Monday, 31 March 2008
Omer Fast: The Casting. Published by MUMOK, Vienna and Walther Koenig, Koln. ISBN 978-3-86560-403-3. Available in London from Koenig Books, Charing Cross Road or Serpentine Gallery.
Omer Fast’s installation The Casting was on show at MUMOK, Vienna, from October 2007 through January 2008. I didn’t see it, but it’s a work given extended life by the show’s excellent catalogue, conceived and designed by Fast and Manuel Raeder.
In its installation form, The Casting comprises screens which, on one side, tell two stories: of a shooting on a road in Iraq and an American soldiers affair whilst stationed in Germany over Christmas. The two stories become entwined, but although the soundtrack offers a seamless continuity, a sense of coherence is ‘betrayed’ by the visuals which cannot be manipulated so deceptively. It also becomes apparent that everything is staged with actors in the American desert. On the back side of these screens the spectator can encounter roughly shot material which appears to the original interviews Fast conducted with American soldiers, but which at the end of the film is itself revealed to be auditions with actors for the part of the American soldier. This, at least, is how I have constructed the work for myself from written accounts.
Instead of documenting the work, Fast and Raeder translate the key components of the installation into book form. Seeking a bookish equivalent for the installation’s double screens, the front cover shows a solder shielding himself behind a patrol vehicle. The image continues off the edge of the page and, turning the book over, one finds the soldier to be part of the complex set up of a film crew. The front cover also reveals a thumb-nail black and white photograph of one of the interviewed soldiers (or maybe auditioning actors). There is one of these photos at the same point of every page in the book, making a flip book comprised of different heads that nod and twitch as if responding to interviewers who, in this instance, are the readers own fingers. It’s an effective way of expressing in book form Fast’s interest in the complex dynamics of the interview.
The installation’s doubleness is expressed too in the book's basic design, utilising the often problematic – in design terms – need to reproduce essays in two languages. Here an English first third, gives way to a storyboard, followed by the German text – a recasting of the work’s themes on the level of language. As well as the thumbnail prints the essay and interview texts are interspersed with transcripts of the soldier interviews. As The Casting pieces together two different stories, so in its book incarnation there is a shifting between transcript, critical prose and authorial reflection. Unlike the film the two remain distinct – the transcripts clearly separated off and in smaller type – but it at least opens some of the critical writing to the same interrogation applied to the authority of the interview and the image in the installation itself. The book form leaves the reader free to decide how much they interweave the different texts and maintain separation and continuity in their style of reading.
Matthias Michalka’s essay outlines the key themes posed by The Casting, seeing them through a triad of subjectivity, representation and history of the gaze. This begins by exploring such themes as construction of effect of continuity and use of tableau vivant, but is more interested in going beyond debates over truth and fiction to an acknowledgement of the psychic reality of repression, desire and pleasure within which both are contained. In the e-mail exchange with Sven Lütticken, meanwhile, Fast suggests that his recent works – such as De Grote Boodschap – have seen a shift in his work from a pull back towards an original speaker to situations where multiple speaking parts unfold over time. Although his work is often seen as concerned with systems and forms of representation, Fast concludes the exchange by seeing his work more in terms of repeated explorations of the sensuous body:
To paraphrase, I think this sensuousness has a lot to do with the body’s potential to defy the clock and other systems of super-imposed (self-imposed) order. Sure enough, the body appears as a recording, storage, and playback device for experience. Like any device though, it is bound to malfunction, to rebel, to freeze, to break down, and send mixed messages. In as much as there’s subversion in this, it is in pitting the body against order, against time, against any system we make up, with force and with pleasure… (41)
The 75-page “A Storyboard Made After the Fact” bridges languages and functions as hinge between the double cover of front and back screen. The title reflects some of the ambiguity of The Casting: is the installation itself the fact that this storyboard follows, or is the fact some original event or story told to Fast by American soldiers. Is “made after” a simple statement of chronology, or is it to be read as indicating a work “in the style or manner of.” What is achieved is less a catalogue of an installation, than a re-telling and exploring of the work’s stories, processes and structures through still image, text, and an acute awareness of the effects in time and space of a sequence of pages and the process of reading them. Although more modest in scale, the awareness of these issues and the solutions found reminded me of Hannah Collins’ Finding, Transmitting, Receiving.
Not having seen the installation, it is impossible to say what specifically the storyboard – and re-conceptualising the project as bookwork – emphasises or edits. The film of The Casting explores the tableau vivant in tension with the subjects' tendencies to shift and twitch within the films durational pull. In book form the consequences of this freezing can be explored in a more refined way, highlighting the power of disparate elements to be perceived to cohere by virtue of sequencing alone. It also focuses on the gaze between participants, with relationships becoming solely expressed as frozen gestures of sitting, watching and asking. Throughout the storyboard there is a constant shift from images where artist and actor gaze at each other to those where they look directly at the camera and at the implicated reader. It is a tribute to Fast and Raeder that this implicating is evidenced in many ways by this excellent publication.
