Spectacle and infinity… more insights from Ruth Waters

Copyright Ruth Waters – Still from video What I Eat in a Day (2018)

Our goal is to make the image as real and as beautiful as possible…we respect the client’s need to work incognito…that is why we don’t showcase our work on our website”.

This quote from the website of the Indian based photographic retouching studio, cherrytomatoes, gives the lie to the contradictory nature of late capitalism in a nutshell. Like any religion that dazzles the poor and dispossessed with images of paradise, capitalism sells us glossy hyper-real “reality” says Guy Debord. But this reality is so distant from the truth the smoke and mirrors that create it must not be revealed. No one can tell if the Photoshoppers have been at work. It is as if we need a ramped up version of reality to cut through the visual noise. Our senses have become jaded by the accelerating cycle of product innovation.

As covered in blogposts going back to her Goldsmiths MFA show in 2017, Ruth Waters’ work to date has been a subtle and inventive exploration of this contemporary malaise. In her short video, What I Eat in a Day she presents a hilarious and creepy parody of a clean-eating vlogpost. We feel increasingly squeamish as the sequence of clinically perfect Instagrammable plates of food and the clean eating buzzwords pile up. The food’s texture and colours become nauseatingly intense and, as if mirroring our increasing disgust, the unseen vlogger begins a tentative exploration of the food with her fingers. It is not hard to see a link between the harsh lit artificiality of food advertising and the anorexic impulse to reject food when faced with the messy reality.

Clean food also features in Waters’ latest film, Swallow Up (2019), shot in Japan last year and packed with clever insightful touches and a unifying conceptual thread running through it. A plate of salad includes a suspiciously lurid cut tomato but this has not been achieved by digital manipulation. We observe the final stage of the prepping when the analogue equivalent of retouching takes place. A lick of yellow paint is applied to each tomato seed so they do not disappear into the red flesh. This rather spooky image is juxtaposed with interview clips from the Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki and space psychologist Tomio Kinoshita. They speak with animation about the way our disorientation and sense of self is impacted by a visually uniform environment. Yamazaki talks of her scary sensation of being in a “black hole that absorbs everything” when looking out into the blackness of space.

The painted tomato seed is a powerful symbol of how we have lost our way. In our search for certainty we demand seeds that pop out of the background, like the constellations that popped out of the blackness of space Yamazaki says she used to reorientate herself when in orbit. When the roof of the starlit heavens was ripped off by modern cosmology we had to re-imagine our place in the universe. To help us cope with the unnerving sense of infinity capitalism has put the painted roof back on with all its gaudy signs. Image manipulation is just a continuation of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

The film closes with the anti-spectacle of the sea at night and in the peace it brings we ponder how we got here and how we might find our way out.

The truth is…

Following the lead of the Italians, every Thursday for three months during lockdown the UK population was encouraged to be participants in a two minute community performance artwork. The instructions were simple: make a noise loud enough for your neighbours to hear. Clapping, pot-banging and musical instruments were incorporated in the performance and it was broadcast live and shared on social media. But like any artwork its meaning was open to interpretation by both the artists and the audience. What was the truth of this event…?

For some it was a way of expressing thanks to the people who put their own lives on the line to care for the sudden flood of seriously ill people. For others it was a political act of solidarity in support of the institution’s survival in its present form as a publicly owned service. NHS staff seemed split. Some appreciated the sentiment while others were angry that it was easier to clap than commit to the financial investment needed to sustain this vital public service. With the rise in medical negligence litigation, some feared that this support might go into reverse as bereaved relatives latched onto the shortcomings in NHS care during the crisis. For others the hypocrisy of people applauding the workers they had previously despised as unwelcome immigrants was too much to stomach. Since the Brexit vote the flow of EU health workers back to their home countries has exacerbated the NHS labour crisis. Romanian crop-pickers flown in to prevent a food supply disaster this summer only reinforces the stark truth of the U.K’s dependence on “overseas aid” to support our faltering economy.

Still from You Clap for me Now

Some of these ambivalent feelings surfaced in You Clap for Me Now , the viral video featuring keyworkers which highlighted their contribution in the caring, cleaning, delivery, agriculture, transport and health sectors in the current pandemic. They recite the devastating poem written by Darren Smith in response to the U.N. call for art to foster global solidarity. Its opening is a daring creative coup, deploying the dangerous myth that conflates the idea of foreigners and disease-carriers. It then turns this around by portraying the foreigners as life savers. It is not a classic poem but it is a powerful, hard hitting polemic on racial inequality. The Guardian reported that of all coronavirus deaths among NHS staff, 61% were of BAME origin. In responding to the official investigation the government had no recommendations as to how this disparity might be addressed.

The poem’s simmering anger against injustice is tempered by each line being spoken without rancour by a different person direct to camera in their own work context. The accusation is clear. The clapping hides an undertow of racist attitudes. Send them back has become keep them here. There was an inevitable backlash to the video from the usual suspects such as Katie Hopkins dubbing it “sinister” and “unpleasant”. Describing it as “North Koreans on Xanax” she sees Clapping for Carers as the virtue signalling of lefty conformists. Ironically it was the South Koreans’ rigid adherence to the rigours of their track and trace app that helped them to secure their world-beating low covid-19 death rate!

Darren Smith’s video exposes the political hypocrisy of the state sponsored performance artwork and instead offers a clarion call for our common humanity. Although the run of Clap for Carers was brought to end by its creator several weeks ago the prime minster has called for its revival today to mark the 72nd birthday of the NHS. I will not be responding to his call.

Instead I feel inspired to write something in the style of the lyrics to a newly released song, The Truth, by the five piece band I Like Trains. I fantasise about it being read by Dominic Cummings at 10 Downing Street. Written by the vocalist, David Martin, culled from his monitoring of statements made by populist political leaders such as Trump, Johnson and Putin over several months this is a savage but chillingly understated indictment of the current deceitful political quagmire we are drowning in.

The accompanying video by “motion designer”, Michael Connolly, is a masterpiece of archive editing. He incorporates footage of a much younger Trump manipulated by deepfake software to simulate him making his recent statements. As the 6 minute song reaches its climax, digital distortion reminiscent of pop videos of the 90’s ramps up to mirror the increasing urgency of the vocal and instrumentation. It also has subtle touches like slipping in almost subliminal subtitles that hint at a more compromising take on the politician’s words. The album KOMPROMAT is released in August and promises more of this incisive political commentary.

The truth is… history is written by the victors. We plundered our colonies for human and material resources. We still plunder the same countries for their cheap labour. We still put a lower value on their lives. The rich and white live longer than the poor and black. We send them to the back of the queue for care while the carers are at the bottom of the pay scale. We pay more to those who look after our money than to those who look after our health. The truth is… applauding heroes is no substitute for paying them. We need to put more money into the NHS. The truth is… I do not want to clap, I want to pay more taxes to fund the NHS.

Man/object fails: Paul Harrison and John Wood

 Still from the video Luton (2001), 3’00″ courtesy of the artists

Two figures confined in a room somehow sums up the human condition. We must confront our relationships with others and negotiate a relationship between ourselves and the environment we have constructed. This is so familiar for many of us in lockdown but it is also the template for much of work of Paul Harrison and John Wood.

My first sight of this inventive and hilarious duo was in a mini white cube that they had constructed inside the back of a van. Seated on office chairs with casters they ricochet perilously as the van is driven through traffic. This seems to sum up their mission: to understand the fundamental relations between ourselves and the technology we create. Their aim is to explore the humour and sadness of the body’s fragility in a world of unpredictable objects. They owe a debt to the theatre of the absurd and to slapstick pantomime but the deadpan austerity of their carefully choreographed performances takes them to a more solemn and thought-provoking space.

Stills from the video 3-Legged (1997), 3’39”  courtesy of the artists

They have been working together for nearly 30 years and the selection of works on their website gives a generous overview of over an hour’s worth of quality videos. This generosity is a pleasing side-effect of lockdown but the range of works will narrow as we return to normal. My favourite is 3- Legged (1997) where they exploit the inherent hilarity of two people attempting to manoeuvre themselves when bound together. This is, of course, a brilliant metaphor for the struggles of maintaining a balance in any close relationship between two people. The jeopardy is given an extra twist as the couple are facing a tennis practice machine that is randomly shooting balls at them. With fast reactions and a mutual concern for each other’s safety, their attempts to evade the ball are mostly successful. Their exhaustion when the machine has spent its payload is both funny and moving, like any couple who have survived turbulent times together. The looped video returns them to the endless cycle of bombardment and avoidance and yet again the stoicism of Camus’ Sisyphus comes to mind.

Mountaineers pursuing the next summit on their wish list also remind us of Sisyphus (minus the boulder but laden down with backpacks nevertheless). There is always another peak or a harder route to conquer. Is this a self-inflicted punishment rather than one meted out by the gods? Wood and Harrison have made it to the top but stand around bemused at their achievement as we watch from our (godlike?) perch on one of the clouds that surround the peak. We are asking the same question that they are: is that it? Camus would say: well what else do you expect from life? Keep your shoulder to the boulder and smile.

Still from video Unrealistic Mountaineers (2012) 9’00”  courtesy of the artists

Objects are inherently threatening. The material culture of Homo sapiens is both our triumph and our potential apocalypse. In the duos’ films the scenario is often a condensation of this quandary. They must confront the danger of their own constructions. They claim that they are not brave but in Harry Houdini (There’s no escape that I can see) Wood faces the risk of a claustrophobic drowning. He has to carefully position his body so his head remains in the airspace of an enclosed, slowly rotating cube half filled with water. It somehow captures the desperation of our contortions to accommodate ourselves to the rising sea levels on our sealed planet

Still from video Harry Houdini ( There’s no escape that I can see) 1994 , 1’30”  courtesy of the artists

Slapstick requires meticulous timing and rehearsal. The traditional pantomime sketch where two wall-paperers cause mayhem with a board and two trestles appears to be the inspiration of the duos Board. This comparison led the Tate to dub them the “artworld’s Laurel and Hardy”. On closer viewing this appears a bit wide of the mark. In pantomime slapstick the choreography conveys a sense of malicious conflict between the two characters and chance saves the smaller one from being whacked by the board. Of the many examples available on Youtube, perhaps the best is Bruce Forsyth and Norman Wisdom although I expect many of the routines have been passed down from the early circus clown acts

Harrison and Wood convey the opposite: a sense of harmony, cooperation and mutual regard. In many of their performances they work together to ensure neither of them come to harm: ballet dancers not comedians or clowns. No surprise then that their collaboration with a Vancouver contemporary dance company resulted in some breathtaking performances distinctly stamped with their signature style and ethos.

A possible antecedent to their approach is seen in the early performance videotapes of Bruce Nauman many of which are 60 minutes long. In Wall-floor positions (1968) he works methodically through the permutations of his body’s stance in relation to the angle of wall and floor. The length provokes many questions. Could he have made the same point in 5 minutes? One suggestion for the viewer is to cut it to 15 minutes by playing it back at x4 speed.

Nauman was revelling in his realisation that “anything I do in my studio is art”. That is fine as long as he does not expect an audience. He was also responding to the innovations of New York minimalism characterised by extended duration, repetitive forms such as the four hour Music for 12 Parts composed by Phiĺip Glass in 1971. Like all good comedy acts, Harrison and Wood respect their audience and have learnt to get on and off the stage as rapidly as possible.

Jim Moir shooting the stars in the history of video art

TV coverage of video art is strangely scant so the BBC Four documentary Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s weird world of video art screened in November 2019 which I have just watched on iPlayer was a treat. Without attempting a measured scholarly account, this one hour canter through the last 55 years nevertheless covered many of the important events of the history of the genre and unearthed a mass of intriguing anecdotes. Presented by comedian and artist Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) it was informed but refreshingly unpretentious. At one point Moir’s question to the duo of John Wood and Paul Harrison, “Has video art changed over the years?” was met with the simple “Yes” before they all collapsed in giggles at the question’s banality.

Vic and Bob’s absurdist and irreverent shtick made their Shooting Stars TV celebrity panel show in the 1990’s a weekly must-see for me. According to Moir, they were inspired by Gilbert and George so we get to see a (mercifully short!) clip from their self indulgent 11 minute film Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (1972). I fail to see what we gain from watching two irritating toffs slide into polite inebriation for this length of time. However the more self effacing duo of Wood/ Harrison was rightly given ample screen time to present their austere, hilarious and often startling videos which will get the attention they deserve in my next post.

