Tacita Dean: the mirage of the self

Tacita Dean: still featuring actor Stephen Dillane from 16mm film Event for a Stage courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery

“Semantics is the future for my art”. Tacita Dean’s unequivocal statement of intent at a public RA event in September should not really have been a surprise. Over the past 30 years her art has avoided text altogether and instead revelled in the fuzzy, warm aesthetic of celluloid film. But like many mid-career artists she has rebelled against the artworld’s expectations and begun a different tack, exploring language through her art. Her first foray in this chapter is a work of performance art. This might have set alarm bells ringing but in her  hands it is refreshingly free of the discordant notes typical of this genre. My antipathy towards the narcissism of many performance artists has been well aired in previous posts but this artform is ideal for Dean. As if to comment on her own aversion to personal disclosure, her cameo appearance in her new film is so indistinct it is easy to miss it. She sits in the darkness of the front row of the in-the-round auditorium handing out the script one page at a time as needed by her captive performer, the actor Stephen Dillane. The sheets fall discarded on the floor. People often want to provide us with their prescribed script  for us and we forget sometimes that we are permitted to invent our own.

The 50 minute film, Event for a Stage,  featured in her exhibition LA Exuberance at Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square until 4 November is a revelatory experience. For some commentators is an exploration of the actor’s craft. They emphasise the open struggle between Dean and Dillane as two artists trying to comprehend each others disciplines. What we see is an actor striding the stage fractiously philosophising about the nature of the performance he is tasked to deliver by the scriptwriter. At a deeper level this film explores something more profound: the nature of the self and the actor in all of us. It is perhaps inevitable that we should fasten tightly to a belief in the existence of an authentic self that lies at our core persisting through all life’s vicissitudes. The contrary view is that our self is simply the sum of the roles we play in our various interactions. Authenticity is an illusion.

On four consecutive nights during the 2014 Sydney Biennale, Dillane’s performances were filmed from two cameras on the same bare stage but with strikingly different beards, wigs and face makeup. These distinct performances are spliced together so that the film presents the performer constantly rotating through these surface personas while his delivery of the script remains intact with remarkably uniform intonation patterns across the four nights. The prismatic nature of the self is immediately invoked. This idea has a close parallel in Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel Moon Tiger when her protagonist Claudia Hampton describes her life as a “kaleidoscope”. She says: “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water”

This modus operandi gives Dean a glorious opportunity to explore the importance of language. At one point the splice cuts the delivery mid-word. The word chosen for this honour is dis/enchantment. The enchantment she may be referring to is the way we conjour an unselfconscious authenticity despite presenting ourselves in a consciously executed role tailored to the context. The disenchantment is the nagging sense that our act is false. This idea is elaborated when Dillane quotes from Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre”. The arms of the marionette will continue to dance of their own accord after the puppeteer’s initial spin, giving the illusion of self determination. Similarly humans have the illusion that their actions appear spontaneous but are in fact the result of inertia deriving from some internal or external trigger. Von Kleist committed suicide within a year of writing this.

The range of texts in Event for a Stage contrasts with the usual paucity of words in Dean’s films. In Portraits,  David  Hockney, chain-smoking  while cogitating in different corners of his LA studio, is intensely examined through five static takes each long enough to puff through a single cigarette. The silence is eventually broken in the closing minutes with a guffaw and the salutation “bloody enjoyable -smoking!” As in Dean’s previous studies of ageing artists we get a sense of human mortality before the fading of the artistic flame. It gives an allure to smoking that Hockney would surely approve of. It appears an essential adjunct to his thought processes but it is noteworthy that he never smokes when he is painting. He must have a massive raft of genes protecting him from the carcinogenic risk he is exposed to! This 15 minute film was not as boring as it sounds as we get to catch the micro level activity of the burning cigarette and the smoker’s behaviour. But it lacks the emotional depth of her 2007 film portrait of the poet Michael Hamburger where she succeeded in melding his creative world  with the natural world of his rural cottage retreat.

Dean’s work has been a source of great intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure over the years.  Her future path looks inviting as she sets out in a new direction.