Monday, 24 March 2008
Alfredo Jaar, Muxima, 2005, still from digital video, 36'. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York. Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, 2006, mixed media installation - wood structure, zinc, fluorescent tubes, LED lights, flash lights, tripods, 8' video projection, looped, overall. dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Andy Stagg
Alfredo Jaar, South London Gallery, 16 February 2008- 6 April 2008.
Jaar’s exhibition at the South London Gallery comprises three types of work, offering a sample of some of the forms and strategies he has utilised in delineating what the title of a recent retrospective termed “the politics of images.” Photo works and the large installation The Sound of Silence (2006) sought to address the workings of media imagery, whilst Muxima (2005), Jaar’s first film, sought to construct a mode of representing Africa that did not deal in the simplification and erasure of stereotype.
The Sound of Silence announces its presence before one even enters the exhibition. The entrance to the gallery space is filled from floor to ceiling by an intense glare of closely arrayed white neon strip lights, offering both an intense focus of attraction but also, if not repulsing the viewer, then at least setting up a barrier to be passed through on the way to a different space beyond. Inside the gallery, the lights are revealed as the end of a large aluminium clad box construction. At the other end, one peers through a doorway at rows of lights which change from red to green when it is possible to enter, although a gallery usher was also constantly indicating the correct form of behaviour to visitors who had not read their exhibition notes and threatened to transgress. Inside are rows of benches, flash lights arranged towards the audience, and a screen counting down to the beginning.
What unfolds is a text, broken into short sections usually one line in length, that narrate the story of Kevin Clarke, a Magnum photographer. The film tells the story of his birth and upbringing in South Africa, his army service and subsequent career as photographer, building to the moment where he photographs a starving child in Sudan who crawls exhausted in the desert, watched by a Vulture. Jaar tells us that the photograph won a Pullitzer prize, but prompted outrage from those who wanted to know why Clarke, instead of helping, waited for the Vulture to open its wings and provide the perfect compositional touch. Jaar tells us how Clarke commits suicide. The flash lights go off in the audiences faces and, almost like an after image, Clarke’s photograph appears on the screen. A final section of text outlines the legal history of Clarke’s image, its ownership and archive reference number, before concluding "no one knows what happened to the child."
Jaar tells his story through a manipulation of language – varying the length of each piece of text to affect rhythm, suspend or propel the narrative as he deems appropriate. He shows Clarke’s life story as embroiled within the hate and murder of apartheid, stressing his social commitment and his own status as a “survivor”, breaking down the distance between photographer and image. The result is a powerful if sometimes uneasy mixture of objectivity and emotion; a space of contemplation which is nonetheless closed and didactic in the role it gives its audience.
Several wall pieces showcase Jaar’s work with found media imagery. The Power of Words (1984) shows classic black and white reportage photographs of famine, war, and catastrophe – as well as one Renaissance image of a naked woman holding a cross – emerging from typewriters: a deliberately anachronistic technology to demonstrate the historical roots of a form of perception not simply a critique of some contemporary manifestations. Searching for Africa in LIFE (1996) proclaims the absence of Africa from the covers of the weekly news magazine that Jaar wishes to chronicle, as does Untitled (Newsweek) (1994) – reproduced as the galleries tabloid newspaper –which chronicles Newsweek’s array of cover stories alongside factual statements of the unfolding Rwandan genocide. Greed (2007) and From Time to Time (2006) reveal how Africa is depicted on magazine covers through two forms of erasure: Africa as place of famine, war and starvation, and Africa represented through natural images of lions and gorillas as a “Last Eden.” These two are intertwined when, for example, lions become used to indicate social catastophe.
Jaar’s magazine pieces are didactic, propagandistic, awareness raising – Jaar himself, in his recent talk at Tate Modern, described Untitled (Newsweek) as a work documenting “barbaric criminal indifference.” They also have a more subtle, discriminating presence, revealing covers as networks where bar code, price, tag lines, font size, type - are all working to construct ideological meanings, that are as indiscriminating as the tag line “Haditha Massacre. Al Gore Warms Up. Enron Justice. John Updike.” Such covers are not assertions of distance and removal but impassioned, perhaps hysterical calls for care, involvement, response, and participation: “how to save a life”; “Look at the pictures. Read the words. And then try not to care.” In the Q&A at Tate Modern, Jaar said he felt the power of documentary photography could be redeemed through creating new contexts. This work holds out the same complicated possibility for the mass market magazine.