Gilbert and George- still from Gordons makes us drunk (1972) courtesy of the artists

Much was made of the genesis myth of video art in New York, October 1965. Nam June Paik points his recently purchased Sony Portapack out of the window of his gridlocked taxi to record the Pope’s cavalcade, footage he then shows to his friends that evening. This immediacy and shareability that we now take for granted was clearly a revolutionary moment.

Catherine Elwes, a doyenne of moving image art academia and a pioneer of feminist video art in the 1970s, emphasised the video camera’s portability as the factor that led women artists to employ it in preference to 16mm cine camera which needed a crew. She also reminded us that unlike painting and sculpture, the new medium of video appealed to women as it came untrammelled by patriarchal art historical baggage. Her body of art and scholarship looks interesting and will get a closer examination in a future post.

Our smartphones mean we can all aspire to be video artists. Although some critic made the sweeping judgement that there was an inverse correlation between the ease of making the video and its quality, Moir immediately quashed this by creating a hilarious piece using his phone, a nearby odd looking processing machine as a prop and an image modifying app.

In the early seventies the immateriality of the video signal compared to celluloid was the breakthrough idea. The earlier Abstract Expressionist revolution was given a reboot through the development of computerised image processors. UK artist Peter Donebaur, like the Vasulkas in the US, had developed an image-processing synthesiser, Videokalos, which allowed action painting in the style of Jackson Pollock with the screen acting as an electronic canvas. Works could be created and viewed in real time and integrated with a music ensemble responding to the images.

Peter Donebauer- still The Creation Cycle (1974) courtesy of the artist

Absence of Satan , George Barber’s scratch video piece from 1985, was constructed from syncopated cutting and looping of clips from B movie footage and is a pivotal work. It was an extension of Steve Reich’s early experimental minimalist works in the sixties (Come out and Its Gonna rain) and is a precursor to Christian Marclay’s masterpiece Video Quartet. The producer of the 1985 number one hit, 19 for Paul Hardcastle apparently attributes the stuttered N-N-N-N- Nineteen chorus to Absence of Satan’s inspiration. The links between video art and music video are extensive and their use of archive footage is perhaps the most obvious one. Over the last ten years electro-rock band Public Service Broadcasting have built up a body of work around sampled archive sound and footage. Visuals are so crucial that the fourth member of their on-stage line up is a video director mixing live and archive feeds. Another focus for a future post.

George Barber- still from Absence of Satan (1985) courtesy of the artist

Key developments over the last 30 years were skated over rather quickly but the programme highlighted the multi screen installations of Isaac Julien and more obscurely the AI mediated work of Jake Elwes (yes, a relation) who uses GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks), the same technology behind deepfakes. This is an intriguing new direction for video art which will also get a blogpost to itself. The subjects for my next four posts have been generated by Moir’s documentary which must be some kind of endorsement. If only the BBC would commission a series!

The consoling circularity of Smith’s tower and Ishiguro’s tram

In The Black Tower (1987), John Smith’s celebrated short film, we are drawn into an absurdist narrative of unending, perceptual uncertainty and delusional thinking. The narrator is convinced that the black tower he keeps spotting behind the rooftops is stalking him. After a retreat into agoraphobic isolation he is committed to a psychiatric hospital. He recovers but during convalescence in the country the black tower reappears. The voiceover of a second narrator tells of the man’s death from an undisclosed cause. Suicide, we imagine but I feel Smith might prefer us speculate that he has been swallowed by the perceptual black hole that the tower represents. During a visit to his grave a friend looks up and observes the black tower looming on the skyline. As in Smith’s film, White Hole (2014), there is a sense of being trapped on an Escher staircase where we seem to end up where we started, the standard trope of horror films when it is revealed that a fearful delusion is ubiquitous and inescapable.

Smith has a quietly subversive approach. In an interview he describes the inspiring sight of the odd structure looming above his neighbourhood in East London, its blackness creating the illusion of a “hole cut out of the sky”. It might be superimposition that creates the impression that the tower is either moving like a triffid across the city or replicating itself. In reality Smith has found a range of vantage points to produce this illusion of mutabilty. One shot suggests the tower is located inside a prison. A slow tracking shot along a line of treetops induces a foreboding that it will finally appear. His voiceover is measured but implicitly questions the trustworthiness of our own perceptual world and of the world as represented both in his film and in the tropes of mainstream media. The edit and the voiceover are the tools of manipulation which we must be constantly alert to.

Seeing things that others cannot is a criterion of diagnosable psychosis. But what the black tower suggests is that our fears are condensed and projected onto our perceptual world. This projected image of our terror then reinforces our panic in a positive feedback loop leading to the spiral of despair. The fear is sitting quietly in our psyche waiting for an object to attach itself too.

The Black Tower created a delusion that destroyed the film’s protagonist but our delusions need not necessarily be so toxic. If we integrate their metaphorical meaning into our lives we will not be categorised as abnormal. It reminds me of the case study of a man who was comforted by the sight of dinosaurs in his back garden. His conventional suburban life continued undisturbed until he disclosed his dinosaurs to a friend and was committed. The antipsychiatry activists would claim that reality is subjective. We have no grounds for dismissing another person’s delusions. Symptoms that are not distressing to the “patient” do not call for treatment.

Towers visible above the rooftops were often invaluable in pre-satnav days. A tower that seems to follow us has its converse in the tower that appears to be evading us. This unsettling phenomenon appears in the climax to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Unconsoled. The hero is frantically navigating through a warren of narrow city streets towards a concert hall where he is to be hailed the guest of honour. The domeshaped roof of the hall keeps advancing and retreating as he zigzags towards it and eventually disappears altogether. In both cases the fear of disorientation leads to lassitude and paralysis. Smith and Ishiguro have the gift of great artists in grounding abstract themes in gritty reality, the architectural landmark signifying safety, home and comfort or the fear of death, loss and madness.

Both artists also exploit the circle metaphor of death and rebirth, hope and despair that marks a life. The final chapter of The Unconsoled features a tram that follows a circular route on which the hero finds some consolation from the constant tribulations he has faced. The basics of food and company in the form of convivial fellow passengers and seemingly overflowing sumptous buffet are onboard. It feels like we could stay there contently forever. In Smith’s film the tower’s unsettling power outlives the hero, returning to visit paranoia on others and reminding us there is no escape from our fears. In Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, the perpetual cycle of effort and disappointment is presented as the fundamental absurdity of life that we must learn to accept. He concludes:

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”

Still from the film, The Black Tower (1987), courtesy of the artist

Syrian refugee narratives and post-nationalism in the era of covid-19

Our species has been on the move throughout its evolution. Combined with our ability to adapt to novel environments, it is a key factor in our global success. We truly are all immigrants but we cannot ignore our need for cultural identity. If our main cultural identifier was membership of the swirling stream of humanity the problems of cultural conflict would fall away. This may be a pipe-dream, but unless we move more rapidly in the direction of what has been termed post-nationalism, our species extinction awaits. Sadly the pandemic has seen national borders turned into impenetrable barriers and global consensus appears a mirage. But unless political leaders agree on a global strategy the covid-19 virus will continue to dominate our lives.

The call for international solidarity to combat global heating has been undermined by nationalist arrogance but the more immediate threat of a virus ignorant of borders may add the impetus for a post-national future. As the U.S has discovered, simply banning foreigners from an infected region is not the answer. Arguments over migration, identity, climate change and pandemic control will become more interrelated. Artists may now seek new ways of representing the migrant story although its essence remains timeless and universal: escape, journey and arrival..

Escape

War, famine, poverty, persecution, genocide and disease have always driven refugees from their homelands who take their stories with them. So it is fitting that an artwork offering the most eloquent testimony of this experience does not rely on spoken accounts or any direct images of the devastation. The four minute film, Wonderland (2019) by Turkish artist, Erkan Ozgen presents us with the ferociously energised dumb-show of a thirteen year old deaf and mute boy, Muhammed, whose extraordinary powers of kinaesthetic expression transmit his experiences as a Syrian war refugee with shocking clarity. His urgent desire to recount the traumatic episodes from his past is also conveyed by his intense off-centre gaze fixed on Ozgen standing out of view beside his camera. It is only in the closing seconds when Muhammed’s story reaches is gruesome climax that he stares directly into the lens to confront us with his helplessness and our own complicity. This work needs to be recognised as one the most powerful anti-war statements of the current century.

Journey

The migrant journey has been mined by many moving image artists as is evident in the many blogposts on the site that reference this theme. An interesting take on the issue is presented in Juan delGado’s moving and poetic black and white film, Altered Landscapes. The unseen distressed narrator tells of his ambivalence about leaving Damascus (“this is where I belong”) but he is impelled by the search for a loved one. We share his view of the windswept landscape he is passing through. Littered with detritus, (plastic streamers in the trees, a comb in the grass) these poignant indicators of the transitory and improvised lifestyle of the refugee are arresting because of the absence of the migrants themselves. The images are often fleeting and it is this that packs the emotional punch. The first frame (the only one in colour) is the view of a city at night from the surrounding hills evoking the romanticised Hollywood image of L.A. This contrasts with the final sequence in which archetypes of razor wire and lorries confront migrants and Eurostar travellers alike as they reach Calais. But is this the end of their journey? The second of this sequence in a planned trilogy of films is currently in production. Titled In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun, delGado’s film will track the experience of the next stage, arrival, in the snowscapes of Sweden. Like Ozgen, delGado has an impassioned political purpose to his work which includes the founding of the website, Qisetna dedicated to preserving Syrian culture among the diaspora.

The artist Juan delGado and a still from his film Altered Landscapes (2015). Courtesy of the artist

Arrival

Arrival in the host country is not simply a narrative of resolution. The conflict between integration and conserving a cultural heritage is a common theme. Isaac Julien’s film, The Leopard (2007) inspired by Visconti’s 1963 film of the same name, explores the plight of migrants arriving on the coast of Sicily. It includes two memorable images offering contrasting scenarios of hope and tragedy: the foil covered body of a drowned migrant on a beach alongside tourists sunbathing and an African carried aloft by a group of helpers through the sumptuous rooms of a Sicilian palazzo.

Migrants’ right to move will come under even greater scrutiny in the era heralded by covid-19. Racist paranoia will stoke the myths of foreigners bringing disease. Personal, cultural and geographical barriers may harden as fear of contamination increases while economic and health care inequalities will continue to drive migration. Caught between these conflicting forces, the migrant’s voice will still need to be projected through artworks and campaigns. The charity Global Justice’s graphic information leaflet does this with admirable concision.

With much of the world population under enforced lockdown, we now share the experiences and emotions of the migrant: increased fearfulness, isolation, uncertainty and lack of control. State surveillance and constraints in our freedom of movement are likely to be with us for some time. I can only hope that this communal trauma will enhance our empathy for them.

Image of Muhammed, a Syrian refugee, from the film Wonderland (2019) courtesy of the artist.

Fiona Tan locates the still centre in a time of suspension

Fiona Tan: still from Linnaeus’ Flower Clock (1998)

Fiona Tan’s distinctive strength is her sensitive exploitation of the medium’s ability to suspend the onrush of time and so create a sense of peaceful acceptance of the moment. Her works draw our attention to the experiences that so easily get lost, slipping across our vision without impinging on our consciousness. Her famous early work, Saint Sebastian (2001) first shown in the memorable moving image group show Time Zones at the Tate Modern in 2005, caught the micro facial twitches of Japanese ritual archers in uncanny detail just before their arrows are fired.

Tan has selected three works currently accessible through the Frith Street Gallery website until April 20th (via the links below) and they come with her caution that carefully designed gallery installation is integral to the appreciation of the screened artwork which she necessarily sacrifices in an online format. At Frith Street Gallery, Soho Square in 2015, Ghost Dwellings 3, Tan’s elegiac film of abandoned half built luxury houses in rural Ireland was memorably projected onto pieces of tarpaulin stitched crudely together to reflect the damage wrought by the 2008 crash.

