Identity, othering and the idealism of youth: Sarah Lasley, Dan Guthrie and Olana Light

Since its opening in 1995 the Nunnery Gallery has been an ideal place to check the pulse of the current health of moving image art. I have fond memories of their 2004 exhibition Nothing if not Satirical which introduced me to some fascinating videos from the U.S including Doug Hall and Chip Lord’s hilarious takedown of TV news, The Amarillo News Tapes (1980). It also featured David Blandy setting out on a successful artistic trajectory which has been a pleasure to follow. The Bow Arts biennial Visions exhibition (also viewable online) follows in their tradition of giving emerging artists a showcase and many of the 22 works impressed me. Here are some thoughts in response to three artists whose films raised interesting perspectives on the conflicts that exist between identity and othering. Resonating with the Webb-Ellis film on show here, they also highlight the value of retaining our youthful idealism.

Sarah Lasley’s short “no -budget” film was made in the isolation of lockdown when we all became prone to revisiting (and maybe revising) our personal histories and rethinking the nature of our identities. Her intriguing title How I Choose to Spend the Remainder of my Birthing Years suggests that we are in for a spot of earnest navel gazing as the artist entering her forties begins to confront the ticking of time. In fact what we get is a heartfelt, playful response to the obsessive yearnings of the artist’s childhood. It sources a sexually charged love scene from the iconic 1987 blockbuster, Dirty Dancing, the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video. Lasley’s mother later edited her VHS tape to exclude elements deemed too explicit for a prepubescent girl but this did nothing to lessen the scene’s lasting emotional impact.

This may be a first for video artists superimposing themselves onto a movie character they identify with. Woody Allen’s Zelig similarly plays with the film archive and this was taken up by Guy Oliver in his hilarious 2020 Jerwood Award winning film, You No Nothing Of My Work . But Lasley’s delicate digital manipulation does not simply paste herself into the scene, she visually melds the young female protagonist’s persona with her own middle-aged one, not hiding the fact that this requires her to wear a dodgy wig. The subtle editing creates an engaging, woozy, touching ambiance with a comedic tinge. But there are serious notions at stake here. Is the romantic idealism of youth, so often a source of amusement or irritation to adults, a quality that we should try to retain as we age. Is it right to retain this open, clear-eyed and untrammelled attitude in the face of cultural norms about the compromises required by maturity? The title now appears as a defiant and idealistic declaration of the artist’s determination to courageously mine her own life for the material she needs.

As a youthful 21 year old, Stroud based artist and activist, Dan Guthrie would have been chuffed with his success in pitching to an arts funding body for an ambitious film concept. As he began shooting events intervened and he had to abandon his original plan, not an uncommon experience for filmmakers who must then try salvage the commission. A memorable exploration of this dilemma was made by David Raymond Conroy in You (People) Are All The Same (2016). This Las Vegas based project appears to falter as its homeless subjects refuse to be filmed but it morphs very successfully into a more interesting film; a meditation on the artist’s ethical struggles with documenting poverty while accepting large sums from a commissioning body.

Guthrie was also bound by a commitment to his commissioning body, Exeter Phoenix, to produce a film exploring “Blackness and belonging in the English countryside.” Instead he offers us Coaley Peak (A Fragment), 2021, an honest, clear-eyed and moving 6 minute single take film shot in 16mm on a Bolex cine camera. We are viewing a family photo from the 1970s held up in front of the landscape in the Gloucestershire countryside in which it was taken and we are implicitly asked the question: how far has the brief been fulfilled? The captions vividly capture the shooting process and reference the burn out that led to the film’s current form. The artist voices his musings on the status of the fragment he has produced and reflects on the whether this is a work in itself or a trailer for a longer piece.

The features on the photo are rendered indistinct by sunlight flares leaking onto the celluloid reel. This glowing, muddied image is a thought-provoking prompt. We get no overt commentary or what others might have labelled anti-racist “grandstanding” but the image alone asks subtle and complex questions on his family’s status and visibility. We experience the dissonance of perceiving “blackness” against a landscape that the xenophobic English identity warriors make sole claim to. But we also get also a sense of the consolation experienced by the artist. Job done, I would say. But there is more.

The really clever thing is we are left wondering what precipitated the crisis that blocked the film’s completion. A quick online search reveals that Guthrie was embroiled in the bitter, 2021 mediastorm over “statue-wars” and found himself in conflict with the Tory government’s stance over Stroud’s now notorious Black Boys clock which features a caricatured painted wooden figure of a black boy in a loincloth dating from the height of Britain’s slavery era in the eighteenth century. He has documented his campaign in an installation IC3 GL5 which should surely deserve wider exposure. It includes a hilarious riposte to a MailOnline commentator in the form of a scrolling lightbox Sesquipedalian2 (2022) viewable on the artist’s website. I fear this issue will continue to be exploited by the unscrupulous anti-woke brigade and become an unwelcome factor in the next general election campaign.

I have felt many extreme emotions in the grim backwash of the U.K’s bonkers decision on EU membership in 2016, the predominant one being the fear that xenophobia has been given free rein and that the millions of UK residents born in other countries now feel badged as outsiders. Olana Light was born in Belarusia but was educated in Havant, Hampshire and at Goldsmiths University and may well have experienced this. In videoed street performances she parades enclosed in fantastic and scary wearable sculptures that have something of the absurdity of Dom Joly’s zebra crossing snail about them: they reflect our confusion when encountering a previously unknown “Other”

Her alien wedding outfits constructed from recycled polystyrene balls resembling the carapace of a calcareous sea creatures feature in the video Search to Belong (2021). In the registry office ceremony I thought I heard the declaration: “you are now legally joined together as something (!) and wife.” and reflected that othering comes down to converting people to things.

Weddings epitomise the dilemma of striving to conform to the traditional template while also stamping our own identity on proceedings. Despite their weirdness, Olana Light’s wedding outfits include the tropes of fancy hats, brilliant whiteness and a certain formality. They also illustrate the conflicting psychological needs of wanting to belong by subsuming our identity into a group consciousness but also hoping to stand out as a discrete, autonomous individual.

In the idealism of youth we cling to the belief that despite our attraction to a group that will reinforce our emerging identity, we can break down the barriers of “othering” that might divide us to recognise our common humanity. In our current debates on the permeable categorisations that have traditionally delineated the boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality and age we need to acknowledge the clamour of the next generation for the acceptance of role fluidity and the scrapping of rigid stereotypes.

Visons 2 at Nunnery Gallery continues until December 18, 2022

Featured image (top) copyright Sarah Lasley- still from film How I Choose to Spend the Remainder of my Birthing Years (2021) courtesy of the artist. Other images copyright – courtesy of the artists – works credited in the text.

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