Muxima initially seems to be following The Sound of Silence, as a text appears letter by letter on the screen – Angolan poet and president Agostinho Neto’s paen to rhythm in “light…colour… movement… in the bloody cracks of bare feet… on torn nails… oh painful African voices.” A prelude shows a blurred arrangement of multi-coloured shapes that come into focus as people washing clothes outdoors in coloured baskets, before the film is divided, poem-like, into twelve “Cento’s.” Cento I is a still portrait of six boys posing for the camera, hands over hearts; their exuberant energy and life shot against a background of an oil refinery. In II, the music begins and the film offers a variety of shots of the river – from wide, panoramic shots to close ups of the boats wake; the passage through the water shown at varying speeds.
Subsequent Cento’s explore aspects of African landscape, utilising this same aesthetic: moving around a scene with a variety of angles and rhythms; unfolding a scene slowly through its component parts; plays between movement and stillness. Jaar seeks a subtlety where ideological and aesthetic modes become entangled. In III the roofs of shanty towns and the faces of colonial statues are linked by their shared wear and decay, their reduction to plastic, iron and rust. For all its aesthetic connection, this is the disconnection of history and contemporaneity, coloniser and colonised. At the end of II, after shots of the flowing river entwined with the musical rhythms of the soundtrack, there is a return to silence and stillness: a sign on a tall fence which a subtitle translates as: THE MOST IMPORTANT IS TO RESOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE PEOPLE. Jaar is always looking for how details can unfold to reveal broader social and historical meanings, either, as here, through a subtle haiku-like montage, or through the images own momentum: a slow pan along a tube that reveals the hand it is connected to; the boat journey ending at a missionary church.
Although very different from a film such as Naked Spaces-Living is Round (1985), Muxima does connect strongly to the ideas of Trinh T, Minh-ha who, in her essay collection When the Moon Waxes Red, observes:
Meaning can neither be imposed not denied. Although every film is in itself a form of ordering and closing, each closure can defy its own closure, opening onto other closures, thereby emphasizing the interval between apertures and creating a space in which meaning remains fascinated by what escapes and exceeds it. The necessity to let go of the notion of intentionality that dominates the question of the “social” as well as that of creativity cannot therefore be confused with the ideal of non-intervention, an ideal in relation to which the filmmaker, trying to become as invisible as possible in the process of producing meaning, promotes empathic subjectivity at the expense of critical enquiry even when the intention is to show and to condemn oppression. (49)
This is most evident in how Jaar depicts the human body. Although all participants are credited by name in the titles, they are not always shown in ways that reveal or present them for our consumption: face concealed behind a reflective visor they maintain their own interiority rather than being presented for some others consumption; interviewed they are seen but not heard, refusing an easy translation of society into sound bite. The camera zooms in and freezes on a face, highlighting the filmmaker’s techniques of framing and selection, suggesting experience as belonging to a now inaccessible moment. The film opens to the whole range of scales in which a human body is experienced: from close-ups of hands on piano keys to groups of figures playing on a beach in the distance.
Jaar’s landscapes, too, are revealed as deeply humanised: from statues of colonial leaders, to streets named after revolutionary heroes, and rows of seats awaiting bodies at the outdoor cinema. The camera becomes a body, turning left and right, when it reaches this cinema, but it is also a tool whose movement and choices are following the human body as it manifests in flesh and place. The body never becomes an icon. A woman kneels with her back to us, arms upraised at an altar. She lowers her arms but the shot continues, concerned with the life of a place and a person rather than any frozen iconic moment or gesture.
One of the pleasures of Muxima is how it shows an experienced, accomplished artist thoughtfully beginning again, finding himself a working language and technique of film. Given the care Jaar takes to identify the film as a product of the place itself, Griselda Pollock’s comment on Jaar’s work – in The Politics of Images catalogue - remains almost as pertinent to Muxima as to the other work in this teaching show:
[his work is] not the production of images, but the creation and choreographing of the viewer’s encounter with and reflection upon the encounter with images in an image-saturated culture structured by its unprocessed relation to Africa. (132)
Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Portraits of Artists, Tate Modern Starr Auditorium, 7 March 2008
The Illiac Passion, Tate Modern Starr Auditorium, 8 March 2008
In 1967, after becoming a prominent figure of New American Cinema, Gregory J. Markopoulos took his films out of distribution and moved from New York to Europe. There he completed more than 100 individual films, editing them into the 80 hour silent film cycle Eniaios. Since the film-maker's death in 1992, his partner Robert Beavers, overseeing the printing of this longer work, has also been introducing selective screenings at galleries and cinemas, as preludes to outdoor screenings at The Temenos, an outdoor projection space they constructed in the Greek countryside. This month saw two programmes at Tate Modern. Beavers himself introduced and discussed the films, placing their reception in a rich context of friendship and relationship.
