Street entertainment on chilly Essex Road

Alice May Williams -Still from her film On the 73 (2016) courtesy of the artist and Tintype Gallery

Tintype have bucked the trend for gallery closures in the Xmas week yet they can still luxuriate in a well-earned break by screening films as their window display. Is it worth braving the cold, standing on the pavement for 45 minutes to watch the eight short films from different contemporary artists all inspired by Essex Road in Islington?  Three of them have outstanding narrative drive and one of them is “interesting”. All have some merit. Wrap up and pick a time when there will be fewer revellers/commuters to interrupt your viewing pleasure.

The multi-talented Alice May Williams has shown her mastery of wit and timing yet again in her subtitled story of unrequited love, told against a montage of iconic media lesbian couples. MI artists rarely have the skills to produce their own text, images and music that complement each other so neatly. The synchrony of these three elements was as hypnotic as in her Jerwood/FVU award-winning film, Dream City. MI artists that rely on others to provide words and/or sound track (and that means the vast majority of them, William Kentridge comes most recently to mind ) cannot hope to achieve this level of aesthetically pleasing coherence. Among the many chuckle-inducing  touches was the use of different buses (the 38 and 73!!) to represent the incompatible romantic destinations of the film’s two protagonists.

Lynne Marsh was fortunate to discover that the 1930’s Carlton Cinema on Essex Road was the common habitat for two contrasting species; restoration workers and evangelical worshippers, hence the title of her apparently simple yet highly effective film Resurrection /Restoration. The subtle edit switched rhythmically from the fervent gospel singers to the buzzsaws of the builders and the closing shot was a revelation as we see the coming  glory of the refound theatre auditorium in its entirety. Heritage and recycling are both “good things” to hang onto in this disposable era.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s atmospheric and gripping film presents a nightmarish impressionistic portrait of the gritty and depressing life of the homeless on the streets of Islington through the eyes of an archetypal “black dog”. The parallel perils of being a stray dog  and a street sleeper reinforce the degradation they both suffer. Very moving.

Amikam Toren’s minimal and subversive art has always appealed to me. In Going Nowhere  two coordinated looped images on a split screen spark some thoughts. A helicopter (air ambulance?) repeatedly approaches its rooftop landing pad but then goes into reverse. In the adjoining image a young man paces aimlessly up and down a row of shops whirling a chain around his finger. Are we are just going round in circles making the most of our lives until we run out of rope?

ESSEX ROAD III is showing at Tintype daily from 4-11pm until 14 January. Worth a look if it’s not too chilly.



William Kentridge: tearing and repairing

Whitechapel Gallery:  William Kentridge to 15 January 2017

William Kentridge- Still from Invisible Mending (2003), courtesy of the artist

 “Tear and repair”, a slogan that appears in one of Kentridge’s animations, is a clue to the significance of his ideas. As a metaphor for the struggle we all face in fashioning a life from the rag-tag of material at our disposal, it also intensifies the power of his art. His innovative stop-motion charcoal animation technique which involves erasing and adding to his initial illustration leaves an after-image, like the vapour trails of aircraft or the memory traces of our  past, suggesting that our repairs will always leave a hidden shadow.

For me, the most emotionally evocative work in this exhibition is a short looped film inspired by George Melies, Invisible Mending (2003)  combining live action, animation and old school special effects. I first encountered it ten years ago standing in the street on a freezing December day looking at the screen through the plate-glass of Brighton University’s Art building. At the time I was reflecting on the hard graft you need to patch yourself up following a period of personal turmoil and it provided a comforting image of survival. We see Kentridge take torn sheets of drawing paper and miraculously piece it together on his studio wall which reveals it to be a full-size charcoal self-portrait. He wipes away the scrawls and smudges that obscure his drawing, admires it, then ambles out of the frame. The drawing then transforms into his real figure that also walks away in the opposite direction. Although we know this is an illusion formed by reversing the film reel we cannot resist the optimistic interpretation that recovery from our self-destructive acts is possible.

