Borrowed Time at Jerwood Space until 24th April.
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 my other blogpost 28th 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 a passage where the narrator recalls a mindfulness class which focussed on the importance of breathing to 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 simplistic 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 as we get the highlights of 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’s verdict that 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 while Williams dense film has a sense of urgency. 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-makers 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 ending up spying on a monkey as it uncannily impersonated a waitress in a deserted cafe. I saw his film Celebration Park at the Tate Modern in 2006 and 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.