Study for Provenance is a charming, silent black and white portrait of her sons with the poise and luminosity of a 17C Dutch interior painting. She presents a joyous scene of costume role play that is likely to resonate with many families coping with children bored to distraction under the current quarantine. Their plastic swords, helmets and patriotic tabards seem to satirise the warlike posturing of our politicians at this time of futile gestures and inadequate armoury

Still from Study for Provenance (2008)

Linnaeus’ Flower Clock is highly personal film that references the careful records that the naturalist made on the times of the day that different species of flowers opened and closed their petals. My immediate tangential thought, though, was that the “Star of Bethlehem opens at noon” referred to the time that the pub opens its doors to the impatient punters queuing outside. This marking of time with such events is of course one of the underlying themes of the film. Time seems to be suspended as we focus on repeated archive clips of sepia toned divers in mid air before they hit the water. It feels like this split second of freefall is a crack in time that exists forever. On another level this film is a poignant love letter to Tan’s partner and an anxious meditation on love’s timelessness.

Nellie is a visually sumptuous and aurally transfixing narrative of family separation, cultural dislocation and loneliness inspired by the story of Rembrandt’s daughter Cornelia who married an artist at the tender age of sixteen and emigrated to Indonesia only to die at the age of thirty. Her transience is symbolised by her patterned dress that camouflages her amidst the luxuriant rendition of tropical foliage on the wall hangings of her home.

Still from Nellie (2013)

With over 20 years of experience in the moving image, Fiona Tan has been one of the leading lights in the field. Again, it is her simplicity and honesty that produces great art and this feels particularly reassuring in these dark times of the covid-19 pandemic.

All images courtesy of Fiona Tan and Frith Street Gallery

Goldsmiths’ alumni playlist

The esteemed London art college, Goldsmiths have a well deserved reputation for moving image art so here is a selection of some of the best produced by their alumni from the last 4 years. They have generously made them available free to the public. More will be added as I track them down. Click on the titles to access the videos which are all around five minutes.

Jo Wort’s Bunkertown is a chilling and bleakly funny pastiche of an estate agent’s promotional video for properties we all might wish to own at the moment but only the world’s billionaires can afford. The terrible thing is that this fortress style development will only get a boost from covid-19.

Francis Almendarez is originally from LA, (Calif). His Dinner as I Remember is a colour-drenched and moving tribute to traditional Hispanic home cooking and a riposte to Instagram food porn.

Redsky66 is one of several utterly compelling and often dryly amusing, films by Ruth Waters. This one is a case study of the terror of digital immortality and introduces us to apeirophoba, the fear of eternity. Her website gives access to full versions of many of her films for a very reasonable rental charge. She has a unique take on the absurdity of our times, an artist well worth supporting.

Michael Dignam’s short video, Precarity , creates maximum impact with minimal material. This hypnotic black and white film draws you in with digitally manipulated shadows from the rotor blade of a hidden wind generator sweeping over a rutted countryside track.

Katie Hare’s incisive intelligence shines through her films. In five minutes she establishes a subtle parallel between the visual and the political in her film, Wrong then, wrong today , simply by using a Tex Avery cartoon clip from the 1950’s.

Daniel Dressel was born in Germany but is currently based in a parked van that doubles as his studio on Cody Dock, East London where he has been their official artist in residence since 2014. His website includes a gripping and beautifully edited mini nature documentary featuring an indomitable robin and subverting the genre by shooting entirely in the claustrophobic atmosphere and ambiant sound of the Tropical House at Kew Gardens.

Aimee Neat’s insightful performance skills are used to hilarious effect to satirise the desperate, infantilising narcissism of social media self projection in her unsettling video A Sculpture of Your Grief , Take II which features a troubling rictus grin of despair.

Sun Park’s video Now and There , Here and Then is particularly poignant in the current lockdown with our increasing reliance on facetime to contact loved ones. Shot three ago, a mother-daughter video call between the UK and South Korea casts original insights on globalisation, technology, family and the nature of art.

Aimee and Sun also work together with Susanne Dietz as Ballpark Collective which has had a couple of excellent shows. Susanne’s trailer for her atmospheric work Whats yours is mine features spooky candles and gives a flavour of her many carefully crafted and thought-provoking films available on vimeo including The Bunker on Grief Street. filmed in an “above-ground” bunker constructed in Berlin during WW2

Ferocity tempered by ice cold analysis was the title of my blogpost covering the Goldsmiths MFA 2018 show and it came to me after viewing Robbie Howells’ work which seemed to sum up the ethos that the college instils in its students. ACG: An Overview, his hilarious parody of a corporate animation promo for a collaborative venture between artists and business is part of a wider ongoing project that critiques the phantom of the rigged world we are all in thrall to.

Puck Verkade’s trilogy Breeder is a humorous critique of patriarchal attitudes to fertility with striking archive images and recordings of medical consultations among a huge range of sources she has marshalled.

Cao Fei: reaching out through the screen in our new virtual lives

The covid-19 pandemic is creating new ways of perceiving the world which the films of the Chinese artist, Cao Fei, seem to prefigure. I luckily managed to see them at the Serpentine Gallery only days before the U.K. lockdown.

The lives of many of us will be more solitary and fragmented for some time to come as we hunker down at home. The computer screen will be our constant companion as we seek to navigate and control the virtual spaces we now inhabit. Cao Fei has a fascinating take on the relationship between our physical and virtual worlds. Her continuing exploration of its implications is highly pertinent as we withdraw from the contagious physical world into the virtual spaces increasingly becoming our social reality.

In the feature length retro-futurist experimental film, Nova (2019) this division is explored through the zietgeisty, sci-fi concept of transferring self-consciousness from the neural circuits of the brain into the electronic circuits of the computer. The son of the inventor of this technology is the guinea pig doomed to wander like a lost soul in a virtual world coded in a clunky 60’s mainframe computer. His attempts to return to the real world are fruitless. A “magical realist” image of him looking out from the computer’s innards through its screen onto the real world of his father’s engineering lab is one of the film’s many poignant moments. Our need for this sense of connection is going to be tested in the coming months. We may also have to confront the gap between our online, virtual selves and our authentic selves. Maybe one positive outcome of this crisis is that we find this gap shrinking and even disappearing.

Still from Nova (2019)

The heroine of Cao Fei’s film, Asia One (2018), representative of the future of work, seems to be ideally located to avoid viral contagion. She is a lone and isolated worker sitting behind a bank of monitors bored with the superfluous task of overseeing the operations of a mammoth, fully automated, unmanned warehouse. Her only companion is a cute robot with whom she can share tai chi exercises. This is not science fiction; such logistics centres already exist, continuing to operate with imperturbable, mechanical efficiency in the midst of the unfolding global panic.

We feel empathy for this forlorn, lonely figure as many of us have suffered from the atomisation of our work lives in this post-industrial epoch, a process that has been driven by the need for efficiency and facilitated by the ubiquity of online communication. The threat of viral contagion in the present (and potentially in the future) can only accelerate this process resulting in the workplace scenario that Cao Fei has envisioned. What if every industrial facility needed only one worker with a robot for company to manage it? What if our education, work and social lives becomes more virtual with only remote contact with our fellow humans.

Cao Fei’s protagonist in Asia One yearns for a human workmake and she is shaken from her lethargy when she spots a lone operative on sundry tasks wandering around the complex. The robot heads out in pursuit. In an unsettling application of the Chinese state’s surveillance social credit system it deploys facial recognition to interrogate the young man’s profile and finds an alert for previous “aggression towards robots”. In the current crisis this technology is already being mooted as the solution to identifying and restraining potential carriers of Covid-19. Are we prepared to handover this type of survillance data to the state to curb the pandemic?

Still from Asia One (2018)*

Cao Fei’s charming and compassionate approach to her subjects was demonstrated in her early film, Whose Utopia (2006) which focused on the daily grind and fantasy alter-egos of workers in a Chinese Osram light bulb factory with one of them ballet dancing amid the assembly lines.

In Asia One Cao Fei lets rip with imaginative fun that cuts through the grim isolation of her protagonists’ grim isolation. A dance troupe and an outsize inflatable octopus feature in a hilarious interlude. A lesson for all of us facing indefinite lockdown? In a subtle shift of tone as the film ends we see a chilling image as the burgeoning relationship between the young couple comes under threat. They are transported passively on separate conveyor belts as the logistic apparatus dispatches them to addresses in different provinces. A salutary warning of machine dominance or state control?

I have been a fan of Cao Fei for over ten years having first been entranced by the intricately realised digital animation, RMB City, Second Life City Planning (2007) displayed on an enormous screen in Istanbul Contemporary in 2010. This artwork first made its appearance on the platform, Second Life, which was established as a complete virtual world and popularised the use of avatars as online identities. She writes:

“For me virtuality is a means to express myself, to understand reality, which is what I’m interested in. I use writing and film too, but we are living in an age of rapid technology and in this context, we need to know that virtuality has changed the way reality works. And to do this we need to be part of it.” 

Still from RMB City, Second Life City Planning ( 2007) *

Born in 1978, Cao Fei produces art, which like her more illustrious fellow artist, Ai Wei Wei, is rooted in Chinese culture but her work is more obviously reflective of the digital era she has grown up in. Like him, social critique is embedded in her work although she has avoided directly challenging the authorities which has led to the scrutiny and restrictions imposed on Ai Wei Wei by the Chinese state. At a time when Trump, the Daily Mail and paranoid social media trolls are seeking to blame China for the pandemic, it is heartwarming that a Chinese artist has so acutely signposted the questions we must answer to assess its implications for the future of our species.

*All images copyright Cao Fei courtesy of the artist

Imran Perretta instils empathy into the counter-terrorism debate

Adolescents love destroying things. Is this because they sense (but cannot acknowledge) that their own fragile bodies will inevitably succumb to mortality? Let’s get a damaging blow in first, maybe it will protect us from the same fate. Magical thinking. Or maybe it is a sign to their elders to move out of the way? We are the next generation conjuring the shape of the new dispensation from the wreck of your corrupted world. Or maybe turning the destructive urge on oneself is to take the fear of death into their own hands.

Imran Perretta was thirteen when a group of man-children audaciously and ingeniously brought down the Twin Towers ending their own lives along with a multitude of others. Shortly afterwards an inspired English teacher introduced Perretta and his fellow classmates to a similar scenario in a Graham Greene short story set in East London in the immediate post-war period. The Destructors describes how a gang of adolescent boys systematically fillet the supporting structures from the inside of the one remaining house in a bombed out terrace (supposedly designed by Wren according to the only middle class boy in the gang – an intellectual bluff?) With the help of a towrope and an unsuspecting lorry driver they engineer the collapse of the entire building. No one is hurt but the elderly householder, “Old Misery”, is made homeless.

The parallel that most impressed Perretta was not the destructive act itself but the fact that these actions created a negative group stereotype with wider destructive consequences. As his adolescence progressed he would suffer from the association of his brownness with terrorism. He lucidly explains this dissociation: “my coming of age was coming to know that my body was perceived as a weapon and because of this it would never wholly belong to me.”

Perretta’s latest two-channel film installation, the destructors (2019) first shown at Spike Island, Bristol and now at Chisenhale until 5 April and at BALTIC, Gateshead from 14 March, is more than an artwork, it is a valuable educational resource. The politicians responsible for counter-terrorist strategy need to hear Perretta’s carefully considered expression of the “brown anomie” caused by categorising all members of a group as suspects of a “pre-crime”, simply because of their skin colour. The visual and verbal language of this film powerfully instils an empathy for these young men. As Perretta boldly puts it “the public imaginary has long been haunted by the spectre of the suicide bomber and the idea that lurking within a body like mine is an amoral sociopath waiting to self-destruct.”

Filmed in a spartan, run-down community facility, The Shadwell Centre, we hear his text narrated by four young British-Bangladeshi Muslims like himself. “I forgive you for the bombs…” and “Just what is it you believe?” resonate as typical passive-aggressive comments from their white neighbours that they are expected to answer. The film’s opening explores the visceral impact of this projected sense of collective guilt, transmitted like the smoke that we see seeping into the building. This image of the “bankrupt ideology” as a toxin that has to be “metabolised” in the body is one of many linking feelings, physiology and beliefs and gives Perretta’s film such devastating power.

