Bruce Conner’s legacy and assorted 2017 clippings

Bruce Conner
Still from Bruce Conner’s film A Movie (1958)

2017 has seen a surfeit of stimulating MI artworks in London galleries.  As the year reaches its final frame I am impelled to hoover up some of the missing highlights – the clippings on the cutting room floor – that have not made it to the final cut of earlier blogposts.

Bruce Conner‘s A Movie (1958) at Thomas Dane Gallery in July was an eye-opener for me showing the strengths of the pioneer MI artists. This early example of collaged newsreel footage was prescient, contrasting personal with political dangers such as the iconic atomic mushroom cloud. Billed as the first “assemblage film”, much that has followed in the last sixty years in a similar vein is more clumsy and haphazard lacking the energy, precision and harmony of the chiming images in Conner’s editing. Conner died in 2008 but his legacy for moving image art is a significant one

John Akomfrah’s overblown 70 minute six screen installation, Purple, at Barbican Curve also used found footage and was an interesting comparator to Connor’s 12 minute work. It was also an attempt at a global overview of contemporary issues but with much less economy. Intermittently dramatic, it failed to hook you in, its portentous gravity and lack of visual harmony in the edit making it feel a bit plonking in comparison.

Paul Pfeiffer at Thomas Dane Gallery in July was memorable for its unusual video effects. In his series of short looped videos, Caryatids (2016), boxing fight sequences with one of the boxers digitally erased leave us to focus on the spectacle of his opponent being battered. The sight of his head bouncing and his neck muscles straining from the unseen blows stripped backed this sport to its barbaric reality

Afro Black

Into the Unknown, the sci fi exhibition at the Barbican Curve, was crammed with too much miscellaneous art but I was taken by the retro charm  of Soda_Jerk‘s Afro Black which is a 30 minute homage to Afro-futurism, sampling sci-fi movie clips and some classic  music tracks incuding Kraftwerk and Sun-Ra.

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Installation view of Shana Moulton film installation

Shana Moulton’s videos at White Cube Bermondsey’s surrealist group show of women artists in August were quirky but satisfying as she seems to treat each object she films with such reverence. This was particularly evident in one where the objects were installed in front of the screen as well as appearing on it.

Willie Doherty
Still from Willie Doherty’s Loose Ends (2017) courtesy of the artist

Willie Doherty’s Loose Ends at Matt’s Gallery in July was a two screen video installation consisting of a series of slow zooms onto a variety of scenes associated with the 1916 Easter Rising including derelict patched-up Dublin buildings. This “ruin art” essay combined with commentary on political myth making was very hypnotic in its pacing and provoked ruminations on the interaction between personal and historical memory.

The films of Allora and Calzidilla always combine poetic imagery with a political ambiance. Their exhibition Foreign in a Domestic Sense at Lisson Gallery in November had subtle but intense charge inspired by their opposition to American imperialism in Puerto Rico. Their film The Night We Became People Again contrasted shots of the interior of a vast cave and abandoned industrial plants. It takes its title from a short story by José Luis González, where Puerto Rican immigrants in a US power blackout exult in the sight of the star-filled night sky undisturbed by light pollution as a reminder of their homeland.

 

 

 

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Autobiographical films from Beirut and Ellesmere Port

Mark Leckey’s autobiographical film at the Tate Modern, Dream English Kid (2015) 1969-1999, is delightful, endearing and intense, very like the Ellesmere Port born artist himself.

Mark-Blower Mark-Leckey-Cubitt- Bridge
Affect Bridge Age Regression, installation view. Photography by Mark Blower

In Leckey’s Tate Shots video he tags himself as an outsider with a “schizophrenic” approach (meaning detached and alienated rather than psychotically delusional, misusing this term as so often in artspeak). However he is forgiven this as his video is an engrossing, visually rich, tightly orchestrated nostalgia trip exorcising the personal and political demons instilled by a late 20th century upbringing. His video collage is carefully sound tracked with some iconic musical clips and includes archival material from television shows and advertisements as well as a digitally rendered concrete motorway bridge. This bleak urban image is one that has obsessed him from childhood and seems to distill the claustrophobic anomie of much post-war culture. This gave the film a dark and disorientating quirkiness that distinguishes it from similar archive based videos. His compact and powerful exhibition later in the year at Cubitt Gallery, Affect Bridge Age Regression included a model of the bridge lit by  cold sodium street lamps and a grimly poetic sound installation based on extending the lyrics of the Edgar Broughton Band’s Out Demons Out whose channeling of teenage fury I first encounterered in a memorable live rendition by a schoolboy proto-punk band at an end of term concert in 1973. In his lyrics Leckey introduced me to the term alembicated (excessively subtle), so perhaps  there is something to be said for artspeak.

better al qadiri
Installation view of  The Craft (2017) courtesy of the artist, Monira al Qadiri

Kuwaiti  born artist Monira Al Qadiri’s 16 minute VHS film The Craft at Gasworks in August also drew heavily on the long political and personal shadows cast by her childhood in the Middle East.   Incorporating archive footage from her past, it explored the magical thinking that children are prone to and how their sense of unreality can be reinforced by parental obfuscation. It featured a clip of al Qadiri as a child showing her drawings in a TV interview.  Her diplomat father is seen to prompt her to relate it to her traumatic experience of a recent air raid. But Al Qadiri reflects in the voiceover that the figures she has drawn are more amorphous, mythical creatures that she experiences as “aliens” from outerspace. In the film she links the child’s sense of unreality with the destabilising influence of American cultural imperialism with a sequence showing the bizarre recreation of an 1950’s red and green styled American diner in  Beirut. We watch the video in an installation that replicates this diner!

 

Disorentation of perception at the Whitechapel

Adrian Paci
Still from Adrian Paci’s video The Column (2013) courtesy of the artist

The International Film Series at the Whitechapel continued to offer a stimulating programme in  2017. The three films I saw in September  all had an element of visual surprise. This destabilisation of perception forces us to reorient our understanding of the visual field and reminded me of our tendency to make unwarranted perceptual assumptions.

Adrian Paci’s  The Column (2013) was a visual treat. Paci is an Albanian refugee now living in Italy whose films reveal an acute sensitivity to light. He followed the journey of a block of marble from its delicate extraction in a quarry in China to its loading onto a cargo ship where it is arduously carved by stonemasons into an ornamental column as it makes its journey to Europe. An amazing sequence that took a while to interpret was created by sunlight casting shadows through the slits in the deck onto the hold below as the ships orientation slowly changed.

Better migrants
Still from Cengiz Tekin’s video Just Before Paradise (2015) courtesy of the artist

Cengiz Tekin’s Just Before Paradise (2015) was a moving portrait of another type of cargo – young male migrants. Initially we only see their faces  but they are finally revealed to be standing waist deep in the sea contemplating an uncertain future. This Kurdish artist created a profound impact with the careful marshalling of simple elements.

Jūrmala (2010–16) takes its name from a beach in Latvia, the setting for this collaborative film by nine Berlin-based women artists and filmmakers. Each one took the same sequence and played around  with the sound track to give it a different spin. The version with a director’s voiceover in homage to John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum was quite neat.