Friday's programme comprised eleven portrait films which either stood as individual films, were grouped together as numbered parts of the Eniaios project, or were extracted from a larger collection of Political Portraits. Most followed a shared formal pattern: silent, with each having a rhythm whereby images of the sitters were juxtaposed with black – and more occasionally white – screens. Beavers pointed out that some of these were edited in camera, by rolling back the film mechanically to create layers and superimpositions, but that Markopoulos had come to feel that superimposition was not enough and had edited other films on the editing table, where frames could be compared and less immediate combinations and superimpositions created. Indeed, the focus on frame – as opposed to the single frame lost in the 24fps flow – was central to these films. As Markopoulos wrote in The Intuition Space, an essay distributed at the screening:
What we are dealing with is the use of the image, a single frame, as a measured element in the construction of films. Just as we cannot imagine the meaning of the universe, so, too, in viewing on a table a single film frame or groups of film frames, we cannot imagine what they actually contain. We see the single frame. We hold it this way and that way; upside down, right side up, reversed. All sides seen and unseen. From these we begin to construct the life course, the filmic form of the work at hand…
Who can dare to imagine what a single frame might contain? What future process could activate a single frame? What action could void its singular flatness and cause the necessary Collision? Could cause that collusion which would animate the very contents of each, individual single frame?
Beavers highlighted each portrait as coming from out of a network of friendship, although with some – such as Gilbert and George – the relationship consisted largely of the meeting in Paris during which the film was made. Gilbert and George were the only sitters I was able to recoginise, thus the only ones where I found myself guessing how their identities informed the film’s rhythm. Markopoulos seemed to have responded to Gilbert and Georges constructed persona by focussing on parts of their famous suits, layering and building them up, moving gradually up the body, and tentatively revealing the whole. Space other than the body was provisional, with Gilbert and George’s posturing maniacally determined to define it thropugh its own gestures and poses.
In perhaps the most accessible of the films, Through A Lens Brightly: Mark Turbyfill (1967) Markopoulos was working in what, for him, was closer to a more conventional documentary: weaving the artists body over and above objects of art, and images of family and childhood. What differentiated Markopoulos’ film from traditional documentary was the bringing back of films linearity towards simultaneity. Again the film had a punctuation of black spaces. Beavers said he could not describe the black, but that for Markopoulos, amongst other elements, it stood for Chaos in Classical Greek thought. I sometimes felt the black frames to be gaps or intermissions, but when I could shift and see them as active elements, I found the whole film was dynamised. As for the images they interrupted: sometimes they had a duration in which the contents could be carefully observed. Often the shot was reduced to a flash, becoming akin as much to explosion and disappearance as to appearance. The films are measured not shot, said Beavers.
On the Saturday night there was a screening of The Illiac Passion (1967), a feature-length exploration of the myth of Prometheus, filmed using a cast of friends and acquaintances from the avant garde film scene, including Andy Warhol, Taylor Mead, Jack Smith, and Gerard Malanga, accompanied by a voice over comprising Thoreau's translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound but which, subject to repetition and permutation, sounded like a mythically inclined John Giorno. The film adopted many of the stylistic preocuupations of the shorts: use of black screens, for example, and a focus on the body in space. But the balance was different, with little use of tiny fragments of image and a greater emphasis on images that could be perused in varying detail. There was also a variety of people within the scenes, and a greater interest in the sculptural and abstract possibilities of the specifically erotic body.
Beavers was again present to talk about the film: highlighting a sense of possibility that experimental film makers briefly felt in the period between a lifting of censorship laws – due to court cases over Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising - but before the erotic body had become an exploited staple of commercial cinema. He also returned to the balance of improvisation and measure in Markolpoulos’s films. In The Illiac Passion, Taylor Mead – whose idiosyncratic, funny but often highly irritating improvisations play out to the full extent of the reel in many Warhol films, were broken, by black screens and other performers, into tiny sections keeping his extrapolations at the level of the inconic gesture rather than his own personality and momentum. For Beavers in the Q&A this was related to how each participant in The Illiac Passion was an aspect of the myth, and one of the functions of the editing and the black screens was to allow a level of gesture and communication between and across bodies and landscapes.
Watching both these films I made no notes, and left it to the next day to see what I remembered and absorbed. Whilst images remain, there is a tendency for such films to be remembered as structures and concepts, which will always be unsatisfying to a sensual filmmaker like Markopoulos. For example, I remember a sense of friends bodies as attaining monolithic presence through simple gestures, rather than the gestures themselves. Which is why the Eniaios cycle and The Temenos screenings exist: attempts to include each viewer, too, in the process - identified by Markopoulos in his essay The Adamantine Bridge - of becoming “but the molecules of the nude protagonist, gyrating and struggling, all in love, bound and unbound, from situation to situation in the vast sea of emotion which becomes the film-maker’s proudest endeavour.”
The premiere screening of Orders III, IV, and V of Eniaios will take place at The Temenos site, near Lyssaria, Arcadia, in Greece, from June 27-29 2008 ( see image above). For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, 10 March 2008
Living London, 176, 31 January- 20 April 2008.