In my years in teaching, I often encountered the dangerous cocktail of despair, guilt and anger that overwhelms those teetering on the brink of adulthood. This film gives voice to these feelings from a Muslim perspective but also raises hope for resolution. We hear a story of a mother recognising the potential hardening of her vulnerable son and talking him down, encouraging him to retain his sensitivity. The unstated corollary is that sensitivity is required from the authorities. In the closing frames we glimpse an action from a well worn trust exercise; one of the young men crosses his arms across his chest and tips back on his heels. Will someone be ready to catch his fall? Like much of the framing of the shots in this film this is hidden from the viewer. In this way Perretta reminds us that our view of these young men is partial and fragmented as the government’s surveillance operations are similarly distorted.

As seen in his earlier work, 15 days (2018), reviewed in an earlier post, his poetic vision here is matched by an articulacy which grants added insight into the plight of his subjects. He has mastered the technology of seamlessly integrating CGI animation with live action and the production of a soundtrack that reels the viewer in. His opening of a sudden whipcrack is a shock but we gradually discern that this is the start of a thighslapping percussive group piece by his four narrators.

This artwork, although autobiographical, has a much wider political significance and it deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. The evidence that the present counter terrorism strategies are fostering irrational fears and divisive stereotypes is mounting and Perretta’s film is essential testimony for understanding the implications of this failure and moving the debate towards more fruitful ground.

The fear of strangers is sometimes described as a natural survival instinct. But we need to guard against the tendency to link this fear with skin colour or with contamination. Any perceived threat to life whether it is bombs or viruses can create paranoia. Travelling the tube in recent days reminds me of the period following the 7/7 London bombings. The heightened sense of vigilance is palpable. But this time no one is immune from suspicion. Anyone, regardless of race, might be a Covid-19 carrier.

Facemask worn by London tube traveller. Copyright cityam

Still images from the destructors (2019) copyright Imran Perretta, film produced by Chisenhale Gallery and Spike Island, Bristol, and commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery; Spike Island; the Whitworth, The University of Manchester; and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Installation views- Photo credit; Andy Keate

Phoebe Boswell and Kate Cooper: images of distress and recovery

Copyright Phoebe Boswell. Still from video installation, Ythlap (2018), courtesy of the artist.

In Spring 2019, two artists using moving image to explore the links between body-image and illness had solo exhibitions in London: Kate Cooper at Hayward Gallery, Heni Project Space and Phoebe Boswell at Autograph. They both featured memorable images still vivid almost 12 months later as I write this post.

Kate Cooper’s exhibition Symptom Machine used CGI to generate images of women in a range of bizarre and distressing situations. A desperate woman becomes increasingly exhausted as she attempts to crawl forward on a conveyor belt moving in the opposite direction. What a brilliant metaphor for the futility of the rat race. Another woman is constrained by an inflated plastic straightjacket in a parody of the extremes that cosmetic surgery and body dysphoria can drive people to.

The hyper real CGI gives a glossy sheen to the work but is unable to convey a sense of authenticity to the eyes. There is a deadness in the gaze, conscious life seems absent, blocking our empathy. We observe the distress but cannot engage with it on a human level. As result this is an uncomfortable experience and a warning that the digital simulacrum of “real” women is open to abuse.

Phoebe Boswell’s analogue artworks in her exhibition The Space Between Things had the opposite effect. They integrated her treatment and recuperation following a serious eye injury. Charcol drawings of her naked body formed a glorious and delicate frieze around the walls of the ground floor gallery which also housed six floor mounted monitors screening sequences of waves lapping against a sandy beach on Zanzibar ‘s Indian Ocean shoreline shot from a stationary drone. Looking down as if inspecting an insect in a cage, we view the tiny figure of Boswell’s body floating in the shallows, gently rocked by the waves as they peter out. Anyone who has tried this will know how therapeutic this experience can be. We are caught, safe in this liminal, timeless space between water and land. The title of this work Ythlap is the Old English term for these ‘wave remnants’. Boswell has brilliantly captured the emotions of straddling the boundary between illness and well-being.

The timely contrast of these two exhibition illustrates that analogue art is alive and well in this digital era.

Eve Sussman’s algorithmic film odyssey

Eve Sussman-whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (2011) Installation view, courtesy of the artist

December, 1979: the alienation and exhilaration we feel on the coach transfer from Moscow Airport to our city centre hotel is reinforced by the urban streetscape spooling by and the monolithic, identical, off-green neon shopsigns reflected in the grey kerbside slush. Primed by stories of the obstacles set to stymie our touristic curiosity, it is remarkably easy to slip into a paranoid mindset. This murky landscape of the mind is evoked brilliantly by whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir (2011), Eve Sussman’s algorithmically generated film recently shown at the Whitechapel Gallery .

Sussman distils this Kafkaesque environment by collecting a vast range of film sequences shot in the badlands of Russia and central Asia and by focusing on the confusion of a single protagonist, Holz, an American engineer on an obscure mission who confronts state obfuscation at every turn. We experience a parallel confusion as a server loaded with 2637 video clips presents them to us in a sequence determined by an algorithm. What is intriguing is that on a second monitor we get to see the functioning of the algorithm in real time as it uses the tabs linked to the current images to makes a decision about what related clips it should select from to project next.

What Sussman has created is an infinite odyssey where each step seems logical but the narrative ultimately leads nowhere. There is an occasional flash of light in the darkness but we can also delight in the glorious, messy absurdity of the journey, a bit like life really. You can sample the experience at: https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/issues/10/contents/whiteonwhite

Christine Rebet’s animations suggest that less is more

Installation view of Christine Rebet, The Square (2011) at Parasol Unit. Photo credit: Benjamin Westoby

Immediately following the mind scrambling thrill ride of the Stan Douglas film at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road I popped into Parasol Unit next door to see an exhibition of the French-based moving image artist, Christine Rebet’s hand-drawn animations. This may have been foolhardy as the cognitive effort I had expended left me a little resistant to absorbing another artist’s vision. If I had come to it fresh I might have been more receptive. It is a bit worrying that this type of contextual consideration influences much of what passes for art criticism. As a result the contrast did no favours for appreciating her work. Perhaps not surprising then the least complex of her artworks was my favourite.

The crudely sketched teenage dorks, Beavis and Butthead, were the cartoon characters that came to mind in the first of her animations installed inside a wooden cabin. In another, a collection of colonial types sit behind a roulette wheel and an egg timer. In neither did I manage to form a meaningful narrative. The detailed curatorial interpretation of these works in the notes had the counterproductive impact of adding to the confusion.

Her most successful work, The Square (2011) demonstrates the less is more maxim. This simple but carefully designed abstract animation projected onto a square tabletop features four snaking lines of different colours comprised of powdered clay, wood, metal and plaster representing rudimentary building materials. The choreography of their interactions embodies a narrative of compromise, collaboration and cohesion. Interesting that the artist was inspired by the Arab Spring protests. In the final frames we see the square’s white concrete cracking and disintegrating as if the united revolutionary force of these base materials has overwhelmed the city’s ancient order. This is yet another example of abstract moving image art at its best, giving the viewer the opportunity to project their own feelings onto minimal material. Contemporary figurative art can often become highly personalised and inward facing, making it harder for the viewer to get a look in.

Stan Douglas scrambles your mind (but you still enjoy it)

Still from Dopellganger, 2019, two screen video installation. Copyright Stan Douglas. Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

The mirror lies. It gives us back an inverted image of ourselves opposite to the one we present to the world. “The parting on the right becomes the parting on the left.” as the popular song has it. This parallels the difference between our self-image and the image others perceive of us. We can never see ourselves as others see us. This is just one of the psychological phenomena that Stan Douglas explores in his intellectually demanding, visually alluring and occasionally comic video installation, Doppelganger at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road.

Facing two screens you seem to be following the parallel stories of a woman astronaut and her doppelganger whose stories, at least to begin with, are mirror images of each other. We see them being teleported onto a spaceship but after many years, in which we assume all contact is lost, they attempt to regain contact with mission control. Here a crucial divergence develops. Her password to prove her identity is LIVE REIFIED TIME. This satisfies the ground controller and leads to an unproblematic debrief on her return to earth. However her doppelganger is not so lucky as the password’s mirror image palindrome is EMIT DEIFIER EVIL. In the inverse universe this is heard as satanically inspired. She is treated as a potential imposter and a threat and the debrief includes a consideration of “euthanasing” her. Douglas hopes this will cast light on the “othering” of migrants. It also evokes the hoary parental urban myth about disreputable heavy metal recordings that encoded satanic messages on vinyl records played backwards.

Still from Dopellganger, 2019, two screen video installation. Copyright Stan Douglas. Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

It is difficult to convey the mind scrambling experience of trying to disentangle the stories as we have to do this having seen them presented twice on split screens. But what makes this so enjoyable is the clear visual signposting of the differences and the humorous undertow of satire. I particularly like the candy striped space capsule parachutes seen from below in one version and sideways in the other. A joke about distinguishing marks that might verify the identity of the astronaut is repeated in the two versions with slightly different inflections.

The sci -fi cliches, both visual and linguistic, that Douglas incorporates give the otherwise serious content a tongue-in-cheek fillip. Like the rest of his work this video installation is so compelling I would happily sit through many iterations confident in the knowledge that new subtleties would become apparent. Looking back over the past 25 years I have come to realise that Stan Douglas is unique in his understanding of the potential of moving image art can presented on multiple screens. He is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and original moving image artists we have.

Patrick Goddard at Tintype: dubious prank or vital critique?

Patrick Goddard in preparation for his film Black Valuation (2020). Courtesy of Tintype Gallery

Teresa Grimes, the director of Tintype, has a winning formula for commissioning short films so I always look forward to her annual selection screened in the gallery window in Essex Road which is now in its sixth year. By setting the theme as Essex Road itself, it is always part of the fun to see the range of interpretations of the brief and the five minute maximum length mitigates the risk of bagginess.

Patrick Goddard’s Black Valuation is prank art in the tradition of covert recordings of practical jokes which launched the TV careers of Jeremy Beadle and Dom Joly on the backs of unsuspecting members of the public. They all owe a debt to the original Candid Camera, an American series that first aired in 1948, which came to ITV in the 1960s. I recall its slightly dubious low rent and embarrassing vibe which seemed to exemplify the channel’s appeal. It ran out of steam when reality TV such as Big Brother gave viewers a more intense voyeuristic hit without the uncomfortable issues of informed consent. An estate agent is the unwitting participant in Goddard’s hilarious take on the evils of property speculation but the reveal of “You’re on Candid Camera” is missing. Perhaps we are all thinking that as accessories to the housing crisis, estate agents are fair game.

In ghoulish facepaint ready for a Halloween party, Goddard roleplays the rapacious owner of the Tintype gallery building discussing his plans with the estate agent. He intends to evict the gallery director (“these artists are just social parasites”) so he can make a killing from a development project. Filmed using the gallery’s CCTV cameras, the estate agent is perceived as complicit in this scandalous behaviour.

Goddard’s brilliantly executed modus operandi is a fruitful tool for critiquing the absurdities of the times we live in. It reminded me of the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala who has used hidden cameras to capture the responses to her transgressive behaviour in a range of environments that have included Disneyland and a Shoreditch office space. As with any covert social experiment, a debrief is desirable but with surveillance cameras so ubiquitous we seem to have lost sight of this necessity. Perhaps a film of the estate agent’s debrief would reveal his feelings about the power imbalance implicit in the deception.

The moving image artist working in this mode is caught between a desire to manipulate social encounters as a conduit for their art and the ethical reservations about deceiving their participants. Ruth Waters has, in my view, cracked this dilemma most successfully in her gripping work, REDSKY66 (2017), as described in a previous post. She is having a skype conversation with a man who feels tortured by a twitter tirade against him and its indelible online record stretching into infinity. The man’s performance is so convincing I felt I was watching a real twitterstorm victim. In fact he is an actor, thus allowing the artist to craft dialogue with the illusion of spontaneity.

Goddard’s signature off-kilter and detached sardonic humour is also integral to his audio installation, Trip to Eclipse currently at Matt’s Gallery where he tells us a shaggy dog story. It is not strictly moving image art as the only thing that moves is the viewer. You lounge prostrate in a cramped bouncy castle but soon find that a hyperactive air pump ensures that you get well jostled. His gentle mockery of the egotism seen in both dogs and in public art projects is spot on.


