwined. The gesture repeats at the end of the film - more disturbed now, as Fox tries to glimpse the instrumentalist disappearing amongst the De Chirico arches whose dream perspective becomes an obstacle.  

In these flexing fingers we can unfold something of the films broader meaning, the status of all those objects offering their fusions of natural and artificial, theatrical and everyday, ritualistic and casual, opulent and poor. Everything is like that gesture: echo, mimicry, envy, synesthesia... 

ANOTHER CONTEXTUAL INTERLUDE: In an interview in the November issue of Frieze, Martin traces the development of Harpstrings and Lava as " the result of joining an inner image to outward relationships" (158), with its origin in a friends description of a nightmare and  a workshop with the choreographer Anna Halprin. Its theatricality derives from a challenge - by RosaLee Goldberg for New York's PERFORMA biennial - "to capture the breathing, heart-beating presence of life performance on film." (159)

Towards the end of the film, seemingly distressed, trying to catch a glimpse of Parkins amongst the obscuring arches, Fox begins to sing - a single, somewhat uncertain note. After all the invocations of tuning and sounding, of human hair becoming harp strings, this wavering note is the emergent property of all the materials and textures of the films phenomenology. It's not a dogmatic, strident tone. Hesitating, it withholds from fully sounding either the space or the bodies own vocal resonators. It leaves.

Sounding or a potential to sound is the tentative link amongst all of the objects of this marvelous poetic universe. It leads to a final image of an empty De Chirico plaza, upside down in the goblet of water or wine. Its own spatial manipulations have been transformed

by the further mediation of water, glass and camera. And, of course, in the goblet, the plaza becomes a musical instrument, ready to sound, with a finger run around the rim. 

Stop there. Any meanings come from immersion in details, their sensations, up to the point of sounding, and then... how do you argue or agree? Playing the strings of the cosmic harp or flexing your fingers at the onset of repetitive strain syndrome... an all-female eden and the branch-paper-snakes twirl around Fox like a merry go round made from coat hangers...