James Coleman: freezing the past

The Battle of the Bull Run – Currier and Ives

James Coleman-  Marian Goodman Gallery until 16th April

Coleman’s  battlefield re-enactment video, Ligne de Foi (1991),  is a riot of colour and suppressed tension bleeding through the screen. It documents his attempts to create a tableau that reflects precisely the key elements of the scene that can then be photographed. These stills form a second version of this work.

The rich  orange, blues and greens of the the original American Civil War colour lithograph featured above are faithfully reproduced in his video. The more difficult task of choreographing the movement of men and horses to match the configuration of the original  propels the viewer on a  roller coaster ride of anticipation and relief. At regular intervals the artist/ director can be heard coaxing them into position, a shot is eventually taken and then they all stand down. As this is repeated, we get the mounting impression that each “take” is judged a failure and the cast, particularly the three horse-riders,  are coming under pressure to get the perfect shot.  I had a dawning sense that this was a metaphor for our often frustrated attempts to cryogenically freeze a past nostalgic moment  and resurrect it in the future.

For much of the video I was intrigued and moved by the macabre Goya-esque “dead” soldiers and horses lying in the foreground: the corpses of a man and his horse stretched on a cartwheel and a soldier crushed beneath the weight of his dead mount. The impact of these images was heightened by the fact the actors remained motionless even between takes. Eventually the spell was broken as they had to stretch themselves out of their contortions and we are reminded of the gap between artistic representations of war and doing it for real. The horses, I assume, were drugged!

This video is part of a wider survey of Coleman’s works which demonstrates that conceptual artists who also revel in aesthetic pleasure are onto a winner, a theme I will return to in my next post which will review Susan Hefuna’s CROSSROADS at Pi Artworks.

Matter out of Place: Lucy Clout

PR_stillWarm Bath at  Limoncello Gallery until 18th April.

“Dirt is matter out of place”. This famous structuralist quote is saying that cultures tend to define something in relation to its opposite and this idea kept me stimulated throughout Lucy Clout’s  new video.  Water in the natural environment, even in a dirty drainage ditch, can provide a calming visual vista. Water encroaching on the home is threatening. This is just one of the dizzying binary oppositions that pile up and reference each other in this cunningly constructed work: black/white, dirt/purity, sunrise/sunset, east/west, illusion/reality, male/female, conflict/harmony.

Superficially we are presented with two rather nerdy intercut videos. One documents the scuzzy, damp corners of a shared house while the female narrator bemoans the trials of sharing a living space with a group of women. They have all “succumbed to the idea” that water,  whether this is rain, spilt coffee or piss  drains in opposite directions depending on where in the house it falls, reaching seafall either on the east or west coast of England. This apparently barmy dichotomy gives them a mutually supportive focus for their shared lives.

The other  video is an entrancingly scuzzy, low -res, colour saturated daily record of what appears to be  two drainage channels flowing in opposite directions from a narrow culvert. These short clips are  verbally time and date-stamped by the male video diarist whose has little else to say but is clearly fascinated by the water level.  What a neat parallel.

In fact the clips reveal a different scenario. We slowly realise that he is captivated by the effects of shooting with the low angled sun behind him at dawn or dusk. He is switching his p.o.v. to opposite sides of the same channel. The reversed view gives the illusion of two channels. The sense of being tripped up leads onto more profound thoughts. How strong is this inbuilt bias to structure our cognitive and visual worlds in binary opposites? Like the diurnal rhythm of the  drainage channel archivist it may give us a sense of order and security but sometimes this is a trap . Beneath this  divided structure an alternative reality may exist.

So we hear a sense of weariness in the female narrator’s voice as she opens with “I lived in a house with six other women for …a long time. It’s an economic arrangement”. This negativity is  contradicted by a  still image superimposed on the action, like a garish ad fly-posted onto a grimy inner-city wall. We see a glossy internet-sourced stock photo of a group of women in a highly sociable mood. These idealised stills recur at intervals undercutting the house’s cheerless interior.  But at one point a coarsely pixelated  one is dropped in to muddle the message. The barely discernible smiles and  party streamers convey anxiety rather than harmony.

The warm bath of the title  fails to make an appearance in Clout’s video. Perhaps it alludes to the contrasting nature/ culture transformations of water. In a state of nature water is cold and bracing and sometimes potentially invasive. Fire, Homo sapiens’ first cultural artefact, tempered its chill so it could become a security blanket. For me, the comfort of a warm bath was evoked by the cosy, plump, nubbly-wool covered cushions that Clout has kindly provided for her viewers to lounge in.  The gallery tyranny of insisting on backbreaking austere boxes to perch on is worth analysing.

Lucy Clout has played a blinder with this video. As in her previous video, From our own Correspondents, where she neatly exposed the off-camera nervousness of media professionals when projecting their own personas, she has a startling off-beam approach to exploring the tension between what we present and what we obscure.  In her closing shot we see someone (the artist?) waving farewell on  the house doorstep but apart from her hand the figure is hidden behind a stock photo of an idealised mother and baby.