At Tintype, Lucy Harris’s Reading Room, a tribute to the visual allure of illustrated books and the tranquil setting of Islington South Library and Melanie Smith’s 5 MINS, a hypnotic mediation on orange dot matrix bus-stop indicators, were the two other films that stood out for me but the quality of the complete set of eight films is well worth 36 minutes of your time.

Egos and slogans confound the collective triumph at the 2019 Turner Prize

Here is an ethical dilemma for a financially struggling artist with principles. You are nominated for a prize that could win you £25,000. Your three fellow nominees want to make a political gesture of solidarity that would require you to evenly split the £40,000 prize pot. Being risk averse you wonder whether a guaranteed £10,000 would be better than your chances of winning the top prize outright. Your friends and supporters all tell you your work is so much better than the others. Several betting websites and art experts place you as the favourite to win. When you meet your fellow artists you feel a subtle unspoken pressure to succumb to the emerging group consensus. If you stand alone the plan cannot succeed and you will risk the ire of your fellow nominees. With a heavy heart and an unsettling sense of suppressed resentment you sacrifice your ego for the wider good. Yes it feels right to laud the collective over the individual. I imagine the four nominees for the 2019 Turner Prize may all have felt something like this.

However as they approach the televised prize giving event at Turner Contemporary in Margate, an individualist imperative is bubbling under. Some kind of distinctive gesture is needed. One wears a pendant with a highly visible partisan political slogan. Another sports a badge that is less easy to discern but social media confirms it is a Vote Labour message. One by virtue of her age gets to read out their joint statement decrying the political divisiveness that prompted their decision to form a collective. The last gets an opportunity to raise the profile of the Tory hostile environment policy that is barring his wife’s entry to the UK.

The solidarity of the oppressed against the oppressors is the common motivation behind their art. Unfortunately nine days later the oppressed electorate use their democratic rights to give a thumping majority to the party that stands for everything these artists abhor. Such is the power of art. Is there a dawning realisation that art motivated by political aims is incapable of achieving political change? After all, the visitors to the Turner Prize exhibition are already on-board. If they were not, they would regard the hijacking of the event for overt political messaging as damning evidence of the entitlement of the media-savvy, metropolitan elite.

Art is never politically neutral. It will always (but usually implicitly) embody some kind of political ideology. As noted in earlier posts, I particularly admire Forensic Architecture and Lawrence abu Hamden who are effective campaigners as well as artists. However the takeaway message from an artwork is as much in the viewers’ hands as the artists’. Take the Tories Out pendant. Although I share the sentiment, it chimes with other angry invocations like Demons Out and Immigrants Out, classic examples of othering. This is the political and psychological bear-trap that got us into this mess in the first place. Interesting that three-word slogans like Get Brexit Done sound more rational than the brutal two-word Britain First of the ultraright shouted by the Jo Cox murderer. If the Tories go for a two-word slogan at the next election then we will really have something to worry about.

Helen Cammock. Still from The Long Note (2019). Courtesy of he artist

Moving image art featured less prominently than in the 2018 Turner Prize. Helen Cammock’s documentary on women’s role in the Northern Ireland Troubles was more engaging than last year’s winning autobiographical film from Charlotte Prodger. Unfortunately like most art that represents armed struggle it risks aesthetisising violence. My post on the representation of military hardware in the work of Richard Mosse and Fiona Banner examines this question in more detail. Archive footage of the flames of exploding petrol bombs and the illuminated spray of water cannons are eye-catching. But this undermines the horror of violent conflict as does the cheery nostalgia expressed by a Republican woman who proudly recalls that the efficiency of their petrol bomb factories vastly improved when the women took over from the men. This show of sentimentality is arresting as it is more typically associated with male veterans. However it also demonstrates the contradictions behind the film’s argument that the feminist cause was furthered by women’s involvement in the Republican campaign.

Tai Shani. Installation view of DC Semiramis 2018. Courtesy of the artist 

Perhaps the most worrying deployment of moving image was in Tai Shani’s work. A screen hanging above her sculptural installation plays a seven and a half hour video of a talking head reading Shani’s very personal response to the writers of utopian matriarchies which inspired her work. The length alone gives ammunition to the sceptics. To compound this, the audio track is only accessible if you request headphones from the gallery assistant. Art fans under 18 are banned because of its “sexually explicit content”. The section I heard was riffing on the link between eroticism and the heat death of the universe. Are Shani’s attempts to explain the symbols in her sculptural installation cheating the viewer of their own right to interpret her art? As it happens, when I was there very few people were listening in.

I would have given the top prize to Lawrence abu Hamden whose recent work is explored in earlier posts but it seems that highlighting one artist is out of fashion and that the future of the Turner Prize is in question. When next year’s four nominees meet up their first decision will be whether to bury their egos and split the prizemoney. Would you not love to be in on that meeting?

Horn vs Abramovic: grandmother of performance art, part two

Rebecca Horn. Still from 16mm film Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water,1974–5. Courtesy of the artist

Marina Abramovic’s claim to be the “grandmother of performance art” is discussed in the most read blogpost on this site. At the same time as her seminal work Rhythm O was created in 1975, Rebecca Horn recorded Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water (1974–5), a work that gives an informative window into the emerging performance arts movement and, for me, suggests that Horn is equally worthy of the title. It is an engaging 16mm colour film recording nine inventive and visually alluring performance works shot in a bare apartment room with the Berlin rooftops visible through a rear window. The film is showing in the Tate Tanks until Feb 2nd.

Many of Horn’s films I had previously encountered struck me as over extended but in this one she moves swiftly onto the next scenario before overstaying its welcome and weaves in an undertow of deadpan humour. For example, one performance features a crouching woman letting out occasional birdlike cries. Also in the room is an uncaged white cockatoo who looks rather disconcerted by the mimicry. Another work can best be described as a sensuous mating ritual involving magnetic discs alternately attaching and detaching the legs of the male and female participants. These references to our evolutionary solidarity with the animal world give her work a subtle poetic charge. In another piece, which only slowly reveals itself, tight close-ups of a body hidden in luxuriant foliage create a dizzying sensation of union with the planet.

Rebecca Horn. Still from 16mm film Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water,1974–5. Courtesy of the artist

Horn’s performance artworks are well known for her wearable sculptures which she described as ‘body extensions’. In 1964 at the start of her career she was confined to a sanatorium for a year after contracting a lung illness from the materials she was using. Seen in this context her work is a quest for the body’s liberation. The strange “Heath Robinson” outfits she designs often employ intricate mechanical mechanisms featuring feathers, magnets, levers and mirrors. Although they may now appear bit hokey, they embody a handmade aesthetic and a pre-digital innocence that allies her to the Dadaists rather than the narcissistic performance artists that followed her.

In a memorable and tense piece a redheaded woman hacks at her own long, thick tresses with blunt pinking shears that reduce them to a irregular thatch. As she tries to cut a fringe the scissors’ sharp points threaten to take out one of her eyes. The female self-immolation of this work relates both to Ono’s quietly unsettling Cutpiece and to Abramovic’s overly sensational Rhythm O. Placing a woman in danger is a standard trope of the male gaze but these works of second wave feminism are ambiguous: are they undermining or exploiting our lurid fascination with this image of female subjection?

I have yet to succumb to the narcissistic cult of Abramovic. Horn has taken a different route. She does not give herself a starring role in front of the camera. In truth Abramovic is a performer co-opting art as her stage while Horn is an artist using performance to stage her ideas.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2019

Copyright Cyrus Hung. Still from single channel video Why Not Study in the UK? (2019) courtesy of the artist

Talent spotting at the New Contemporaries show at South London Gallery this year was frustrating. “The germ of a rewarding artwork that needs some tweaking” was my most common response. As discussed in my last post, the most engaging work was Roland Carline’s outward facing film. The popularity of this approach is growing but most of the Bloomberg selected artists this year seem to be looking inward for inspiration.

One exception to this was Cyrus Hung who is making a name for himself by taking the text from PR releases and documentaries of established artists such as Anthony Gormley and setting them to his own rap compositions. In George Baselitz A Focus on the 1980’s MV, 2019 we get to see much of his painting but ambiguity is laced through it: is it a tribute or is he gently mocking the pomposity of artists and critics? Hennessy Youngman’s satirical videos of the art establishment are an earlier example of rap culture used to hilarious effect. Another of Hungs’s videos on his website is a comic take on a UK universities recruitment fair in Hong Kong using rewritten lyrics to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. This is both cutting and funny suggesting a more profitable direction he might take.

Copyright Umi Ishihara. Still from film UMMMI’s Lonely Girl, 2016 courtesy of the artist

Umi Ishihara’s UMMMI’s Lonely Girl, 2016 exploits the photogenic features of Japan’s night-time streets. The cliches of such films are largely avoided by giving prominence to the roadwork lights and cones and to the more scuzzier locations. A woman initially comes across a semi conscious girl alone on a nightclub doorway. Over 20 long minutes we follow her heaving and sometimes giving a piggyback to a listless girl though the streets. It is the kind of art film where your mind is struggling to fill the gaps to give the narrative some meaning. The payoff for your patience is an ending that reveals the forlorn girl left abandoned on a pavement as she was found at the start of the night.

I also related to the desperate teeth grinding of the cartoon grotesque in Taylor Jack Smith’s Dentin which reminded me of Philip Guston and the Soviet-era statues of national political heroes that featured in the nightmarish digital animation YONAK by Bulgarian based George Stamenov.

The rest of the moving image art was rather underwhelming : humour falling flat, meditative work crushed by weighty seriousness and a scene remake from the feature film, Crash. The last Bloomberg New Contemporaries show I saw at the ICA in 2016 seemed to have more innovative artists. They included Zarina Muhammad who then went on to launch her own art review website The White Pube with Gabrielle de la Puente which I have enjoyed seeing make quite a splash even though it has been set up to counter the ubiquity of “old white men” like myself!

Dance off: Bruce Conner vs Roland Carline

Roland carline
Still from film, Adelaide Celeste, Lauren, Lucy, Maddie, Niha, (2017) copyright Roland Carline with Rachel Gildea

Serendipitous juxtapositions crop up frequently as I trawl around London’s diverse galleries. Yesterday I chanced upon two films showcasing dance performances from 1966 and 2018. This triggered thoughts on how MI artists from different generations treat this source material, a more contentious issue than it initially appears. At Thomas Dane Gallery, Bruce Conner’s (1933-2008)  seminal film BREAKAWAY (1966) focuses on a solo dance by Toni Basil. At South London Gallery, Roland Carline’s film in collaboration with the choreographer, Rachel Gildea, Adelaide, Celeste, Lauren, Lucy, Maddie, Niha, (2017) showcases six exuberant teenage dancers on a pop up stage created on a Folkestone backstreet. For me, this film was the standout moving image artwork among the many 2019 Bloomberg New Contemporary Artists working in this medium.

Bruce Conner. BREAKAWAY, (still), 1966. Courtesy The Conner Family Trust and Thomas Dane Gallery. © The Conner Family Trust.

Both films rely on the talents of their respective performers. Toni Basil, best known as the singer of the iconic 80’s hit Hey Mickey, was already a respected choreographer and dancer in the 1960’s. Carline has recruited talented unknowns whose anonymity is pointedly transformed by their names forming the film’s title. Both films feature a disguised male presence. In Carline’s film a dancer in a cardboard Spongebob costume is subjected to a kind of symbolic castration as his nose is ripped off by the other girls. I discover that that he has an association with misogyny through his appearance in a reputedly dodgy music video so this defiant gesture is well targeted. In contrast, Conner’s all encompassing (misogynistic?) male gaze is hidden behind his 16mm lens.

The solo female dancer performing for the camera against a blank background is open to a range of interpretations: is she the seductive Salome or a free-spirited Isadora Duncan? Like Salome, Basil divests herself of her clothes as the film progresses. Like Isadora Duncan she appears to be dancing with wild abandon in a diaphanous dress. But it is the rhythm of the quick-cut edits that syncopates with the music, not her own movements. In BREAKAWAY the imagery oscillates between these stereotypes. The antithesis of this form of female representation is Gillian Wearing’s captivating performance video, Dancing in Peckham, (1994). Apparently oblivious to the curious bystanders, Wearing dances alone in the middle of a shopping mall in her everyday clothes to a memorised 25 minute soundtrack that includes I Will Survive and Staying Alive. She is dancing for herself and the static camera recording the complete and unadorned performance is entirely within her control.