Invisible Mending at 90 seconds is easy to miss. The Refusal of Time (2012), is not. It is a compelling thirty minute, six screen installation surrounding the viewer on three sides buzzing with ideas about time and space, infinity, mortality, migration and colonialism. I could not decide whether or not it suffers from an overenthusiastic embrace of too many collaborators including the composer Philip Miller and history of physics academic, Peter Galison. There are some great quotes from cosmologists including the idea that the universe acts an archive of all the images that have ever existed. The sight of the artist walking endlessly around a circuit interrupted at regular intervals by having to hurdle over a padded bench reflects his own expressed reliance on walking as a stimulus to his creativity. It also evokes the idea of an artist measuring out his life in a series of physical challenges much like a migrant. The image of six metronomes gradually losing their synchronicity is a neat metaphor for the relativity of time perception.  Some poignant sequences of a mournful procession of cutout figures look to be outtakes from his simpler and more emotionally engaging multi screen More Sweetly Play the Dance. This mysterious and gripping work entranced me for hours at Marion Goodman Gallery in July 2015.

William Kentridge. Still from eight screen installation More Sweetly play the Dance (2015). courtesy of the artist

The Refusal of Time is an ambitious layered work, overwhelming in its scope and ambition and reminds me of the Graham Swift novel Waterland which presents a similarly rich tapestry of so many associations that it is difficult to detect an overarching theme that is treated in depth. I can admire these artworks without being emotionally engaged by them. Less is usually more. But sometimes intellectually curious artists  cannot resist the temptation to give their scattergun enthusiasm full rein. I can sympathise with that (as is probably evident from these blogposts!)

Kentridge is one of my top five MI artists and I hope this exhibition will raise his profile to the level he deserves. Not all of his best work is here so a comprehensive retrospective is surely due.

Asylum art at the Wellcome Collection


This exhibition is crammed with interesting material, so if your time is limited, I recommend you spend it watching the brilliant 35 minute film, Abandoned Goods. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson have sensitively edited archive footage and contemporary interviews to interrogate the complex issues that surround art therapy and outsider art through the fascinating story of the development of the Adamson Collection. At its peak it held 100,000 artworks created by inpatients at Netherne psychiatric hospital in Surrey which closed in 1981. In 1951 Edward Adamson had been the first artist to be employed in an official capacity in a mental hospital and the film documents his pioneering work  with “asylum artists” .

A telling sequence shows patients sitting at identical easels with the same limited selection of paints and brushes. This standardisation was meant to enhance the artwork’s diagnostic value when it was passed to the psychiatrists for analysis. Adamson soon changed the emphasis to recognise that creative expression was beneficial in its own right both for the patients’ wellbeing and as a propaganda tool to assert their humanity in a society which too often excluded them. There are some artworks in the film that have real artistic power regardless of their provenance including some wonderfully original, painted flintstones by Gwyneth Rowlands.

Mother Child Flint courtesy of  the artist Gwyneth Rowlands

The film-makers were brave to include some controversial clips. One patient recounts her anger towards her psychiatrist looking out of the ward window onto a peaceful rural scene and telling her “Well in fact, that is what is really important”.  There is also the archive clip of two jocular psychiatrists chortling about their work saying: “We haven’t the faintest clue about what causes people to become ill, why a particular treatment works or how we can stop them from becoming ill again. Ha,ha, ha!” Like other film-makers of thoughtful art documentaries, Luke Fowler in particular, they make apposite editorial decisions and then let the material speak for irself

Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008)  is a 16mm black and white film  by the German artist Javier Téllez who adopts an inclusive approach by including “mental patients”  offering succinct summaries of their take on madness. It extracts much comic value from miscommunication between a psychiatrist and a particular patient played by an actor who believes he is an alien from Mars. The romanticised conclusion that the mad simply see the world from a different angle is a common one in artworks of this ilk. This Laingian approach was a revelation in the 60s but should now be considered oversimplistic given the damage that it caused to some patients.

