Three hours, three Turner Prize nominees; three more hours to see

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© Forensic Architecture, video still from Killing in Umm al–Hiran 18 January 2017 (2018)

The Turner Prize is the contemporary art world’s annual opportunity to widen its customer base. However asking the punters to devote six hours to take in the artworks of all four nominees is not going to help popularise contemporary art. I managed three nominees in three hours so Naeem Mohaimen’s intriguing sounding films will have to wait for another time.  Last year I was bemoaning the total lack of MI art among the nominees. This year I should be celebrating, given all four are using this form. I was delighted that Forensic Architecture had been nominated as their campaigning work is admirable. They are giving renewed hope to what art can achieve and they deserve to win although they have said they would prefer to win a case than a prize. Unfortunately Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thomson’s films look passé in comparison suggesting that  the judges’ fingertips are not picking up the pulse of current MI art trends.

In court, forensic scientists are routinely called as expert witnesses.  Can artworks also take on this role? This is one of the many questions that have been asked of Forensic Architecture. The group’s purpose is tell the stories of the unheard voices in the unbalanced media war against state and military oppression. Their clinical investigations which have included a drone strike in Afghanistan and a possible racist murder in Germany, uncover the obfuscation that often clouds the “official” accounts.  They have then actively sought to present their findings in a wide range of forums including courts, tribunals and art galleries.  So does this mean that they are a political rather than an artistic organisation? It can be argued that as their case studies are communicated with such stunning visual clarity and persuasiveness, they can be appreciated both as aesthetic works as well as political advocacy.

At the Tate they have chosen to focus on two ongoing investigations from the Middle East conflict that relate to the appropriation of traditional Bedouin settlements in the Negev Desert by the Israeli government. In the first we are introduced to the drama of an Israeli dawn raid on a Bedouin village intended to drive out the inhabitants through  footage shot by a campaigning video journalist. This is totally gripping. The erratically filmed sequences are then analysed through synchronising them with thermal imaging police helicopter footage of the same events. A realistic reenactment of the events neatly demonstrates how the physical laws of motion undermine the security forces version of their shooting of one of the villagers in his car.

Inevitably Forensic Architecture will face the charge of fetishising suffering for artistic ends. The group’s founder, Eyal Weizman, has explored this issue in his treatise The Least of all Possible Evils. There he examines the long history of fetishising objects, in the sense of granting them agency, as in the common phrase: “the evidence will speak for itself”. In reality, the interpretation of what the evidence is saying comes down to those like himself who act as rhetoricians, using theatricality, narrative and the technologies of demonstration in a practice he describes as “forensic aesthetics”. If they were just artworks it would be worrying but as they also have a political function they exist in a different moral universe. The audience are not required to sit in judgement, we can simply admire the clarity of the analysis. It is up to those in power to absorb the detail and arrive at just decisions concerning the protagonists.

Watching the famous three channel video work 77sqm_9:26min when I first saw this group’s work at the ICA in March 2018, I was struck by the compassion and empathy they display while still remaining detached. The work presents a detailed analysis of the events surrounding the murder of a young Muslim in a German internet cafe including the tracking of the movements of all those present. Listening to the Turkish narrator on headphones, I was immediately struck by the dignity that this confers on the community. They are no longer victims. We the audience are outside their grief. In the closing minutes of the video the English translation came on through a loudspeaker but if this was a technical glitch it only reinforced the sense that the work was tied in intimately to those directed affected. The Forensic Architecture team act as scientists but allow the evidence to move us. So in this work, the movements of the protagonists in the internet cafe are tracked and displayed as timelines of different colours. In the final frame of the video we are jolted as the red timeline of the murdered man comes to an abrupt halt while the onlookers’ timelines continue.

The New Zealand artist, Luke Willis Thompson has also been accused of fetishising suffering for artistic gain. His work shown here includes two short black and white silent 16mm minimalist films, autoportrait and Cemetery for Uniforms and Liveries identical in format to the Andy Warhol Screen Tests from the early 1960s. Because they are portraits of the relatives of black victims of police killings, he has inspired protests that he (and the complicit galleries) are part of the white media establishment exploiting black pain for personal gain. Some of the debate has focused on the whether he can claim black heritage being descended from an indigenous Fijian. I am left pondering what would be gained from stopping white artists like David Blandy from exposing the destructive legacy of colonialism as in the brilliant Finding Fanon trilogy?

Charlotte Prodger’s selected work, BRIDGIT is in the densely populated genre of MI art that I tend to dub “Who am I?”  a question I often encountered as an induction assignment for A level Art students. This can get dangerously close to self-indulgence if we cannot discern the wider implications of the autobiographical incidents recorded. I came away with no new insights into the gender/queer identity issues she explores. Although she does not feature on-screen (apart from her feet!) her narration puts us inside her head, looking out for much of the time at some admittedly beautiful, but in MI art terms, commonplace landscapes.

Seeing this exhibition I am of course reminded of all the brilliant MI work I have seen recently and wonder why my judgement seems so out of kilter with the judges of the Turner Prize. However if Forensic Architecture win I will be happy: the most impressive work I have seen all year.