Recently in London I’ve seen exhibitions of artists’ films focussed on China, South America and Singapore. So it was perversely somewhat startling to enter Gerry Fox’s installation at 176 and realise that everything was familiar. Not just was it familiar as London, but Fox seemed to have deliberately chosen the most familiar bits of London, with different films and screens looping around Piccadilly and Leicester Square, the South Bank and Chinatown, Old Compton Street and the Tate Bridge, the Lloyds’ Building and St.Paul’s. What Fox wanted to chronicle and reveal about London, this immediately suggested, was not to be found by the uniqueness of his discoveries, but by taking himself and his camera through an iconic landscape of business, pleasure, culture, and religion.
This is an apt but heavy handed way of describing a filmic practice that seeks to move easily within the city. Night in London/ Nunhead Cemetary began around the busy late night streets around Leicester Square and Picadily. The camera is a real presence: moving through the streets at a walking pace it prompts couples to part, allowing the camera to pass. It forms momentary attachments to individuals soon left behind as part of a commitment to the cities - and its own - movements and flow. This is accompanied by a loud, tumultuous soundtrack which – in its volume if not its details – repeats to indicate one end of a spectrum of urban experience throughout the show.
These walks are presented on six screens: one screen on each wall and two further screens on floor and ceiling, which constitute the space around camera and pedestrian. I was never sure if there weren’t moments when there was some lag between screens, but this was the point about such a set-up: the bodies actual phenomenological experience is curiously impossible to perceive as a totality. To even approximate it we are always missing and catching up. Six screens reinforce the sense of speed and tumult, but also allow for the opening of alternatives. A lot of the time, looking upwards at the ceiling screen is to experience a space where, with a minimal of visual detail, the rhythm seems slower than elsewhere.
The film gradually moves into quieter places: the streets around Picadilly, St.Paul's, a deserted late night Tate Bridge and South Bank, with an accompanying emptiness of sound in which distinct footsteps resound. Now the headlights of a passing car are an event of note, not one element amongst many, with Fox extracting and separating elements out of the beginning’s bustle. I often thought shots were arranged, amidst an engulfing black, to allow white, blue or yellow light to predominate. Further evoking Whistler, the film is pulled towards the Thames and in a dramatic conclusion the camera is submerged in the river. From its earlier engagement, the film has unfolded as a withdrawal into interiority and eventual suicide - the hub-hub sound of the city replaced by an equally deafening gushing of water in the camera-suicide’s ears. The film depicts a removal from human relationship even on the level of spectacle.
Nunhead Cemetary provides a sequence of images of tombstones, tangled vegetation, and rich patterns of light and shadow created by strong sunlight. The camera was never fully identifiable with a pedestrians pace and rhythm, and is more separate now: moving through the graveyard more evenly than it would be possible to walk. Whereas the night scenes were always cut between, here there are regular overlapping fades between different shots of gravestones and vegetation, building cubist-like composites. The cemetery sets up a contrast Fox repeats elsewhere that is more between urban bustle and urban quiet than between urban and natural. The complex patterns of vegetation and the focus on light have much in common compositionally with the complex patterns of Leicester Square or Picadilly. The film ends with the whole room and its screens all lit in a tabula rasa of white light, expunging the cities memory in preparation for new explorations.
This was the most visually complex arrangement in Living London, but the other installations did show how a film making of phenomenological openness could approach particular issues, through a sort of Eisenstein montage on the level of film and screen not shot. The second room featured two screens arranged at right angles to one another, although the films alternated between the screens rather than overlapping. In the first a baby crawls on the grass of Westminster, juxtaposed with but oblivious to the banners and tents of war protestors. The film seemed a study of juxtaposition in the city: how physical proximity can be a state of separation, and the way all contact can become a random conjunction of persons and symbols.
Other sections documented the Notting Hill Carnival – the camera moving amongst its promenaders in another focus on the city through changing colour – and the birth of Fox’s own child, in which miraculous and mundane conjoined. A final highly aestheticised study of the Hyde Park seemed a sentimental anticipation of child- and fatherhood in which the diversity of the street was exchanged for a set of edited manipulations of trees and swans and Peter Pan in elongating, refracting and blurring white light.
Writing about Living London I find my notes and memory putting images from the show together, no longer sure what image was in what film or installation. In a third room, two screens of archival footage of the 1910-11 Sidney Street riots is juxtaposed with a central screen where the camera moves along the same same streets today– contrasting narrow 1910 terraces with 70’s low rise; police shooting at rioters with a slow movement along the outside of a Costcutter; the black and white newsreel footage with Fox's own investigations. Like many aspects of Living London there is a flirtation with the heavy handed and obvious, alongside a sense that a city is a very obvious place, full of crude juxtapositions that film can only hint at. I think what prevents this from seeming facile is the openness of Fox’s frame – the way he often doesn’t impose composition but allows the elements of the street to flow in and out, confident that this element of flow will give the visual interest.