The Relaxed Wife is a fascinating and cheesy promotional film for one of the early anti- anxiety drugs, Atarax, launched by  Pfizer in 1957. The first 10 minutes of this film presents a cartoonlike humorous narrative of a stressed businessman, portrayed by an actor with remarkable rubbery gurning abilities, who makes repeated unsuccessful attempts to relax under the guidance of his wife using what we now describe as cognitive and biofeedback methods. It is only in the last three minutes that the soft sell of the new wonder drug is slipped in. The commentary perfectly illustrates the innovative psycho-pharmaceutical approach that emerged in the 1950s which exploited faith in the “wonders of science.”  In that innocent era before the benzodiazapine over-prescription scandals  of the 1980s, they could promise with sincerity a pill that delivered “the calming peace of a cloudless sky”

Restless Leg Saga (2012) is seven minute video that is a  bit wacky at times but also conveys a sense of unease about our vain hope for a magic bullet to tackle the current epidemic of anxiety conditions.  Shana Moulton explores this through her alter ego, Cynthia, a very miserable looking young woman suffering from restless leg syndrome and who we see searching through pharmaceutical ads on TV and in health magazines. It is interesting to note the contrast between the volume of dry technical drug information in the magazine ads and the snappy, simplistic imagery and slogans they use.

Overall, a packed and informative exhibition which combines history with contemporary art in the inimitable Wellcome style.

Resolving racial conflict with kid power

Still from Finding Fanon, Part Three, Prologue (2016) a film by David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  Image courtesy of Claire Barrett

Amid all the current journalistic talk of whitelash and the attempt to hdiscredit identity politics following Trump’s election success, the ideas of Frantz Fanon, the black Martinque post-colonial thinker and psychiatrist who died in 1961, could not be more urgent or prescient. His insights into the link between colonial oppression and psychopathology provides the springboard for the Finding Fanon trilogy.  These fine films are carefully crafted meditations produced over the last two years by the “culture-busting” partnership of David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  The interim version of Finding Fanon Part Three (which in fact looked highly polished) premiered on December 6 at Tate Modern as a live performance with a hypnotic musical accompaniment on cello, synth and percussion. Rich in powerful images and with a gently delivered but hardhitting text, it kindles hope that, though our malaise is deeply rooted, our children may point the way towards a more tolerant and cooperative world.

The problems they try to grapple with are huge and difficult but crucial. They point out that the world has shrunk and social media can reduce us to icons and totems.  Essentially they are probing the dilemma of how a personal identity can be forged in a world where the internet has transformed our view of the world and our past.  Are we going to allow the internet to reduce us to data networks which either perpetuate or ignore our colonial legacy? The two artists appear as a dapper, besuited, somewhat querulous duo, reminiscent of the notorious Gilbert and George or the absurd Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But the thrust of the text is encouraging us to see them as avatars diminishing their individuality but acting as coathangers for the film’s ideas. Their worsted wool three piece suits and their steam punk goggles are subtly different as if to say : “We strive for commonality but the colonial legacy still sets us up as unequal associates”

Still from Finding Fanon-  Part Three Prologue (2016) courtesy of artistic director, Claire Barrett

Iconic images are beautifully captured in HD – the sea, the sky, a forest canopy, flaming sticks – but the commentary is pushing us to examine what new meanings they might have acquired in our current political and environmental crisis. Are the oceans now seen as a threatening no-man’s-land  claiming migrant lives rather than in the Windrush days when it provided safe passage to the  mother country? Will our landscape be degraded by climate change? The Blandy and Achiampong broods feature as signs of hope. When the children work together to build a shelter from discarded branches is their ability to cooperate a model that the world can follow in its mission to stop global warming? But could their wooden teepee just as easily be a bonfire? Social psychology research on US children in the 1970’s confirmed that we will always create outgroups unless there is a bigger problem that requires collaboration to resolve. Will it take the threat of extinction for us to recognise our common humanity?

Sumptous abstract digital animation simulating a vortical maelstrom is inserted to dramatise thoughts of black holes and the loss of identity. A strange fantasy sequence of the digitally rendered artists swimming gracefully in the ocean depths undercuts the usual Mediterranean migrant narrative of the sea as a potential killer. They have begun to develop the use of gaming tropes and graphics software to generate stories from the struggles of other oppressed groups such as ex-prisoners under the banner of Finding Fanon Gaiden.

