Jerwood Solo Presentations showcase emerging MI artists

Jerwood Space Gallery until 27th August

This gallery has a reputation for fostering young talented moving image artists. The intellectually and visually thrilling film by  Alice May Williams shown here in April 2016 was a delight to experience. None of the works in this Jerwood Solo Presentations show quite captures the alchemy of concept, text, music and image sparking off each other in Williams film but they were all interesting in their own right.

Still from HD video Macrobeads courtesy of the artist, Rachel Pimm

Rachel Pimm, like many video artists who graduate from Goldsmiths, appreciates the value of setting a video artwork in a sympathetic installation. She creates a spa atmosphere with a range of elements including an ambient soundtrack and a dreamy blue and green lightbox. In contrast she plays entertainingly with black and white circles and spheres in her HD video, Macrobeads.  The appeal of the illusion of white dots that appear when a shiny black sphere is illuminated is widely used. Coincidentally this effect can be seen in one of Mona Hatoum’s sculptures currently on show at the Tate Modern. Although the images of carpets of black spheres on water reference oil and plastic pollution, the political implications are kept rather vague. Lacking a commentary, the film felt a bit lacking in bite, but her restrained blue/ green and black/ white contrasts indicate that she has a sure feel for the symbolic power of colour.

Luke Fowler has set a high bar for me for documentary art films as he always delivers a social critique through an intriguing visual aesthetic. Lucy Parker’s film Apologies  has a strong political sensibility but uses the more conventional form of recording discussions and speeches to examine the legal and personal ramifications of the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry. The cavalier way that corporate industry prioritises profit over workers rights by using devious and immoral practices is an under-publicised scandal that deserves to be exposed. Sadly by screening this work in a gallery only a tiny audience  will get to see it. I only hope it gives the project the momentum needed to propel the planned full-length film into widespread distribution.

The exhibition notes slightly overegg the “artist filmmaker”  tag  by referring to Parker’s “construction of  scenarios for exchanges to play out”  Surely this is standard documentary practice for filmmakers that do not claim the “artist” tag . It would have been a different film but the obvious missing scenario is a meeting of the construction industry bosses with the workers whose lives have been blighted. They owe a personal rather than a legal apology to them. The “artistic” input in this film is mainly seen in the careful positioning and the calm, unfussy shooting of the blacklisted union activists and law students discussing the case in a small raked university lecture theatre. I was moved by the contrast between the controlled formal atmosphere of the discussion and the raw emotion bubbling under the surface and there was some useful ventilation of the problems of corporate apologies .

I love the easy  conviviality and sudden bursts of energy that you get in amateur choir rehearsals. Katie Schwab in clearly taken by this as well as it provides an evocative soundtrack to her video Covers. It does not capitalise on the singers’ energy but focuses instead on their shoes and clothing, peripheral elements in the process of vocal projection. The impact of this work was lessened further by being poorly installed on a tiny monitor which irritatingly gives a clear reflection of the viewers. The main elements of her presentation are tasteful furniture and textiles, so the video itself seemed like a bit of an afterthought.

Overall a show worth seeing  and I look forward to the future work of these artists.

Kubrick, the reverse tracking shot and the enigmatic fluidity of identity

© Toby Dye, still from four channel film installation, The Corridor, 2016 with the writer John Allison in the foreground

One evening in 1970 spent at the Brighton Film Theatre became etched onto my impressionable teenage psyche.  It was a devastating double bill: Stanley Kubrick’s scabrous satirical comedy, Dr Strangelove with Peter Watkins’ documentary on the aftermath of a nuclear war, The War Game, judged by the BBC to be “too horrifying” to be broadcast. I was left haunted by the delusional absurdity of political and military thinking about nuclear warfare and amused by the Freudian link between male sexual anxiety and military paranoia. The phallic “riding the bomb” sequence at the climax of Dr Strangelove beautifully distills this idea.  In this simulated forward tracking shot we feel as if  we are riding piggyback behind the US Major as the missile drops to ground zero.  Tunnels and corridors were famously endowed with a female sexual connotation by Freud. For directors hooked on sexual symbolism like Kubrick, the tracking shot in an enclosed space was perfect in creating a claustrophobic tension reminiscent of our arrival through the birth canal.