Still from video Dancing in Peckham (1994) copyright Gillian Wearing

Artists like Roland Carline are highly sensitised to the issue of their subject’s control. I first encountered him at the 2016 RA schools Show which included his performance work, Bossy, devised collaboratively with Francis Majekodunmi, the neurodiverse leader of the dance group BLINK.  Carline, like Jeremy Deller and Mikhail Karikis, offers a platform for the expression of children and teenagers, an inherently political stance. What also impressed me in his latest film is the skilled five minute edit of both the much longer dance performance and the varied pop tunes soundtrack. He does this without jarring discontinuities while preserving the key dramatic highpoints.

Leo Dixon in the Royal Opera production of Death in Venice ©ROH/Catherine Ashmore

A solo male dancer is regarded very differently from a female. In the recent moving production of Britten’s opera Death in Venice at ROH, the teenage boy, Tadzio, who becomes the obsessive love interest of an older man is portrayed by the dancer, Leo Dixon. This non-speaking role is as articulate as the singers. The choreography emphasises youthful muscular athleticism rather than eroticism and ramps up the poignancy of the unrequited love narrative. In a group, female dancers seem to get the chance to highlight their athleticism avoiding the deleterious impact of the male gaze. For a fortuitous example, checkout the cheerleaders in the music video of Hey Mickey on Youtube.

Still from the music video, Hey Mickey

Conner’s film, shot in black and white projects a ghostly and fragmentary image of female identity as if the dancer’s attempts to “breakaway” are futile. The second half of the film consist of the sequence you have just viewed in reverse. The resultant eerie soundtrack adds to the nightmarish desperation but we end on the opening image of Basil smiling to camera in a bodysuit so reminiscent of that quintessential 60’s phenomenon, the caged go-go dancer of the discotheque. By exploring the complexities of the representations of women through dance and by foregrounding the combative song lyrics, Conner and Basil’s collaborative work challenges the the latent misogyny of the film

“I got a 20 pound ball hanging by a chain around my neck
I got to get away run before I become a wreck
I got to break these chains before I go insane”

are the devastating opening lines.

Whether the film enslaves or liberates her is the intriguing question…

Hetain Patel: making sense of the weird in the 2019 Jarman Award

Still from HD video The Jump (2016). Copyright Hetain Patel , courtesy of the artist

I am chuffed to see that three of the nominated artists for the Jarman Award 2019 have already been highlighted for praise in previous mialondonblog posts, accessible through the tags Imran Perretta, Rehana Zaman and Mikhail Karikis below. The other three MI artists are new to me so I was delighted to make the final day of screening at the Whitechapel to see what had impressed the selection panel.

Hetain Patel’s admirably concise film, The Jump (2016) is funny, gripping and unsettling. It is weird yet ultimately satisfying because its elements are few but highly concentrated. We seem to be in a homely sitting room faced with a group of relatives arranged in rows just before the shutter clicks. It is the classic pose of the Victorian photographic portrait. The range of facial expressions among this varied bunch is immediately captivating. We can see that some are uneasy about the experience while others are delighted. I fancy I would be in the former category, wishing I was somewhere else. If only I possessed a superpower to teleport me out of there! Is this what the artist is thinking?

We are observing a slo-mo film, not a still. The initial giveaway is the toddler fidgeting in his mother’s lap. Over the next six minutes we gradually pan left to reveal a lean crouching figure in a Spiderman outfit whose anonymity, unlike the others, is guaranteed by his spidermask. (Shouldn’t it be the toddler in costume?) His prolonged graceful, athletic leap in front of the group is met with interest but not shock. As a Hollywood style climax our comic book hero might be expected to shoot out through the window but instead comes to rest on the carpet.

I really rated this film. Some may be asking, why did he win? Not so obviously political or as personal as others on the shortlist, it has the advantage of a brave restriction of imagery which expands the options for our own responses and interpretations. The simplicity of the surreal image of an ur-Spiderman interrupting a family photo-session gives room for the art to penetrate our unconscious. Like all superhero representations, it triggers atavistic impulses of disguise, flight, escape and invincibility. But within the claustrophobic domestic setting we have to cope with a figure that is either a dangerous interloper or a madcap member of the group itself. Is he hoping to break out of the group to assert his individuality or to swoop in to help them? Patel’s film make so much sense of the tensions of family and group dynamics that we are all prone to.

Mikhail Karikis. Still from HD video, No Ordinary Protest (2018) courtesy of the artist

The Mikhail Karikis film, No Ordinary Protest (2018) highlights the place of children in the environmental debate and his signature collaborative method allows his subjects to control the form of the film. Hearing these seven year olds cogent views and seeing them transform their fears into a colourful and chilling masked mime is a real treat. Giving a voice to the unheard without patronising them is both an artistic and interpersonal skill which Karikis applies with great subtlety.

The two other nominated artists are represented by films that are packed with weird and striking images but whose significance seemed hazy. Both are inspired by other artworks, the ballet Giselle (Cecile.B. Evans) and a Gertrude Stein play (Beatrice Gibson). These had less resonance for me than Spiderman (a polite way of saying I have nil knowledge of either of the source artworks!) so that partly explains why they failed to connect in the same way.

Neither had a clear narrative which some excuse by describing them as dream-like. This seems to me to be a misnomer as dreams are not really that fragmentary; one image seems to morph with pretzel logic into the next. Dream symbolism is highly personal so its use in art seals meanings behind an impenetrable screen (unless like Freud you have the arrogance to attempt to interpret them for the patient). However, Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs (2019)  had some memorable features including a torch singer accompanied by a haunting accordion. Why we saw so much of a poodle in an open-top car being dishevelled by the slipstream, I am still trying to fathom.

The Jarman Award has a great track record for talent spotting although I do not always agree with their decisions. However I cannot quibble with their choice of Hetain Patel as this year’s winner.

Doug Aitken: losing touch in a digital world

Doug Aitken – All doors open (2018). Copyright Doug Aitken. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York; Victoria Miro Gallery, London/Venice; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich

Over the course of the last three decades, Doug Aitken has effortlessly crisscrossed genres boundaries but I first encountered him in 2001 as a moving image artist. I was blown away by his elaborate video installation of reverse waterfalls on multiple screens and mirrors that covered the interior of the Serpentine Gallery. His latest work at the Victoria Miro Gallery in Wharf Road is equally engrossing.

Artists whose age grants them first hand experience of pre- and post-internet eras are in a privileged position and this is the intriguing aspect of his recent work. In the ground floor gallery you are confronted by All doors open, 2018, an alabaster-like tableau which includes an iphone poised on a table between a sleeping woman’s outstretched hand and that staple of classical art practice, a bowl of fruit. This electrifying metaphor of the links between modernity and the past prompts speculation on the impact of new technology on our collective psyche.

The “apple’ like the “friend” has been co-opted by Silicon Valley, their meanings remoulded to reassure us that the bright new world is no different from the old. The familiar fruit still-life reinforces our continuity to cultural tradition. We need to gather foodstuffs even if now the transaction is mediated over a device manufactured by a conglomerate deploying natural imagery as cover. We are encouraged to see this object as part of the natural world like the tempting apple of the Genesis myth. Aitken references the eternal question of how far we are drifting away from our natural selves. Whether this is damaging or liberating hangs in the air.

A narrative arc is created by the carefully choreographed lighting effects illuminating the sculpture from within. We begin with the clinically fashionable white iphone highlighted on the tabletop which spreads its luminosity to the surrounding figure and fruit bowl. The colours become brighter culminating in a frenzied red rippling through the tableau. This subsides and the phone is the last to fade into darkness. Are we reliant on being energised by the indestructible technology that is set to outlive us? The musical soundtrack of plainchant and bells hinting at a disappearing culture is a subtle counterpoint to the lighting and a refreshing relief from the ubiquitous electronic music that so many moving image artists default to.

Copyright Doug Aitken. Installation view of New Era, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

I also enjoyed Aitken’s spectacular 360 degree multi-screen installation at the recent group exhibition hosted by The Store X, The Vinyl Factory at 180, The Strand. New Era, 2018 also pitches mobile phone technology against nature. Microelectronic circuit boards mesmerise in kaleidoscopic sequences which give way to hypnotic seascapes much like the Victorian painters set steam trains in wooded landscapes. The loosening of human bonds with nature as technological innovation accelerates is a time-honoured theme for artists. Understanding its ramifications is a complex but vital endeavour for all of us.

The Sirens of the Deep: Leah Clements

Still from To Not Follow Under, 2019 copyright Leah Clements

Anxiety is a defining feature of our age according to current orthodoxy and the King’s University Science Gallery’s current exhibition, On Edge – Living in an Age of Anxiety, reflects this stance. But I am not sure whether the anxiety induced by 21st century social media is any worse than that created by the malicious gossip of medieval villagers gathering around the water pump. There may be millions gossiping about you but at least you will not have to face them in person everyday. As a species we have always felt threatened with social annihilation by the judgements of our peers. The impact is a multiple of their numbers and their degree of intimacy with you. In a village the numbers may be small but their level of intimacy with you will be high. On social media the reverse is true. The type and duration of the social anxiety induced may be different but it is debatable whether the impact on the individual is any greater.

Bodily annihilation by death, disease or injury is a constant anxiety throughout history and it is often conflated with social annihilation through shaming, bullying or ostracisation. This insight is captured succinctly in Leah Clements’ film, To Not Follow Under, which for me was the standout work of the exhibition. It parallels the phenomena of anxiety and deep sea diving by referencing the siren call that they can both snare us with. What the current mental health debate skates over is that we are often ambivalent about the sensations associated with anxiety. Paradoxically the source of our anxiety may be attractive or even addictive. It can also be the path to peace and solace.

These ambiguities are perfectly captured in the film. Its commentary and imagery features a deep sea diver who describes the siren call they experience in the depths of the ocean. The anxiety they feel is translated into a seductive call to go deeper into the danger zone where the risks of annihilation escalate. Peacefully drifting into death becomes attractive.

In another of the film’s sections a decompression chamber is the setting for a distressed psychiatric patient being reassured by a counsellor. The mental and physical depths both have their dangers. We observe the counsellor offering wordless but eloquent non verbal support but the accompanying voice-over allows the counsellor to express their reticence about “getting in too deep” with those in the grip of suicidal feelings. The siren call of empathy is a danger anyone offering psychological support can recognise.

Leah Clement’s film focuses on the carers rather than the sufferers and is highly sensitive to the paradoxes that exist in tackling anxiety. Yet again simplicity in artistic expression pays dividends. This is an important and original contribution to the often confused public debate on anxiety.

The ties that bind…a lesson from Ballpark Collective

Interdependence is the theme for this year’s Art Licks Weekend programme and we could certainly do with more of that in our divided world. Before she was assassinated by a man raving “Britain First!”, the M.P Jo Cox voiced the opposing slogan: “What we have in common is greater than that which divides us.” So it is heartening to see the five artists in Ballpark Collective living this unifying ideal by carefully attending and responding to each others work to create a unique and absorbing film.

Short Straw is the moving image art equivalent of ‘Chinese Whispers’ a game which teaches us, at an early age, some of the key principles of communication. When the person at the end of line speaks out loud what they think they heard everyone can compare it to the phrase started at the other end. We learn about the fallibility of perception and that the cause of this failure is more to do with our personal biases than faulty hearing. It is fascinating to see this process at work in a visual dimension.

Aimee Neat pulled the short straw and kicked off the series of five sections with a performance piece recasting gender relationships as a competitive sport. We spectate a furious domestic as a couple hurl wads of wet J-clothes at each other. The woman is angry, her male opponent mildly amused. (How relevant to the exchanges in the current gender role debate!) They are confined like aggressive squash players in blue walled space. We winch at the amplified squeaks and slaps of the action. A tranquil soundtrack provides an ironic contrast. What is uncanny is that reverberations of this piece lasts through to Sarah Lewis’s fifth film which gives another take on the same theme. This is despite the fact that each artist is responding to the previous work filtered through their own conceptual and perceptual screens with no discussion between them outside the ritual of passing their work on.