Elsewhere, the far right of three screens shows a tractor moving around huge piles of rubbish at a landfill site, its tumultuous sound filling the space. Two other screens show scenes of Ridley Road market: one screen providing a wide view of street traders, stalls, and shoppers; the other focussing on moments of economic exchange that have a quiet intimacy: bananas being placed in a thin blue plastic bag, a finger pointing at produce, a knife slicing the head off a fish. Another film combines a left screen of Climate Change protest, a right screen of an anti-war march, with a central screen of soldier's marching. It is a depiction of how, Fox suggests, spaces in the city are filled: by ordered, choreographed and coded movements. I watched for a while before realising the two screens of protests weren’t recording the same march, so attendent was I to the event as visual spectacle.
Throughout Living London, screens relate as steps in some ecological cycle, but one where the cities own streets and spaces fulfil the function of site of production. Iconic landscapes are far from fixed: receptacles or arenas filled with a spectrum of activity, people, colour, and noise. It is a vision of London that celebrates it, whilst also highlighting individual actions and psychologies in precarious balance with a larger, urban organism; the impossibility of holding on to an ideological position amongst the whirl. In another section, back in the busy streets around Picadilly, people are speeded up and superimposed, appearing and disappearing at the same moment.
Saturday, 8 March 2008
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.
Sunday, 2 March 2008
The Browning of Britannia, 14 February-18 May 2008, BFI Southbank Gallery.
Faisal Abdu’ Allah’s new film The Browning of Britannia documents and finds form for his fascination with HRH Ago Piero Ajano, a black man who claimed to be descendent of Henry VIII, living a lavish lifestyle in Park Lane apartments in the 1980’s and who now lives, still in London, in a more modest council flat.
On the four walls of the gallery are projected interviews with three figures who encountered Ago in London, each offering the story of their own relationship to him and their own attempts to relate to the truth or otherwise – perhaps, more appropriately, the unknowability – of his story. In the centre of the gallery, a smaller column offers a study of Ago: a screen on each of its four sides shows front, rear, and profile head shots of Ago against a white background. In the middle of the looped film he breaks all four poses, wiping his face with a red handkerchief.
The Browning of Britannia’s subtlety is in its physical layout and the choreography of its different visual and oral components. Stand face on to any of the screens on the central column, and the top third of the faces projected on the wall struggle to be seen about Ago’s implacable profile. Stand at an angle to the central screens and the interviewees themselves become fractured, incessantly repeating themselves as a series of blurred fragments in peripheral vision. Working within this spatial blueprint, Abdu’ Allah re-configures his limited components in varied ways, staggering images and sound, moving towards and away from any “complete picture.” One example: the wall screens remain blank whilst Ago in the central column wipes his face with the red handkerchief. When he has again settled into his four poses, a voice over starts but, for a moment, the wall screens themselves remain blank.
More sparingly used devices, include, on one occasion, the slowing and blurring of the interviewee; whilst Ago’s posing in the central column is subject to a number of jump cuts. Both these devices are correlated to moments of drama: the largest jump cut is when an interviewer relates how Ago was found not guilty of fraud. This mimics a stereotypical fusion of high emotion and style, like lovers running towards each other in slow motion. Here such moments function as points of crisis where modes and assumptions of representation break down in the face of experience. They also appear as accidents of the film making process, relating or not to the stories being told, fractures only revealing themselves to a sustained and careful viewing.
Ago’s life provides film-maker and audience with an intriguing and exotic story, and the installation plays with these expectations. I thought the interviewees would have exciting stories to tell about Ago, and I was initially somewhat disappointed to realise that what they had to say was very mundane. It is not the information they offer that is important, but the attitudes and assumptions they embody. All three interviewees conform to conventions of the TV interview, but presented so large and four fold in a gallery space, the interview metamorphoses. Their body language becomes a dance of their relationship to Ago, whilst the installation’s endless mirroring suggests their contribution is more to do with self-revelation than with telling us anything about Ago.
When Ago himself is interviewed on the wall screens, he is remarkably resistant to these conventions. His is the only interview in which we hear the interviewer, as if Ago only exists in this space at all through another’s terms and prompting. For many audience members he resists, too, through his accent (when I returned for a second visit the BFI was providing typewritten transcripts of the whole piece) and in his body language: he looks directly at the camera, as well as constantly moving, turning, plunging his face into shadow or out of frame, needing the camera to move to catch up, refusing or incapable of constructing a consistent space where interviewer and subject politely exchange information.
