Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: a lesson in crafted MI art

Borrowed Time at Jerwood Space until 24th April.

Alice may williams
Courtesy of Alice May Williams

These annual award shows are an excellent opportunity to see cutting edge MIA work by emerging artists. In 2015 Marianna Simnett was an impressive newcomer (see the post 28 March 2016) and this year I was similarly excited by Alice May Williams’ short film inspired by the history of Battersea – Dream City – More, Better, Sooner. This film is a gentle polemic (if that is not an oxymoron) as it subtly but persistently prods at the ridiculous inconsistencies that we are bombarded with as the developers try to convince us that we are living the urban dream.

I was initially struck by the careful craft she employs in ensuring that text and images are tightly interlocked in pursuit of her overarching theme. MI artists tend to use existing texts which too often have only tangential relevance. But in this work she has honed a commentary where each word or phrase has a visual counterpart. This makes it a very charged and thought-provoking experience. Her intent is clear from the start where an archive shot of the smoke spewing from the four giant chimneys of Battersea power station is juxtaposed with the narrator recalling a mindfulness class where breathing exercises instil a sense of calm. The simple relationship to our bodies that mindfulness assumes is undermined by the complexities of our anxious interactions with a polluted environment that we cannot divorce ourselves from. The platitudes of the mindfulness movement are deservedly exposed. Our bodies are at the mercy of the environment or as the narrator puts it – she “feels the ground growing soft beneath our feet”

Throughout the film the themes of control, the environment and the body are linked together to create a dense tapestry of interwoven ideas like a visual poem. There is a clear parallel between the decay of the  body ” going southwards” and the dereliction of the built environment. We spot a man frantically perfecting his body on a  gym machine. Is he inspired by the developers billboard slogan “An Icon for Icons” ?

The film is beautifully paced and structured like a mini symphony with three movements: an introductory  meditative slow movement, followed by a faster middle movement where the images and words tumble out to give a compressed history of Battersea. There is even a recapitulation of images and ideas in the slow final movement which reinforces the  film’s message.

This work displays so many of the qualities that I admire in a good MI artwork: the subtle use of personal and political anecdotes including a comment that stripping public services is like lopping a limb off, a haunting but unobtrusive electronic sound accompaniment and little flashes of dry humour (a digital animation of Battersea Power Station transplants Chelsea’s football ground into the centre of it!).  I sat through this film three times and would still like to go back to extract more of its subtlety.

I have to disagree with the Time Out art critic who rated this film as less rewarding than the other nominee Karen Kramer’s The Eye that Articulates Belongs on Land which is shot in Japan’s tsunami wrecked coastal regions. Kramer’s work is portentously languorous in comparison to the urgency of Williams’ densely packed film. Kramer’s intention is more opaque than Williams’. Kramer has included some zany animation and a commentary in Japanese that verges on the mystical but these are laboured effects which suggest a desire to please rather than a drive to communicate. An extended continuous take of the detritus in a wrecked home indulges the film-maker’s desire to reveal the beauty of disorder without really conveying anything more insightful. The most interesting element of the film was the idea in the text that the land and sea are in a lender/ debtor relationship.

To emphasise the peril of living in a dangerous environment, Kramer employs the trope of a wild animal (a fox) wandering through an urban landscape. The French artist Pierre Huyghe has previously explored this aspect of the nature/civilisation binary in a Japanese setting to much greater  effect. In last year’s exhibition at  Hauser and Wirth his film Human Mask stealthily tracked through a tsunami ravaged town culminating in the survellance of a monkey in a deserted cafe as it uncannily impersonates a waitress. In his film Celebration Park the image of a young deer as it wanders tentatively through an empty house on a newly built upmarket estate was moving in a way that Kramer’s fox was not.

The density and richness of the Williams work is for me the reason I would rate it more highly. If you prefer a more elliptical and mystical approach then the Kramer would no doubt get your vote. Both are well worth seeing to get a feel for the way MI art is developing at the moment.


Marianna Simnett’s visceral art

Valves Collapse

Seventeen Gallery until 20th February,  2016
marianna simnett
Image courtesy of Marianna Simnett and Comar

Varicose veins are not an obviously fertile subject for a video artist but in Blue Roses Marianna Simnett creates a richly poetic and gripping narrative that leaves you with an enhanced sense of the emotional complexities a patient endures as they are exposed to technologically advanced medical interventions. For me she is one of the brightest young talents to emerge in video art the last few years. There is an intelligence, honesty and authenticity to her work that is totally engaging. She understands the need for making every second count  so we get an intense visual and aural  encounter in each of the three videos she has  exhibited so far. She shares with  Damien Hirst a fascination with what lies underneath the skin but tempers this with an exploration of the symbolic significance of particular body parts.

Simnett’s last film, Blood, first screened at the 2015 Jerwood/FVU Award show took a medical operation on a teenager’s nose and somehow blended it with interviews with an anomalous gender-fluid “sworn virgin” in the Albanian mountains so that the two stories illuminated each other. We got a moving insight into the physical and psychological frailty of the teenager trying to navigate the uncertainties  of adapting to adulthood.

In Blue Roses Simnett again finds a productive juxtaposition with two parallel narratives – we see her seriously varicosed veins (the blue roses of the title) initially from the outside. We are witness to her helplessness. She must be suspended upside down to stop the blood pooling in her legs. She submits to an invasive procedure as a  laser optical fibre needle is inserted through the vein to reach the collapsed valve. We get a dramatically staged reconstruction of the blockage being blown apart. This is a lurid masterpiece of scuzzy “old school” special effects which comments wittily on the high tech medicine she is representing. A real life surgeon  exposes himself to mild self satire by giving the standard soothing but duplicitous reassurances that “this will not hurt”. As in Blood, the physical vulnerability of the patient is a metaphor for the psychological fears of invasion and helplessness. Will we eventually lose our identity to the medical processes that are needed to fix us?  The unmistakable sense that medical technology is threatening to remove our autonomy is all pervasive in this film.

In the parallel narrative  cyborg cockroaches (see image above) are being constructed by computer scientists. We see them like excited gamers controlling their movements remotely through microchips wired to their nervous systems. But this is no game. The scientists are real researchers acting out predetermined roles set for them by Simnett to press home her vision.

The  three films she has made were re-edited for a live performance accompanied by some ethereal singers at the Serpentine last summer and can be viewed at This  is  a stunning performance piece and I look  forward to getting to see her next one.