Sarah Lewis offers some wry juxtapositions: archive clips of womans’ relay races and footage of a woman fondling her pet snake. This subtle undermining of the phallic symbolism of snakes and batons returns them to the hands of women. The hilarious clip of a child relay runner taking the baton and setting off in the opposite direction of her opponents to the consternation of the adult coach says something about the absurdity of a competitive worldview.

The three segments linking these two neatly reference the futility of conflict and competition. In her thoughtful and beautifully paced section, Sun Park introduces us to the Korean adage that pointless conflict is like trying to “cut water with a knife.” Susanne Dietz, in a section paralleling human culture with the physical earth, references the Goya painting, Fight with Cudgels which portrays two men bludgeoning each other oblivious to the quicksand into which they are sinking. Max Leach in his continued exploration of machismo digitally manipulates an image of the Frederic Leighton sculpture, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, highlighting its frenzied melodrama.

When an artist submerges their ego in a collaborative work the result can often lack focus. Yet the format of this film allows individual visions to shine through while creating a unity of shared meanings. Faced with the divisiveness encouraged by Brexit and Trump, surely a lesson in there for us all.

David Hall: can art engage with industry?

Copyright- David Hall (1937-2014) Still from Tap Piece ( 1971) courtesy of artist estate

It was fascinating to to sift through the written and video archives of David Hall (1937-2014) , one of the unsung pioneers of British video art, at an open session held earlier this month at the Tate Archive. The terrifying onward march of inflation was evidenced by Hall’s carefully conserved £6.60 bill for six diners from an Edinburgh Indian restaurant in 1971. He was there filming as part of an inspired project to insert unannounced 60 second art videos into the BBC Scotland output. These ten works, known as T.V Interruptions (1971), are little gems each one a masterclass in economy and punchiness. One of them, the conceptually intriguing and mesmerising Tap piece, looks achingly innocent to our eyes but the project was so controversial that it was never repeated.

Also redolent of an innocent radicalism are the written materials documenting the group meetings of the Artist Placement Group (APG) which was founded in 1966 by John Latham to get artists out of the studio into the “real world” and onto the payroll of business organisations like British Steel and Esso Petroleum. The group worked on the premise that “art could help resolve problems inherent in industrial societies”. An archive document revealed to my surprise that my first boss, Tom Batho, the Head of Employee Relations at Esso was a director at the APG. He states:

” artists…are not asking for patronage …they are asking Industry to allow the artist to make a contribution”

In the current era of oil industry boycotts artists might be reluctant to establish such engagement. Mark Rylance broke his links with the RSC asserting that Shakespeare would not have taken money from BP. (I am not so sure; he was always desperate for finance for his productions). As consumers if we rein in our reliance on oil, BP would have to stop supplying it. It is two sides of the same equation. Overturning our current expectations of a reasonable living standard is the only way forward. Closing the opportunities for debate by separating us into artificially generated echo chambers is what both the xenophobic Brexiteers and the boycotting environmentalists have in common.

Is the transition from analogue to digital distorting our humanity?

© Alexa Phillips- Installation view of Bedroom, London 2025 (2018)

We are at risk of becoming “ghosts of our technology” suggests Sam Austen whose analogue celluloid-based work bestows a materiality to his moving image art practice that is an implicit critique of the encoded digital image. How has this transition impacted on our humanity? Have the screens that cloak us shrouded our authenticity? Is our identity now projected entirely through our interaction with the digital world? Can we only place meaning on our perceptions when they are screen mediated? Has our imagination become so atrophied  that we can only feel empathy if representations of suffering are visual? 

Austen’s recent film, Hologram Burnt onto the Retina (2018), suggests that our screens are in danger of replacing our eyes, distorting our perception and memory. Lived experience only acquires meaning through its screen representation. This was taken to its logical conclusion by the optical neuro-engineering surgery envisioned in the recent TV drama, Years and Years scripted by the Doctor Who writer, Russel T. Davies. He portrays a digital native ecstatic at the prospect of a bionic eye implant. Her digitised visual input is diverted to a screen with a direct feed to Instagram, though perhaps she has a bespoke filter to present her take on reality to her social media followers.

Installation view of The Wall and The Incongruous (2018) courtesy of Larry Achiampong and David Blandy and Seventeen Gallery

This blurring of the real and the represented is an inescapable axiom of  visual arts. But the modern thirst for image manipulation has pushed at its boundaries. The popularisation of facadism in modern architecture, botoxing in facial aesthetics and the potential abuse of deepfake footage to discredit politicians are just three examples. CGI has infiltrated film so insidiously that we cannot know whether those batallions of soldiers or historic buildings are real or CGI. Video gaming has been a key driving force behind the advanced photorealism attained by CGI and the use of VR headsets point to a dystopian future envisioned so chillingly by the “performance installation”, Bedroom, London, 2025 exhibited by Alexa Phillips at the 2018 Goldsmiths MFA degree show.

Still image from FF Gaiden:Delete (2018) courtesy of Larry Achiampong and David Blandy

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s FF Gaiden series is a spinoff from their outstanding Finding Fanon trilogy and seeks to undermine and appropriate video game aesthetics for their own purposes. In FF Gaiden: Delete currently showing at Copperfield Gallery a young woman tells her story of flight from poverty and oppression in a digitally flattened voice against the persistent whistling of the wind. She is trecking across continents in search of asylum but the landscape she is passing through is the pristine ur-California of the groundbreaking and notorious videogame Grand Theft Auto v5. Untroubled by interactions with other would-be occupants of this gaming reality, she paces steadily along the sleepers of a single railtrack, a split second away from potential death. It is a story we have become inured to in the countless retellings but in this version the grim reality of her account is mediated by CGI and a voice synthesiser. Does her avatar proxy diminish or increase our empathy for her plight? The animation drives out any sentimentality that live film might incur and the narrative gains a surreal edge from its hyper-real context leaving us to grapple with the contrast between “first world problems” (how to mitigate the downside of videogames) and real global problems (how to tackle the poverty and oppression that drives migration.)

Building a wall to repel invaders/migrants is the time honoured approach of the rich. Trump’s wall (now seemingly more of a mirage than reality) and gated housing developments are just the most recent manifestations of this strategy. Hadrian’s Wall is the focus of LA and DB’s two channel video The Wall and The Incongruous (2018) now showing at Seventeen Gallery. An animated story set in a bleak mountainous landscape commandeered from the fantasy roleplay videogame, Skyrim, is dovetailed in the parallel screen with live drone footage of Hadrian’s Wall. A walled city state that isolates itself from the surrounding countryside and consequently succumbs to a self inflicted famine is a parable for our fractured times. At the climax the landscape appears to shear away in clouds of smoke, a fitting metaphor for the implosion of the digital world that might be an early casualty of our increasingly dysfunctional era.

Multimedia anthropology: an interdisciplinary art genre

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© Raffaella Fryer-Moreira and Erick Marques Polidoro – still from 360 video Thick Forest of the South showing monoculture replacing forest in Brazil

The Anthropocene is an ecological buzzword with a polemical edge referring to the geological era of serious human despoilment of the earth. Academics hotly contest whether this began 15,000 years ago with rudimentary monoculture economies or at anytime up to the 1960s with mass consumption economies. I’m not convinced it really matters. What does matter is convincing the climate change deniers that global warming is not a liberal conspiracy.

The few remaining non-industrial cultures all have an embedded sense of stewardship of their natural habitat so they cannot be held responsible. An environmental historian, Jason Moore, in the grand tradition of inventing a neologism to achieve academic longevity, suggests we should rename this era the Capitalocene.  In his view, the environmental crisis is a result of the unequal accumulation of capital with its attendant power imbalance and that a different global socio-economic order is our only salvation. It might mean reducing the living standards of the richer countries or limiting the growth in living standards of the poorer countries or a bit of both.  I would love it if we could all return to the type of utopian small scale economies so vividly imagined in Marge Piercy’s 1976  novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, but I suspect that this would only be possible with a much reduced world population. 

I have been an unwavering advocate of interdisciplinary study since the 1970’s when I had to fight to be allowed to study a combination of humanities and science A levels. I had to move sixth form to study Maths, Biology and Eng. Lit and eventually combined biological and social science in Human Sciences at uni). It was with huge anticipation therefore that I visited UCL’s Multimedia Anthropology Lab exhibition Speculative Immersion last Friday. The research group’s aim is to develop innovative approaches to anthropology through the use of multi media technologies. Many of the works are joint projects involving artists and anthropologists investigating the loss of cultural diversity and/or environmental degradation. Ten interdisciplinary projects were on show, many at an “experimental” stage, including olfactory art, photomontage, VR animations and interactive audio art.

Sender-chaldecut-Padcal's garden
Still image from VR animation Pascal’s Garden (2019) courtesy of the artists Pascal Sender and Maya Hope Chaldecott

Two moving image works appealed to me. A short 360 degree VR animation, Pascal’s Garden is a cheerfully impressionistic and colourful reimagination of a lush surburban garden with occasional sombre flashes. In the headset the vertical span covered is sufficient to give you vertigo before you plunge down below the surface of a garden pond. The palette and mood remind me of Hockney’s iPad landscapes. I had an interesting exchange with one of its creators, the RA student Pascal Sender, on the potential and limitations of VR /AR art. He apologised for its low resolution but I thought that this was an apt way to represent environmental dissolution and degradation.  The work was created in a single afternoon taking turns on the VR software with his collaborator, the digital anthropologist and XR producer Maya Hope Chaldecott. 

Spriggs Hermione - Gee,Ulaanbaatar

Video still from Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2017)  Image credit: Hermione Spriggs

Hermione Spriggs is an artist-researcher and curator of the project, Five Heads (Tavan Tolgoi), consisting of five artists/collectives and five anthropologists exploring the dramatic rise and fall of the Mongolian mineral industry and its impact on the indigenous culture. Her punchy and concise video, Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2018) produced in collaboration with Alice Armstrong and Curtis Tamm is a fascinating showcase for the Mongolian rapper Big Gee whose lyrics link the loss of traditional values with the environmental degradation of his native land. He emphasises that the solution lies with his fellow Mongolians joining him in resisting the demands of globalisation. Mongolia was until recently a non-monetary culture in balance with nature so Big Gee’s activism can tap into this ethos. “You cannot eat money”  he raps resonating with the cry of the dead primitive gift economies bulldozed by capitalism. The “power of the gift” in such economies has much to teach us. If we could recover the fundamental human value of pro-social reciprocity and scotch the idea that inequality is “natural” we might have a chance of saving the planet.

The fusion of multimedia art with social anthroplogy, a discipline that offers the most profound insights into the human condition, is an interdisciplinary genre with huge potential. Given this blogsite’s mission, its development will be avidly covered. 

Sam Austen: the real horror story

Sam Austen (2)

© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

Eyes featured prominently in the films of the four artists I saw today: a Syrian boy whose eyes had seen too much (Erkan Özgen), an evil eye belonging to a capriciously tyrannical and omniscient shapeshifter (William Kentridge) and the dead eyes of computer animated females (Kate Cooper). But it was Sam Austen’s poetic exploration of the relationship  between the eye and consciousness that gave me the most profound aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation. The others will get due consideration in a future post.

Sam Austen’s enjoyably eerie video installation, Real Mirror (2017), at the RA Schools two years ago demonstrated a distinctive combination of imagination and technical ingenuity so I am chuffed, but not surprised, to see growing recognition for his work since then. A group show at LG London gallery, curated under the ambiguous title, Out of Eye, features his latest film, an intense 11 minute meditation on the eye’s slippery, multifaceted metaphorical power, touching on its relationship with love, desire, death, the mind and memory.

Its title, Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, spelt out in a script suggestive of a horror film poses the question: is this the horror of trying to excise an image we would rather not have seen? A devastating scene directly outside the gallery was still freshly minted on my mind’s eye: a group of a dozen junkies living on the street with their drug paraphenalia spread out around them on the pavement.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The apparent physicality of our visual memory has encouraged much material imagery  such as branding, burning, etching and tracing to describe the process, but this is an analogy that misses out the non-material complexities of repression. The film  constantly references the mysterious physicality of vision by describing images as material objects as if located in a topology of the mind. I have no quibble with this as visual memories must be encoded by our brain neurons in some way. Austen’s caption “Images travel out from the eye” evokes the Greek theory of vision accepted until the seventeeth century which assumed that the eye emitted rays to capture images of the “real world”. The idea that we are receivers rather than emitters of light gives a completely different concept of the mind’s role in perception and paved the way for the Freudian take on imagery. For me this is summed up beautifully by another of Austen’s powerful coinages: “the cauldron of glances”, a vivid evocation of the mayhem inherent in the storing, sorting and retrieving of snippets of memory from the conscious and unconscious mind. 

