In Spring 2019, two artists using moving image to explore the links between body-image and illness had solo exhibitions in London: Kate Cooper at Hayward Gallery, Heni Project Space and Phoebe Boswell at Autograph. They both featured memorable images still vivid almost 12 months later as I write this post.
Kate Cooper’s exhibition Symptom Machine used CGI to generate images of women in a range of bizarre and distressing situations. A desperate woman becomes increasingly exhausted as she attempts to crawl forward on a conveyor belt moving in the opposite direction. What a brilliant metaphor for the futility of the rat race. Another woman is constrained by an inflated plastic straightjacket in a parody of the extremes that cosmetic surgery and body dysphoria can drive people to.
The hyper real CGI gives a glossy sheen to the work but is unable to convey a sense of authenticity to the eyes. There is a deadness in the gaze, conscious life seems absent, blocking our empathy. We observe the distress but cannot engage with it on a human level. As result this is an uncomfortable experience and a warning that the digital simulacrum of “real” women is open to abuse.
Phoebe Boswell’s analogue artworks in her exhibition The Space Between Things had the opposite effect. They integrated her treatment and recuperation following a serious eye injury. Charcol drawings of her naked body formed a glorious and delicate frieze around the walls of the ground floor gallery which also housed six floor mounted monitors screening sequences of waves lapping against a sandy beach on Zanzibar ‘s Indian Ocean shoreline shot from a stationary drone. Looking down as if inspecting an insect in a cage, we view the tiny figure of Boswell’s body floating in the shallows, gently rocked by the waves as they peter out. Anyone who has tried this will know how therapeutic this experience can be. We are caught, safe in this liminal, timeless space between water and land. The title of this work Ythlap is the Old English term for these ‘wave remnants’. Boswell has brilliantly captured the emotions of straddling the boundary between illness and well-being.
The timely contrast of these two exhibition illustrates that analogue art is alive and well in this digital era.
December, 1979: the alienation and exhilaration we feel on the coach transfer from Moscow Airport to our city centre hotel is reinforced by the urban streetscape spooling by and the monolithic, identical, off-green neon shopsigns reflected in the grey kerbside slush. Primed by stories of the obstacles set to stymie our touristic curiosity, it is remarkably easy to slip into a paranoid mindset. This murky landscape of the mind is evoked brilliantly by whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir (2011), Eve Sussman’s algorithmically generated film recently shown at the Whitechapel Gallery .
Sussman distils this Kafkaesque environment by collecting a vast range of film sequences shot in the badlands of Russia and central Asia and by focusing on the confusion of a single protagonist, Holz, an American engineer on an obscure mission who confronts state obfuscation at every turn. We experience a parallel confusion as a server loaded with 2637 video clips presents them to us in a sequence determined by an algorithm. What is intriguing is that on a second monitor we get to see the functioning of the algorithm in real time as it uses the tabs linked to the current images to makes a decision about what related clips it should select from to project next.
What Sussman has created is an infinite odyssey where each step seems logical but the narrative ultimately leads nowhere. There is an occasional flash of light in the darkness but we can also delight in the glorious, messy absurdity of the journey, a bit like life really. You can sample the experience at: https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/issues/10/contents/whiteonwhite
Immediately following the mind scrambling thrill ride of the Stan Douglas film at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road I popped into Parasol Unit next door to see an exhibition of the French-based moving image artist, Christine Rebet’s hand-drawn animations. This may have been foolhardy as the cognitive effort I had expended left me a little resistant to absorbing another artist’s vision. If I had come to it fresh I might have been more receptive. It is a bit worrying that this type of contextual consideration influences much of what passes for art criticism. As a result the contrast did no favours for appreciating her work. Perhaps not surprising then the least complex of her artworks was my favourite.
The crudely sketched teenage dorks, Beavis and Butthead, were the cartoon characters that came to mind in the first of her animations installed inside a wooden cabin. In another, a collection of colonial types sit behind a roulette wheel and an egg timer. In neither did I manage to form a meaningful narrative. The detailed curatorial interpretation of these works in the notes had the counterproductive impact of adding to the confusion.
Her most successful work, The Square (2011) demonstrates the less is more maxim. This simple but carefully designed abstract animation projected onto a square tabletop features four snaking lines of different colours comprised of powdered clay, wood, metal and plaster representing rudimentary building materials. The choreography of their interactions embodies a narrative of compromise, collaboration and cohesion. Interesting that the artist was inspired by the Arab Spring protests. In the final frames we see the square’s white concrete cracking and disintegrating as if the united revolutionary force of these base materials has overwhelmed the city’s ancient order. This is yet another example of abstract moving image art at its best, giving the viewer the opportunity to project their own feelings onto minimal material. Contemporary figurative art can often become highly personalised and inward facing, making it harder for the viewer to get a look in.
The mirror lies. It gives us back an inverted image of ourselves opposite to the one we present to the world. “The parting on the right becomes the parting on the left.” as the popular song has it. This parallels the difference between our self-image and the image others perceive of us. We can never see ourselves as others see us. This is just one of the psychological phenomena that Stan Douglas explores in his intellectually demanding, visually alluring and occasionally comic video installation, Doppelganger at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road.
Facing two screens you seem to be following the parallel stories of a woman astronaut and her doppelganger whose stories, at least to begin with, are mirror images of each other. We see them being teleported onto a spaceship but after many years, in which we assume all contact is lost, they attempt to regain contact with mission control. Here a crucial divergence develops. Her password to prove her identity is LIVE REIFIED TIME. This satisfies the ground controller and leads to an unproblematic debrief on her return to earth. However her doppelganger is not so lucky as the password’s mirror image palindrome is EMIT DEIFIER EVIL. In the inverse universe this is heard as satanically inspired. She is treated as a potential imposter and a threat and the debrief includes a consideration of “euthanasing” her. Douglas hopes this will cast light on the “othering” of migrants. It also evokes the hoary parental urban myth about disreputable heavy metal recordings that encoded satanic messages on vinyl records played backwards.
It is difficult to convey the mind scrambling experience of trying to disentangle the stories as we have to do this having seen them presented twice on split screens. But what makes this so enjoyable is the clear visual signposting of the differences and the humorous undertow of satire. I particularly like the candy striped space capsule parachutes seen from below in one version and sideways in the other. A joke about distinguishing marks that might verify the identity of the astronaut is repeated in the two versions with slightly different inflections.
The sci -fi cliches, both visual and linguistic, that Douglas incorporates give the otherwise serious content a tongue-in-cheek fillip. Like the rest of his work this video installation is so compelling I would happily sit through many iterations confident in the knowledge that new subtleties would become apparent. Looking back over the past 25 years I have come to realise that Stan Douglas is unique in his understanding of the potential of moving image art can presented on multiple screens. He is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and original moving image artists we have.