Can art do documentary?


Statues Also Die (1953)-  still from film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker

When art functions primarily as a documentary, either conveying information or explicitly taking a stand,j it has an imperative to do so with an aesthetic twist. I find political diatribe unpalatable unless it can positively answer my sceptical question: “What added value can art bring that text cannot?” Art that derives from colonial politics can sometimes seem like a dutiful trudge through a well-meaning argument.  The iconic moving image artwork that showed par excellence how to avoid this is the masterful dissection of African art’s distortion by colonialism, Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker made in 1953 – While the commentary is polemical it uses heartfelt poetical language and the rhythmically edited images dramatically syncopate with the carefully orchestrated soundtrack composed by Guy Barnard using African and Western instrumentation. This inspiring work was referenced by the long-winded, overly academic Duncan Campbell film It for Others that won the Turner Prize in 2014. The comparison did not do him any favours.


Still from The Mapping Project  2008-11 courtesy of the artist

The Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili is working in a similar vein.  Her film Foreign Office (2015) at Lisson Gallery until 18 March movingly presents two young Algerians questioning the history of African liberation movements. They sit expressionless, poring over a set of photographs of past heroes of colonial conflicts and articulate a narrative of loss. Where has all the idealism in the early days gone? How do we decipher the “truth” of our shared history? How do we build on the struggles of our predecessors? The format is simple and the issues she raises are poignant and engaging but the film is compromised as it is neither a visually arresting artwork or a detailed analytical documentary. The lessons of Resnais and Marker seem doomed to fall into neglect.

However this exhibition is worth a visit for Khalili’s original take on telling migrant tales in her multiscreen installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11). She offers migrants the chance to recount their journey from their homeland to Europe while tracing it in thick marker pen on a map. The circuitous route so many of them take contrasts with the military mapping trope of the sweeping arcs of arrows as popularised in the opening titles for the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army (see below). I expect UKIP has a similar graphic somewhere in their publications to illustrate their view on immigration. The reversals and dead ends of the real migrant paths is an apposite metaphor for the confusion and rootless anxiety many of them must feel.  I was left wanting to know far more about their individual plights and wondering about the possible artistic justification for the exploitation of suffering.

Still from title sequence of the 1970’s comedy series Dad’s Army- courtesy of the BBC


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s