With terrific ingenuity Toby Dye has applied this lesson to produce a gripping, continual looped, four-screen installation,  The Corridor.  Our natural perceptual point of view is in forward tracking mode as we usually have to watch where we are going. On screen it converts the viewer into the omniscient voyeur following the movement of the protagonist. In contrast, viewing a reverse tracking shot creates the unsettling sense of backing away from the interminable advance of the action with less awareness of the terrain than the actors. But in this installation Dye ramps up the tension and disorientation by offering us no escape from the four distinct narratives bearing down on us from all four sides in the cramped 3 metre square screening room.

His next masterstroke is to allow the narratives to develop independently from the same start point when the protagonists crash through dark swing doors into apparently identical brightly lit corridors. After a while the characters, most having some link with Kubrick films, begin to leak into neighbouring screens and the narratives begin to seep into each other. I was particularly taken by the swaggering gas-masked figure in a paramilitary jacket (see above) who had the mindless savagery of a droog from Clockwork Orange.  His violence is finally curbed by an attack by our hero in an ox-blood red shirt emerging from another screen who then puts on the gas mask and jacket, picks up the cosh and continues the rampage. Meanwhile the stunned droog, revealed to be wearing the red shirt of the hero, goes off in hot pursuit of his attacker. This Russian doll iteration where the  villain and hero swap roles in an endless loop is not only visually mind-blowing but addresses a philosophical theme that Kubrick was often drawn to. Human identity is so malleable that under different circumstances any of us could become a psychopathic killer. The distinction between good and evil is wafer thin.

In Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s bleak World War One film about the barbaric treatment of French soldiers charged with the military crime of cowardice, the famous trench sequence uses alternate forward tracking and reverse tracking shots. As the soldiers await the order to go over the top we see their reactions as the dolly camera tracks forward between them as they press back against the walls of the trench. Then a reverse tracking shot reveals that they are responding to their Colonel who is acknowledging them as he walks down the line. As these alternate throughout the sequence we switch empathy between the emotions of the soldiers and those revealed on the face of the Colonel who is about to lead them into the battlefield.  

The fluidity of identity and the nature of violent psychopaths were enduring fascinations for Kubrick. In the 1990s he begun to develop a film concept, The Aryan Papers, that followed the fate of a Jewish woman shedding her identity for a Gentile one during the Nazi purges. After his death the Kubrick archives were raided by Jane and Louise Wilson who were inspired to make a film based on interviews and recreated costume shoots of the Dutch actress who would have played the lead. Unfolding the Aryan Papers is screened in a mirrored installation which reflects infinite receding projected images on both sides of the main screen. We are confronted with the visual parallel of the mutiplicity of identities. I  originally saw this film at the South Bank on a single screen when it was first made in 2009 and looking back at my notes it did not impress me then. I had been a huge  fan of theirs since they were Turner Prize nominees in 1999 and had followed their careers avidly. At the time,  I wrote:

“Their glossy production values feel rather passe and were at odds with the content. The focus on costumes and the actress were too distant from the initial source to feel much emotional impact.”

Seeing it again I realise that I had not really understood the content because I had focused on the visuals at the expense of the actress’s narrative. It is not so much about the disappointment of the actress at Kubrick’s decision to drop the film. It is more an exploration of the fluidity of personal identity. The actress is unsure about her suitability for the part and so for her first meeting with Kubrick she positions herself  with the sun’s glare behind her so she can see him before he sees her. Like the role she is auditioning  for, the actress wants to present a blank canvas. She wants to hide like the Jew in Nazi Germany. Her unplaceable accent which suggests she could come from anywhere is the key factor in Kubrick’s decision to cast her.

All the artworks in this exhibition were linked in some way to Kubrick. The other MI  artworks that impressed me were:

Matt Collinshaw, Alpha-Omega, 2016: Inspired by 2001, this work comprised footage of primates projected onto the visor of a spaceman’s helmet. Is it impossible to reconcile the animal and technological sides of aspects of human nature?