 

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Abu Hamdan explores “truth” through earwitness testimony

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Still of a spectrogram from video Rubber Coated Steel (2016). © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

“There are different types of truth: scientific truth, legal truth and artistic truth amongst them”

This was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s response when I questioned whether his film might contribute to our increasingly insecure grasp on the “truth” engendered by Trump-era “fake news”. He was addressing an audience at a Whitechapel Gallery event I attended a year ago showcasing the Jarman Award 2017 nominees. His response seemed entirely cogent to me. His nominated film, Rubber Coated Bullets (2016), an artistic extrapolation of his work as an acoustic analyst for the human rights research group, Forensic Architecture, navigates a route between these three “truths” using material from their investigation into the shooting of two Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers in 2014. He makes it clear that his work is has a different aim, a less explicitly advocatory one than the original investigation, which is to raise the problems of defining reality when indistinct perceptual inputs have been filtered through our inbuilt unconscious prejudices.

Much of the film is set in a concrete shooting gallery where ominous streaks mark the walls. We are put in the position of the shooter with the spectrograms (visual representations of the frequency and duration of gunshots recorded by Abu Hamdan) replacing the silhouettes of bodies that are the marksman’s usual targets. An unseen, unheard but gripping courtroom drama unfolds through subtitled text. The spectrograms provide convincing evidence that the boys were shot by live ammunition, not rubber bullets as originally claimed by the authorities. The text of the legal and forensic arguments are fictionalised as the hearing that investigated the killing did not admit the forensic evidence which suggested that the replacement of rubber bullets with live rounds was intentional. The police officer who fired the fatal shot entered a manslaughter plea and was sentenced to nine months for  “causing death by negligence.” Abu Hamdan’s text neatly exposes the conflicts between political pressures and scientific evidence playing out in a legal setting.

Abu Hamdan’s originality and flair has already been recognised by winning a number of international art prizes. Although he did not win the Jarman Award I felt he was robbed: he was the strongest nominee by miles. His groundbreaking work has recently been recognised by a showcase performance at the Tate Modern and at a solo exhibition, Ear Witness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery which runs until December 9th.  This is a really exciting time for art as he has invented a fascinating new sub-genre that combines acoustic science, aesthetics, cognitive psychology and politics.

Walled  Unwalled (2018) shown at Tate Modern in early October is a film inspired by Abu Hamdan’s interviews with ex-political prisoners as part of an Amnesty International investigation. They had endured incarceration in the notorious Saydnaya torture/interrogation centre of the Syrian regime in which an estimated 13,000 people have been executed since 2011.  He found that since they were held in almost complete darkness their memories were encoded entirely in auditory form. As with the blind, their sense of hearing became markedly more acute and they were able to build up an accurate auditory map of the prison. As Abu Hamdan explains ” Hearing things meant making images in the mind…it really is cross-sensory”  The starvation diet they suffered led to distorted memories so their acute hunger massively attenuated the relevant sounds such as the thud of bread hitting the floor outside their cell doors. In the 20 minute film a wide range of examples illustrate the symbolic nature of walls  and the unreliable nature of auditory testimony collected through them. He also reaches the astonishing conclusion that the latest sub-atomic detection technology means that all walls are penetrable so now there is literally nowhere to hide.

The performance that followed was build around 95 objects that were associated with sounds generated by his investigation.  So for example a punch does not sound like we expect it to because the cinema foley artist substitutes a simulation for the real thing. These objects were named but unseen at the Tate. At Chisenhale the same text is used but here all the objects are on show as an installation, Earwitness Inventory (2018).

At Chisenhale his audio work, Saydnaya (the missing 19db)  is a powerful and moving experience. You listen in a darkened chamber recalling a prison cell with two narrow slits to allow us to see out into the gallery. It is filled with tense periods of silence highlighting the gruesome testimony of the prisoners whispered reenactments and their interview statements. Whispering was the only way to communicate with fellow prisoners. The 19 decibels refers to the drop in the typical whispering volume recalled by those prisoners who were detained after 2011 compared to the ordinary prison regime prior to his time.  It is a chilling physical manifestation of the degree of terror imposed.

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Still from video Walled Unwalled (2018) © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Forensic Architecture’s investigations and the spin-off work by artists like Abu Hamdan give hope to those of us who are keen to see the dissolution of the art/science divide and the blurring  of the boundary between art and advocacy.

 

 

 

Pilvi Takala “The Stroker” resolving intimacy and control?

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© Pilvi Takala – still from two channel video, The Stroker (2017), courtesy of the artist

I once had a boss who, like the protagonist in Pilvi Takala’s film, The Stroker, would invariably touch you on the upper arm whenever he encountered you. Initially this signifier of his “touchy-feely” management style was comforting. Here was someone trying to develop  a different kind of boss/worker relationship while conferring a sense of fellow-feeling with his subordinates. Simultaneously I and my colleagues experienced an uneasy dissonance of the blurred lines between intimacy and control.