Suki Chan’s intriguing journey at Tintype

Still from Lucida (2016) courtesy of Suki Chan and Tintype Gallery

I visited Tintype gallery in Islington for the first time last Wednesday and chatted with its director, Teresa Grimes. I had just left Tate Britain feeling vaguely disheartened by the predominantly anaemic installation artworks of the Turner Prize nominees. I was pleased that Teresa did not feel that moving image art was in decline given that this is the first year in a long time that an MI artist has not been among the nominees. We also agreed how fruitful the cooperation of artists and scientists could be. This is brilliantly exemplified in Suki Chan’s three channel interactive film installation, Lucida  on show at Tintype until October 22.

Neuroscientists have concluded that we see with our brain not our eyes. So, for example, our brain acts as an image stabiliser smoothing out the tiny staccato movements (saccades) that the eyeball must make as the retinal receptors will stop firing if they do not experience a change of input. Chan has worked with engineers and software programmers to open up this unconscious process. Seated in front of tracking sensors each saccade is converted into a click. We get the startling audible verification of the research finding that they average three a second. Our iris and surrounding capillaries are also projected onto the screen in front of us taking audience involvement in art to a new level of intimacy. Those gross blood vessels made me feel like I was inside one of Philip Guston’s  lurid late period “Heads”.

Head– Philip Guston (published under fair use copyright)

Inspired by her thoughts on the psychology of perception, Chan’s installation consists of a pair of screens, one projecting her film upside down. This provides a constant reminder that the image projected onto the retina is similarly inverted and that the brain must process this input so that we can navigate the “real world”. I was reminded of the psychology experiment where participants wear goggles that invert the visual field. Initially disorientated they soon find that the brain corrects this misinformation so that they see the world the right way up.  When the main screen shows  a room in which the inverted  image of the exterior world is projected via a camera obscura, the paired screen likewise corrects the orientation.

The gallery helpfully  provides visitors with an introductory video where the artist gives some background on the work’s genesis and includes the testimony of Colin Blakemore, the renowned neuroscientist. He was modest enough to praise her for raising issues of perception that he had not previously considered. So what is it that art can offer that science cannot? Essentially, art can demonstrate that on one level scientific explanation is an elaborate metaphor. The second half of her film consists of an extended tracking shot through the London University Senate House library, the underground bookstack and the murky  subterranean service tunnels. This is an apposite image for the convoluted journey our visual input must make before it is processed into a form that registers on our consciousness. On the journey we hear experts commenting on the importance of retrieved memory and projected meaning in structuring our perceived world. It culminates in  a wild, fizzing representation of neurochemical activity in brain synapses that fills the screen perhaps alluding to the gestalt nature of visual processing that has so far eluded reductionist scientific explanations.

As an ex-psychology teacher who is a bit sceptical of the more hubristic claims of the neurosciences about the nature of consciousness, I am encouraged to see an artist like Chan shed some poetic light on this most fundamental of issues while consulting with a wide range of scientific opinion and even providing a demonstration of a physiological phenomenon as part of her work. It would be great to see more work in this challenging vein. The varieties of memory impairment in dementia might be a fertile field.

Sophie Michael: a nostalgia trip

Sophie Michael : still from 99 Clerkenwell Road courtesy of the artist

Trip (The Light Fantastic): Art Now at Tate Britain until October 30:

Three films that rightly celebrate the sensual attraction of 16mm are steeped in nostalgia.

99 Clerkenwell Road (2010) 16mm colour film,silent, 8 min

This was the stand out work for me as its simplicity spoke volumes and it had a visual sucker punch at the mid point. It initially appears to be an abstract work of coloured spheres moving in a  dark void, reminiscent of early experimental art films. So far, so derivative. Then we gradually  pick out the root image: a  globe lamp hanging from a darkened room’s ceiling  observed and obscured from a variety of angles and the viewer is pulled back and forth between figuration and abstraction: it is a clever technique to unsettle our complacent view of the trustworthiness of our perception.

Chapters One to Five (2012) 16mm film, colour/sound, 15 min

This is an extended meditation on the role of play in creativity as we see a young girl interact with a series of artistic toys. The halting grade 2 piano practice soundtrack and the vivid retro colourscape are charming.