Pink Twins, Overlook, 2016: Digital animation is here deployed to present a condensed  vision of a civilisation imploding. A veneer of solidity slowly disintegrates as a grand furnished room shears off into shards and finally dissolves in a pool at the bottom of the screen.

Copyright Doug Foster, still from widescreen digital film, Beyond the Infinite, 2016 courtesy of the artist

Doug Foster, Beyond the Infinite, 2016: A widescreen digital animation mimicking a tracking shot entering a black hole (see above) surrounded by a constantly changing kaleidoscopic tunnel accompanied by a digital soundtrack composed by Phillip Shepherd. A potentially hypnotic experience marred by sound leakage  from a nearby exhibit.

Norbert Schoerner, Das Problem der Befahrung Des Weltraums, 2016: A VR recreation of the classic tracking shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You feel you are jogging around the endless loop of the circular space station as centrifugal force generates the artificial gravity.

The exhibition was curated by the musician James Lavelle whose track, Lonely Soul, adds considerably to the tense atmosphere of Toby Dye’s The Corridor. His choice of artworks  was excellent but he could have done with a bit more help on some of the sound installation. The failure to give duration times for the MI works must have been an oversight.

Overall though, this gave an absorbing and varied overview of the current state of moving image art. This is perhaps not surprising given they were inspired by the virtuoso genius. The theatricality of the installations here typified by Toby Dye and Doug Foster gave a reason for spending time in a gallery.  As so many MI artists upload their work online, this has got to be the way forward for public MI exhibitions 

Three seminal 70’s films from the London Film-makers’ Co-op

The girl Chewing Gum
Still from 16 mm film , The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) courtesy of the artist

Tate Britain recently celebrated 50 years of the London Film-makers’ Cooperative with a screening of six films and a display of archive material. I was struck by their manifesto which defined film “as language, as poem, as instrument of passion and logic” but against “the gimmick, the kitsh, the chi-chi, the B-feature worship”.  This gives a flavour of the era when artists’ growing aversion to the dominant pop art movement of the 60’s was leading to a deeper engagement with the world.

John Smith   The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976

This off-the-wall, ground-breaking film was the best thing in this exhibition. It is based on the conceit of passers by in a Hackney street apparently responding to instructions of a mildly hectoring but encouraging film director. “Come on look at me…good”. The commentary takes a more surreal turn as a slightly erratic zoom to a clock face is accompanied by the director calling out “Now the clock to move to jerkily towards me”.  Like all Smith’s work this wryly amusing take also offers deeper insights – in this case into the illusory nature of film. The Tate website includes an In Focus research project exploring the theoretical and historical context of the film authored by a leading moving image art scholar, Dr. Erika Balsom. She argues that, as a film about film-making, it pushes the post modern envelope much further than the popular Truffaut film, La Nuit Americaine, which I remember hugely enjoying as a teenager on its 1974 release. Its opening live action street scene is like an inverse of Smith’s, when it is revealed that the apparently real passers by are in fact extras choreographed by the director.

Malcolm Le Grice   Threshold, 1976

Viewable online this intriguing and visually captivating film uses multiple recycled and distorted versions of a short sequence of activity around a border post. The migrants and guards are presented through red and green filters of different strengths to give a dream-like aura. For me the red/green binary evoked a blood-chlorophyll /stop-go/ death-life symbolism. Its title points to its universal relevance applicable in the U.K.’s current political crisis which is driven by the atavistic fear that boundaries represent, a concept so brilliantly illuminated through the the seminal ethnographic work,  Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas.

Lis Rhodes  Dresden Dynamo, 1971

This startling “optical sound” experience is an experimental abstract 16mm film work that predates the Vasulka’s similar video-generated Machine Vision but has the same visceral impact. Letraset and letratone is directly applied to the celluloid and then fed through filters to produce the final version. The sound track is generated by the film itself and this is uncannily like the drone of WW2 bombers. You feel the phalanx of planes, the cascading of bombs and the snapping of the Dresden firestorm. As Tacita Dean might say “Bring back celluloid. There is something more authentic about it than digital film.”