Art - various

Austen’s text appears pinned to the screen in the form of pithy slogans crudely painted on fragile banners. The language is not the heavy pseudo-mystical style which seems to attract (and trip up) so many artists; it is snappy and vivid, expressing ideas that although enigmatic are capable of poetic decoding. We are drawn in immediately at the start as the text suggests that the film is addressing a loved and/or desired  person who is the subject of the artist’s gaze and anxious thoughts. “What are you carrying in there? Mountains, Sea, Death? All Dark Now. ” This personalises the narrative giving added poignancy. 

Sam Austen
© Sam Austen – installation view of Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The film has carefully controlled pace and structure building to a ferocious climax, the electronic whine and growl of the soundtrack matching the accelerating rotation of a plaster “eyeball”  its pitted surface reminding me of the white fatty covering of the cow’s eyes I would source from the abbatoir to dissect for GCSE biology classes. The black “pupil” is evoked by a static blurred dot in the centre of the screen while the eyeball whirls in the background like a lonely hyperactive planet, just one example of the value of his trademark use of physical casting, celluloid film and superimposition.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018.
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

A stunning sequence which introduces a blast of colour for the first time right at the end of the film sets up the kind of visual ambiguity made famous by the face/vase illusion illustrated below. We are either inside the eye looking out or outside looking in at the back of the retina with our interpretation constantly switching, the background matrix of red dots either representing the retinal cells or the visual field.  Yet again we are forced into acceptance of an uncanny truth: the “real world”  is only a physical construction in the brain’s  visual cortex. Perhaps this is the real horror story.

face vase ilusion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: life inside Fortress UK

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Still from film The Lost Ones (2019) copyright Richard Whitby

My most memorable encounter with bureaucracy was in 1976 when a British Rail official embargoed the loading of my moped onto a train at Penzance station after a holiday in Cornwall. This was possible back then, when trains had a guard’s van. The realisation hit me how your life could be held hostage by a zealous stranger brandishing a rulebook. The tank had petrol in it, an apparent fire risk. I was so grateful to his colleagues who helped me to persuade him to let it on. 

State officials all have rulebooks to work to. By imposing these rules they can consign people to poverty, detention or deportation. Those with a cruel edge to their personality will revel in their work. More humane officials will take some comfort from bending the rules. But the real culprits are the people who make the rules. This is a consolation for the official enforcing them and a frustration for those having to conform to them. When tempers flare in such encounters the simple way to mollify the subject is to politely refer to the rules. I was once advised by a boss to counter every complaint from clients by saying: “It is the organisation’s policy”. This may appear robotic but it provides a carapace against the complainant’s anger. These bland, stonewalling guardians of state control were termed “soft cops” by Caryl Churchill in her play of the same name and included  teachers and social workers as well as law enforcers and immigration officers.  She drew on Foucault’s idea of “gentle punishment” and Bentham’s utopian omniscient prison design, the Panopticon, to warn that the threat of state surveillance is enough to maintain a controlled society.

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Modern visualisation of Bentham’s design for the Panopticon

The latest edition of this approach is the nudge theory of state intervention where  non-punitive measures are used to influence the climate of opinion and ultimately people’s behaviour. Banning smoking in offices led to pariah status for smokers and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption. The “hostile environment” approach to immigration and repatriation uses the same strategy. The “Go Home” billboards in suspected London hot spots were intended to nudge illegal immigrants into jumping before they were pushed. A soft survelliance operation, co-opting landlords, employers and health workers as immigration officers stoked a climate of fear and suspicion. How ironic that Amber Rudd, the politician responsible for the policy, resigned as Home Secretary blaming her officials for its over-enthusiastic implementation. 

The threatening, gratuitously offensive interviewer whose disembodied voice is a constant presence in Richard Whitby’s gripping film, The Lost Ones (2019), might represent one such official. This script decision by Whitby and his co-writer Alistair Beaton has two consequences. Firstly, the cruelty of the interrogator becomes conflated with the cruelty of the interrogation policy. This puts the focus on the official rather than the politician as the bogeyman.  Secondly, it downplays the unfazed rationality that is often the scariest aspect of any confrontation with a state official, their blank emotional expression leaving you seething. In contrast the hectoring official in Whitby’s film is a necessary device to shock the interviewees into retaliation. The actors playing them had no script so their improvised responses to the provocation of the often absurd questions are genuine and idiosyncratic. 

The Brexit mindset is herding us into a corral of shared national pride. By using questions from the citizenship test and benefit screening, Whitby’s film demonstrates that the barriers built by Border Control and the DWP are symptomatic of the state’s wider goals: the creation of pariah groupings and the enforcement of patriotic conformity. His choice of actors of diverse age and ethnicity reinforces that we can all be threatened with scapegoating. The minimalist setting in an anonymous waiting room with bucket chairs and a credit card reader to accept payments is the contemporary equivalent of the Circumlocution Office from Dickens’ Bleak House where you might spent a lifetime trapped in a bureaucratic circle of hell. The grating soundtrack, the intermittent views of the room shot from behind a ventilation grille and the looped screening generate an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. I felt relieved when the familiarity of the on-screen confrontation indicated my entry point in the loop and I could make my escape. The film’s interviewees were not so lucky, condemned to replay their imprisonment ad infinitum.

The most worrying Panopticon-style use of the internet comes from China where your status as a citizen can be downgraded by your online expressed views. Whitby’s film is adding to the body of art warning that it is not only in authoritarian states that bad things can happen. Good things, like the happy ending to my moped story, need more of us to challenge the surveillance-enforced rulebook that threatens to turn the country into an embattled fortress like the one pictured on the back wall of the The Lost Ones’  interrogation room.

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: has narrative gone?

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Installation view of For the First Baby born in Space courtesy of Jerwood/FVU

Since its launch six years ago, the Jerwood/FVU Award has highlighted many talented emerging artists of whom I unashamedly single out Alice May Williams selected in 2016, whose riviting film, Dream City was an intelligent fusion of  text, image and music with a symphonic, three movement structure (slow, fast,slow) .

This year’s award winning films on the theme of Going, Gone produce some memorable moments but the overarching sense of a narrative structure is (perhaps intentionally) missing. They have both opted for videos playing on a continuous loop which is a tricky structure to get right. Any narrative that emerges will be non-linear. A circular narrative with no start or finish point means you can dip in and out.  The images you experience will be ordered but it’s up to you to impose a structure (or not, if that is your choice). The danger is that the film loses coherence and it provides an series of unrelated images that are left unresolved. The potential benefit is that the viewer is engaged to fill in the gaps and make some sense of what they are seeing.

For The First Baby Born in Space (2019)  is a two channel observational documentary of Whitby teenagers devised by the artist-duo, Webb-Ellis. For them it is a “political” act of the artist to resist offering a meaning to their work, a view I thoroughly endorse. An artist who insists that the meaning imposed by others on their work has less validity than their own has really missed the point of art. Looking at art makes us more aware of the delicate process of constructing meaning that we are all engaged in. Our unconscious is devoted to filtering the booming, buzzing confusion of our environment. An artwork is however a pre-filtered sample of the world. Simply by choosing what to present to the viewer the potential meanings we can construct have been narrowed down considerably. The knowledge that the work was commissioned in response to a set theme will also direct our response. This year’s theme references Brexit but also alerts us to alternative meanings about boundaries and transitions filtered through our own cognitive and affective biases.  

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© Webb-Ellis – still from the film For the First Baby born in Space (2019) courtesy of  the artists

Teenagers are interesting subjects for documentary film-makers because of their wobbly, reticent perch on the threshold of adulthood.  Images of the funfair, beach, sea, bonfires, music, dance, flirtation all shout “our last teenage summer” as they bid farewell to childhood. The most striking images for me were the nightmarish, gaudy reflection of the funfair lights in the waves at night and a dying fish flopping around next to the flowered, flip-flopped foot of the girl angler who hooked it. Death is ever present in this film as teenagers often drift towards it with an attitude of nihlistic bravado. “I’d rather die than be a failure” is one boy’s comment. Given the rise in young male suicides this is either tasteless or requiring immediate intervention. A sense of fragmentation pervades this gentle, non-judgmental  film in which its many subjects are glimpsed so briefly, their narratives so sketchily portrayed that they seem to float untethered from the everyday concerns of living. The source of this fragmentation remains obscured and unexamined so ultimately the artists have achieved their aim of leaving space for our reflections. 

Something has gone. It might be the creative confidence of the artist reluctant to present a definitive line or narrative. It might be absence of development and structure as required elements of post-modern artforms. It might be the rejection of objective truth and the acceptance of subjectivity as the only reality. Whatever has gone, there is a clear alibi available : “iyou find this work incoherent …well that’s intentional… it’s not a sign of our inability to create a coherent narrative. Remember we live in the post-modern era where narratives dissolve into nothingness”  

The other selected artist, Richard Whitby, also uses a looped narrative in his film The Lost Ones but in this case it confers a claustrophobic and absurd atmosphere ideally suited to this satire on citizenship and its control by officers of the state which will be the subject of my next blogpost.

 

 

 

Christian Marclay’s appreciation of asphalt

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Christian Marclay- installation view of Subtitled (2019) courtesy of White Cube Gallery

Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag (2000), featuring a wailing, distintegrating guitar towed behind a truck and Video Quartet (2002) where the fragments of sounds from selected movie clips are transformed into a musical composition both hold standout places in my top moving image artworks of all time. I had a blast at his awe-inspiring White Cube Bermondsey show in March 2015 which featured his hypercharged, onomatopeic animation, Surround Sounds (2014), projected onto four walls of one of their largest galleries. As this was before mialondonblog was launched I have yet to write about his work so I am delighted to rectify this omission, having just been blown away by his latest exhibition.

Some commentators emphasise the chance element in Marclay’s work but the end result is far from random and the patterns he constructs are totally engaging. His starting point is often to amass a potentially overwhelming volume of source material  but he seems to revel in the obsessive attention to detail required to render it down into a finely tuned architectural structure.  Despite (or maybe because of) the intensity of his working practice he is an artist who has his eye constantly fixed on how his work might impact on the viewer and his own presence is always veiled behind the images he is manipulating so meticulously. 

Close-ups of the asphalt road surface have been a longstanding interest for me whenever they crop up in art and in life. Waiting to cross the road I often look down at the litter strewn gutter where abstract urban art sits waiting to be appreciated. Painted road markings add to the melancholy air of the scene and their deterioration somehow reflects the transitory nature of our physical environment and indeed our own lives in the face of nature’s implacable momentum. The LOOK LEFT and LOOK RIGHT warnings by the kerbside are barely registered by pedestrians yet they are crucial to avoid jaywalking into a passing vehicle.

At White Cube Mason’s Yard, Marclay’s hypnotic animation,  Look (2016-19), prompts us to look beyond these surface marks to the stories they can tell. Thousands of photographs of these painted road signs presented in a rapid fire avalanche create an entrancing thrill ride of banality. The OO’s become interrogatory eyes that dilate and constrict and eventually suffer ignominous decay from maintainance oversights by austerity-blitzed councils. The variable quality of the roadpainters’ craft and how they have been superceded by clunky stencils presents a similar story of cost-cutting and deskilling. 

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Christian Marclay.  Installation view of Look (2016-19) courtesy of White Cube Gallery

In Marclay’s most celebrated work, The Clock (2000), years of hard labour mining the movie archives yielded thousands of clips documenting the passing of time through its 24 hour cycle. In Subtitled (2019) we get another type of movie archive sampling. Strips of up to a fifth of the frame height, sometimes showing subtitles, are stacked in a 22 layered 10 metre high column. The relationship between the layers can be decoded either through the text or the images as we have no sound to distract us. After acclimatising to the frustration of the fragmented nature of the experience, you are drawn into the intelligent thought processes underlying the editing decisions. Humour and drama fight for precedence. At times aesthetic considerations prevail to produce sumptous and dizzying effects. Marclay’s artistic vision is so distinctive – a dedicated master of the moving image.