The Watershow Extravaganza (2016) 16mm film, colour/sound, 10 min

This attraction was built for the 1951 Festival of Britain before being installed in a theme park in North Devon in the 1980s. Illuminated fountains dancing to a mechanical organ provide an entrancing contrast with the rather spooky Watershow logos which also catch Michael’s lens. Pleasant to watch but trading on nostalgia can be a bit of a trap for artists working in 16mm.

Tate curators need to give more exposure to the emerging  artists who are commenting on current internet visual culture by exploiting the metaphor-rich boundary that separates digital from analogue rather than succumb to the obvious retro aesthetic appeal of 16mm. (see my Goldsmiths MFA  blogpost)

Cory Arcangel and Zeyno Pekunlu parody bizarre internet culture

Still from http://www.institutefornewfeeling.com at the Whitechapel Gallery

In recent weeks, I have been entertained by three hilarious film parodies, all satirically skewering the absurdity of cultural values promoted by the internet. Two are currently being shown as part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Artist’s Film International  programme which has introduced me to some terrific stuff over the past eight years of its operation .

Unfortunately the Whitechapel’s rather ramshackle approach over the past year has somewhat diminished my enjoyment. Some of their films have not been provided with English subtitles for the foreign language soundtrack. Currently their film auditorium is out of action and viewing their replacement screen in the busy foyer is a comic experience. I stood for 40 minutes watching the two films,  tethered by a short headphone lead too close for comfort to the 42inch screen and having to  apologise to visitors trying to squeeze past me. Had the curator given this a trial run? I guess not, otherwise they would have realised that this was not going to work. It would have been much better to  show them on their website as the Lisson Gallery  did for its last MI exhibition.

The Institute of New Feeling is an artists’ cooperative whose website exploits the tiresome visual tropes of internet advertising and by gross amplification converts them into sinister, beguiling images. They are picking up on the gloss and sheen of HD which reduces humans and machines alike to shiny hyper-real objects. The dehumanisation of bodies and the humanisation of machines is evident in their gym footage but their most startling image is of a car seat inside which a human appears to be struggling to get out.

How to properly touch a girl so you don’t creep her out? (2015) by Turkish artist Zeyno Pekünlü, has spliced together Youtube clips from the presentations of fifteen misogynistic pick-up coaches all displaying varying degrees of creepiness in their attitudes to women. This type of advice has a long pedigree.  I have an Etiquette guide for Gentlemen published in 1897 which has a similar section with the sound advice: “Avoid ever the slightest appearance of trifling with a woman. A female coquette is bad enough. A male coquette should be banished from society.” What a turnaround in the last century!  Pekünlü’s editing highlights the replication of the internet memes of this subculture’s values and language so that her film flows seamlessly despite the variety of the sources she has collated. The comparison provides much amusement as the different gurus sometimes urge totally contradictory seduction advice. It also points to the wider dangers of our reliance on “how-to” videos posted  by self proclaimed internet experts. Pekunlu has a key attribute of the successful contemporary artist- a sensitivity to the insidious underlying values that mass media is unconsciously foisting upon us .

I originally saw Cory Arcangel’s 32 minute web browsing video, Ideas in Action (starbucks.com), at the Lisson Gallery’s August video survey exhibition reviewed on a recent post but is also viewable online. While the trend of using internet footage has been around for a while this is the first time that I have seen a video artwork that is simply the record of a web browsing session. One’s first reaction is why not just direct us to the site itself and let us see for ourselves what has been posted. However the clever selection of pages chosen by Arcangel from the Starbucks “community” section of the site  makes us reconsider the nature of late capitalism where consumers see themselves as “fans” of a particular brand with a voice that demands to be heard. Consumer feedback is just another aspect of false consciousness. This video confirmed my personal boycott of Starbucks and raised my estimation of this self proclaimed “computer-nerd” artist  who seems to have an extensive repertoire of off-the-wall ideas.