Alongside its critical engagement with the three interviewees, The Browning of Britannia uses still photography as its own contribution to the project of understanding Ago. One sequence on the wall screens documents a photo shoot. There are close ups of the camera’s iris opening and closing, whilst the images of Ago on the central columns appear as impersonations of still photographs. Ultimately, however, the long takes in which Ago's body twitches and adjusts, reveal the pretence of this form of representation. Similarly, the warmth and affectionate character of the production stills in the exhibition leaflet contrast with the illusive Ago revealed in a filmic portrait of the photo shoot. The true effect of photography is revealed more in those scenes that pin Ago and other interviewers against unflattering white backgrounds, suggesting prison mug shot or passport photo, ruthless in narrowing focus to an interrogation of the physical body that tells us nothing beyond a physical muteness.
Abdu’ Allah, much of whose previous work involves still photography, says in the show’s brochure that “Film was the only medium in which I felt I had the authority to tell the story without any layers of contempt or supposition.” I left The Browning of Britannia with the unsettling sense that the “authority to tell the story” comes from the fact that film knows and understands nothing, and it is in such ignorance that we must seek its particular revelation.
Saturday, 1 March 2008
To present a session on artists' film and theatricality is not to propose a trend but to offer a further set of examples of its pervasiveness. If time travel was an option then those who encountered such a connection for the first time at the Whitechapel Gallery, could follow its themes through a number of recent exhibitions, including Emily Wardill’s Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck (2007) at the ICA and Catherine Sullivan’s The Chittendens (2005), amongst other work at Tate Modern’s recent The World As Stage. They could read up on theory and context in the theatricality articles in recent issues of Artforum, Flash Art and Frieze, before arriving back at last summer’s BFI Total Warhol retrospective, where Warhol’s films in collaboration with Ronald Tavel offered a potent source for many contemporary explorations of filmic theatricality.
Curated by Bridget Crone, director of Media Art Bath, The Sensible Stage offered eight works whose concerns and range tried to stretch this theatrical preoccupation into new areas. As she wrote in her programme notes:
The Sensible Stage explores the idea of staging. Throughout the programme there is a play between the staging of the self and staging as a theatrical device. The Sensible Stage takes its title from Jacques Rancieres ‘common sensorium’, in order to explore the idea of the ‘stage of the sensible’; that is, the staging of a common ‘moment.’ Using the real and the metaphorical frames of the stage and the camera, The Sensible Stage treads the ground between the possibility and impossibility of this ‘common moment’.
Crone offered a preliminary taxonomy of her selection of work:
Some work uses these frames as a way of restaging, as a way of unearthing unexplored connections…uses re-staging as a means of tracing connections between historical moments by enacting references from a diverse plethora of references from punk, to modernist avant-garde. And for them, staging is a device used to achieve a kind of stop within the constant flow and commodification of knowledge experience in contemporary capitalism.
Other work in The Sensible Stage focuses on the act of staging in order to reveal or emphasise the way in which lighting, camera, set and setting contribute to or craft the performance itself.
Although the curator spoke briefly – to point out those artists who were in the audience - the introduction to the session was provided by Lucienne Cole whose Hi Fidelity Hi (2006) was a performance in which, wearing a dress printed with black LP’s, Cole played records and recited the words of record collectors, her turntables and shadow overlapping with a slide show of record covers. The tone was nostalgic and gentle, with just enough satire to establish a sense of distance from the views of the collectors she had interviewed, whilst remaining sympathetic rather than mocking. Regarding the evening’s theme, it suggested the connection of film and theatricality concerned an engagement with diverse styles and codes of representation that, although originating as popular culture, could be absorbed as personal memory and – remember that vinyl covered dress – onto one’s own body.
Cole also contributed She La La (2006), a 1’30” video in which a woman sings a song in a chip shop. The song is composed of lines from various sixties pop songs and gestures familiar from the performances of such songs. Whilst it was possible to respond to the piece as amusing kitsch, what was interesting in terms of theatricality was how it refused the very styles and modes of which it was notionally composed. The performer stares at the camera and at us like the performers of the songs she collages, but actually is establishing none of the same contract. Her listlessness and embarrassment are not signs of her inability to perform competently in terms of the standards and aesthetics of the pop singer, but components in the construction of some new set of meanings, where fame and public performance is a memory whose echoes become expressed in ones own voice, gesture and acts. In the video, a sign hanging on the door behind her says the chip shop is open but it is no surprise no one enters as this is a hermetic and claustrophobic understanding of the individuals relationship to popular culture.
Another very short piece - Mikko Cannini’s one minute The Life and Death of (2005) – comprised archive footage of a figure whose body language suggested he was being interviewed. But this was playing with our own perceptions and responses to particular gestures, and Cannini’s film was more about illusion, distance and loss, movingly conveyed by his Super 8 footage. Theatricality outside of context quickly becomes a mystery; and it is film that enables the situations to live long enough to become mysterious.