The problem with the current  permanent Tate Modern collection is that it is not nimble enough to be truly reflective of our current concerns. They need to show works like this that are immediate responses to our rollercoaster world. There is no better illustration of this than Finding Fanon’s commentary comparing the racist imagery of Enoch Powell and Donald Trump:

“They were wrong. There were no rivers of blood.  Instead there are walls in people’s minds wishing for boundaries from “the other”… trying to contain something that does not exist”

The mere fact of two artists from different sides of the post-colonial divide coming together to explore the personal and historical implications of that troubled relationship and the image of their offspring forming a harmonious group to pursue a common purpose is what makes this such a moving and thought-provoking artwork.

Performance credits. Camera and artistic director: Claire Barrett. Cellist: Yoanna Prodanova. Synthesiser: James A. Holland. Percussion: Shepherd Manyika. Speakers: Ima-Abasi Okon and Nicola Thomas

Drudgery captured by drones: The Colony

Installation view of The Colony (2016) three screen film installation courtesy of Dinh Q. Le  and Artangel

This three screen video installation by Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê was a huge success for Artangel when it was shown in the cavernous exhibition space at 133 Rye Lane, Peckham in the summer on its tour of the UK. It was filmed on the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru where over centuries indigenous bird colonies have created mountains of guano, a prized resource before the advent of chemical fertilisers, which resulted in intense international conflict over exploitation rights.

Lê uses camera mounted drones in a variety of modes to document the grim working lives of local labourers  which he contrasts with startlingly beautiful images of the natural and industrial landscape. Aerial shots of thousands of ground nests created by the dense bird colonies evoke a pockmarked alien planet. A drone stealthily cruises through abandoned buildings tracking down the traces of their former inhabitants. In his most dramatic sequences he records  work gangs  shovelling guano into black sacks  and stacking them at ludicrous speed into architectural structures resembling giant ziggurats waiting to be exported.

Throughout Lê pays tribute to the versatility of his new technological equipment by featuring the drones as subjects in their own right giving them almost birdlike attributes as they swoop perilously close to vertiginous land forms. 2016 has been the year when drones have become the video artist’s favourite new tool and Lê has been the most successful I have seen so far.

On my visit I was lucky enough to catch a terrific dance piece inspired by Lê’s work, choreographed by a group of students from Lewisham College and sensitively performed in the space between the three screens. Their ability to evoke the poignancy of the island’s birdlife through movement and sound will stay with me for a long time!



Isaac Julien: drowning in an alien culture


Courtesy of Juan Medina/Reuters

It is shocking to realise that the present migrant crisis as manifested in the carnage of shipwrecks  crossing the Mediterranean has been going on for so long.  The above iconic image of a drowned corpse of an African migrant wrapped in a heat insulating blanket on a tourist beach on the Canary Islands comes from 2004. In 2007 it was appropriated by Isaac Julien for his 16mm film installation The Leopard included in the excellent Protest exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery this autumn. Inspired by the Visconti film of the same name, it mirrors the original’s theme of cultural displacement as perceived through material and bodily symbolism.

To magnify the horror, Julien’s uses the opening shots of the beach near the notorious Sicilian port of Lampedusa to establish it as a tourist destination. The camera lingers on the sand encrusted feet of what we assume is a sunbather. Then we see that it is a body covered in a foil blanket. Another striking image in the closing sequence focuses on a young migrant being carried through an Italian rococo palace and laid on a ballroom floor where he writhes around as though drowning. A leopard painted on the tiled floor fills the screen and its angry snarl seems to reflect the centuries of colonial enslavement.

Julien’s films capture the complexities of cultural conflict and assimilation. In The Leopard Julien suggests that rescuing migrants from physically drowning is only half the battle. Saving them from psychologically drowning in an alien and often hostile environment is the harder task. The stories of Italian generosity are heartening but I am appalled by the malignant idea gaining traction that the searescue operations should be stopped as they encourage migrants to risk their lives.