Supporting emerging artists: Katie Hare

Katie Hare – still from The Edge of the Frame (2016) courtesy of the artist

Constructs at LUX, Waterlow Park until 2 October

Moving image works by emerging artists are often the most original and exciting to experience.  The pressures of external expectations do not seem to weigh them down and so their work is fresh and untrammelled. The inaugural exhibition at the new LUX gallery in the grounds of the idyllic Waterlow Park in Highgate this weekend is a great way to feel better about the current state of MI art as three recent graduates, Katie Hare, Ellie Power and Callum Hill  showcase their work. What these young artists need is an organisation that takes their work seriously. But more of that later.

Katie Hare was for me one of the strongest artists at the Goldsmiths MFA show. My previous blogpost recognises her seminal work, Wrong then, wrong today  conflating the visual and political in her succinct analysis of the culturally insensitive, analogue world of the 1950s cartoon. Another work I had not previously seen, The Edge of the Frame, (illustrated above) also uses slowed down, found cartoon footage from the same era to make a point about the psychological experience of the unreal. It uses a surreal version of the animation trope where a character running too fast to stop at a cliff edge, flails in mid air before plummeting downwards. The profound psychological symbolism of this image is part of its appeal. It may be seen as a metaphor for our desperate attempts to regain footing when the self is exposed to an existential threat with the imminent possibility of a descent into mental oblivion. Katie has selected a prescient post modern version of this trope where the two fleeing creatures skid around a bend and career into the white void that lies beyond the reel. They then desperately try to fight their way back into the scene. It has an eerie electronic soundtrack that mirrors this sense of dislocation. This slide into an unreal world and the lack of traction experienced in delusional mental conditions seems to be perfectly mirrored in this work. It was great to meet Katie at the show and confirmed the fierce intelligence that informs her work.

Ellie Power’s two digital animation works give a powerful sense of our fears of getting lost in the all pervasive digital landscape we are exposed to. In Mesh a human arm tries to force its way into the visual foreground which consists of the shifting planes of macro pixels. In the cleverly titled, Untitled (If an NPC speaks in an empty server do they make a sound?),  a simple scene of waves lapping against a beach with a changing cloudscape in the background is given an unsettling edge by an industrial electronic soundtrack and subtitled messages such as Dead pixels are blind spots.  

Callum Hill’s film Solo Damus shot in Mexico includes sumptuous night footage of a tropical lagoon, an atmospheric subway station and some gritty street scenes. Sadly I only caught a proportion of it (with no  duration time given impossible to tell how much)   because the projector stalled and no-one seemed to be in a hurry to fix it.

Now onto the issue of LUX’s apparent relaxed/disrespectful attitude to the artist’s work. The lack  of either wall labels or a gallery plan identifying the artworks seemed a very strange omission. OK, there were only five works but even so it saves you having to work it out by inference from the descriptions in the exhibition notes. For an organisation that should understand about displaying MI works it was even more puzzling that the duration of each film was not available. There was similarly relaxed approach to the preview start time of 4.00 pm which was unusually early, due presumably to the constraints of the Park closure. Arriving at the advertised start time, a peek into the gallery where the  floor was strewn with leads and power tools revealed that the installation was still underway. I have not joined the twitterati so the tweet that LUX posted earlier in the day changing the start time to 5.00 pm had passed me by.  Thinking about this, is it a “thing ” to follow Twitter updates from the gallery you are intending to visit?  Have I missed something here? Or perhaps this is just a way of offloading the embarrassment. After 90 minutes of hanging around  it was a bit galling to be told: “We are running a little late and will be open shortly”.  At 5.40 the throng of expectant MI enthusiasts  were allowed in. This felt like deja vu as only last month I had turned up at another small London gallery to find it unstaffed and locked during its advertised opening times. The contrasting obsessional and laid back personalities that seem to dominate the art world is something I have mused about and will feature in a future blogpost.

So a catalogue of problems. What bugs me about these mishaps and errors is that the young artists and their prospective audience are being treated in such an unprofessional way. There is so much competition that they are deemed to be incredibly lucky to get a public show regardless of the niceties. However  I do not doubt that if it had been an opening for an established artist this disruption would not have occurred. LUX is a crucial part of the MI artworld. They just need to get their act together.