These two shorts were miniature, focussed studies of particular actions and gestures, in contrast to the evenings longer works that focussed on group dynamics. Inbetween, were the shifting animated planes of Sebastian Buerkner’s Realms Pin (2007) and Clare Gasson’s The Ballad of Albatross Way (2007). The opening of Gasson’s film was a wonderful meeting of film and theatre: shooting a room through what seemed to be a gap or tear in a velvet curtain but which, as the camera began to move, turned out to be the gap between a body and an arm. The subsequent six minutes followed a pan through three hundred and sixty degrees, around a room that may have been the artists’ studio but unfolded like a composite of three or four separate spaces in which recognisable art objects – a poster for Ed Ruscha, a copy of Art in Theory– took their place amidst piles of art materials, books, and unidentifiable detritus. There was also a closed accordian, possibly the same accordian as on the soundtrack, where it accompanied a spoken but highly rhythmic performance of the ballad itself.
With the story unfinished the camera began a second rotation, before encountering the body once more, slightly shifted to the right and with curls of red hair now visible at the top of its otherwise black body shape. When the story ends the figure leaves the room and the camera lingers on the open doorway. The film treads a delicate path between construction and naturalness, theatricality and the everyday, separating them into separate realms of sound and image and making the connection between layers understated, resonant and humorous. The Ballad of Albatross Way was a joyfully intelligent film.
This sense of theatricality as a layering of creative modes was harder to maintain when the films got longer and more complex. Pit and Galia Kollectiv’s Better Future, Wolf-Shaped (2008) documented a strange cult amidst Celtic sites in Cornwall, enacting rituals in costumes and tools built from normal kitchen appliances. A second half featured four figures in monk’s habits enacting a dance to an electro disco noise soundtrack, their movements orchestrated around a grid drawn in white lines amidst the otherwise black space. I often found myself thinking the film's absurdity should have made it a lot funnier than it was, but this unfunniness seemed intentional, because the film deliberately layered its component elements in ways that created conflicting messages. The absurdity of rituals with plastic spatulas, for example, was prevented from being funny by a visual attention to landscape and a soundtrack that seemed to be reinforcing the sense of a serious and sympathetic profile of a new age cult.
Louisa Fairclough’s Bring in Daylight (2008) extended the realm of theatrical in the direction of the rural and the documentary with a portrait of Taunton Cattle Market. The film opened wonderfully with a sense of stage making – bales of hay being spread over the market's central arena, evoking a mysterious sense of circus that was almost an imagistic drum roll for the stories and images of the market and its workers that followed. Viewed through the frame of theatricality, Bring in Daylight seemed to be enacting more conventional notions of theatre to do with social ritual, community, and public space. It had a quiet faith in the importance and realism of the society it depicted, in contrast to, say, Gail Pickering’s Hungary! And other Economies (2006) in which theatricality manifested through the artists’ own restless and antagonistic layering and juxtaposition.
In Pickering’s film – a 15 minute extract was shown here – a group of French porn actors travel to the former Marquis de Sade’s chateau in Luberon, which is now owned by Pierre Chardin, performing extracts from Peter Weiss’ 1963 play Marat/Sade. Pickering’s own description of the film – in an interview with Vanessa Descalux in Untitled 44 – elucidates the extent and variety of the layering that can characterise the filmic theatrical:
The work developed out of an interest in site, which initiated a playful set of lateral associations. What became crucial was ‘scripting’ which was formed out of the entire set-up: the site and its relationship to de Sade, his use of it to stage his own plays for the travelling Parisian elite; Cardin and his contemporary relationship to the site; as well as, crucially, the porn actors and how they individually and collectively responded to both their placement on site and task (the performance being something akin to a historical pageant, where an historical site is reduced to spectacle). What was of interest to me was how these cultural, political, and economic positions became embedded and reacted to – or against – each other to produce a new set of relations. This is reiterated in the title where “Hungary” refers to both a reinvention of the site proposed by the film and also to the destination of one of the actors who was going to move to Budapest after filming, to try his luck in the European centre for the hard core porn industry. (5-6)
Reminiscent of the dynamics of a Warhol film such as Lonesome Cowboy, Pickering’s performers fumbled with their unlearnt scripts, expressing their own boredom and frustration by recreating the performance styles and actions of porn movies. Edited into a double screen projection the extracts here had a curious tone that combined a high level of formal control with strong resemblance to the more chaotic and surreal of Jean Rouch’s provocational anthropological films in West Africa.
Like all of the other films in Crone's selection, Hungary! And other Economies offered powerful evidence of the theatrical as a working strategy for contemporary artists. At its simplest, such a connection seemed to be about an exploration of the staged nature of events in which often the favoured methodology is to layer many different events and styles together. This invariably creates a need for “actors” of some kind, connecting such work to relational or participatory aesthetics. The Sensible Stage made no assumption about the kind of relationship that might unfold, including work whose participants were variously paid and unpaid, individual and anonymous, valued and exploited.