It is no surprise that such an intelligent and subversive artist as Takala would be drawn to this messy social quagmire, where the mantras of “breaking down the boundaries between life and work” and “fermenting interactions that will boost creativity” are gospel. This has to be one of the most gripping and thought-provoking works I have seen in a while. Thanks to DJB for the tip-off! I urge you to get down to Carlos/Ishikawa at 88 Mile End Road before the show closes on 18 August.

Takala’s 14 minute two-channel video installation derives from her ten-day undercover placement in the futuristic offices of Second Home in Spitalfields. This gargantuan workspace venture is in essence a scaled-up, luxury version of the internet cafe. Instead of coffee and cake you get a well-being programme including high spec restaurants and cultural events. But you just can’t just roll up and book a slot. You can hire a desk for £375 a month but expect to be vetted for your entrepreneurialism and creativity. Second Home companies or “members” have been “curated” by its owners to create the optimum vibe by including cool creative start-ups as well as multinationals like the management consultants Ernst and Young looking for some street cred.

Thanks to a fruitful chat with Regina Lazarenko, the gallery’s Assistant Director, I gained valuable insight into the artwork’s genesis.  Takala planned what, on first sight, is a standard social psychology experiment – a covert observational study into non verbal communication.  With the consent of the Second Home management, she adopted the role of a well-being consultant. She walked through the workplace greeting her co-workers with a touch on the shoulder and a “how is it  going?” greeting.   Inevitably the responses to this approach from a stranger varied widely from hostility and anxiety to avoidance and wary appreciation. A hidden camera and sound recorder helped to capture her interventions.

However in a move reminiscent of Jeremy Deller, another leading artist who places major importance on respect for  participants in his artworks, she transformed her observations into re-enactments of the interactions. The result is a compelling micro-analysis of our ambivalence to touch. She carefully exposes the way our feelings of discomfort visibly leak through our non-verbal gestures. But more fundamentally Takala is opening up a debate on the business ethics of conflating workplace and personal relationship modes.  In a memo to all the Second Home members she partly reveals her subterfuge by announcing that “the stroker”  is the founder of the well-being organisation, Personnel Touch, a company title that is a masterful linguistic melding of the commercial and the intimate. The ultimate irony is that Takala’s work as a performance artist is now showcased on the cultural events page of the Second Home website as an example of their tagline: “More than just a workspace, almost a way of living.” Among the many telling moments in her film is a scene which reveals the “co-worker” with the most positive reaction to the stranger’s touch of recognition – the office cleaner.

Takala combines the chutzpah and bravery of the prankster with the compassion and acute eye of the social critic. Her takedown of Disney’s hegonomy of the manufactured image in Real Snow White (2006) – https://vimeo.com/11757111 – is another brilliant exposé of the absurd world we now live in. Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967) is again proven to be so prescient: the commodity has sucessfully colonised all social life.

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© Pilvi Takala – still from video, Real Snow White (2009), courtesy of the artist

 

 

 

 

 

Moved and startled by Goldsmiths’ postgraduate artists

 

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Still from VR video Don’t they ever stop migrating (2018) ©Anna Mikkola

This is the third of my annual encounters with the artists at the Goldsmiths’ Degree Show and the impact they have on me is still startling. This year there was less of the controlled anger on display but many of the works seemed to get to me at an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. I started with the artists graduating from the new MFA in Artist’s Film and Moving Image.

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Still from video Now and There, Here and Then (2018) ©Sun Park

For me, Now and There, Here and Then (2018)  was one of the most moving works on show. It is a sensitive, intelligent, concise and sharply observed work seemingly inspired by the Korean artist Sun Park’s sense of alienation at being so far from her home and family. It is presented as an enlarged phone screen projected into the centre of a phoneshaped screen set on the floor at an angle. We are immediately confronted with the ubiquity of video recording  and how it mediates and distances our experience of the world. We hear a conversation  between a mother who lives in Korea and her daughter who is a student artist in the UK relaying their experience of their environment to each other by video footage (a neat reversal of the face-focussed video call!) Their own video clips, mostly of the sky, create a sense of intimacy and the topics they discuss include  the daughter’s insecurities as an artist, the mother’s disillusionment with her life choices,  the nature of art and the limitations of the video image. Among the highlights was the comment when a vapour trail  is recorded and the mother says: “Look, the aeroplane has made you an artwork.” At one point we hear the comment about a shot of the dawn: “You can only see the half of it through the camera” –  a vital warning to all moving image artists. This was a highly original work that had much to say on the emotional side-effects of globalisation and technology.

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Still from Bunker on Kummerstraße (Grief Street) 2018, two-channel video installation           © Susanne Dietz

Susanne Dietz, originally from Germany, also uses mother-daughter relationships as a springboard in her films. One film comprises handheld footage as she follows her mother around a graveyard incidentally passing by the distinctive and beautiful grave stones. (Maybe stonemasons in Germany are given a freer hand in designing exotic monuments for the dead.)  Her mother is looking for her chosen plot and final resting place but she is stymied by her failing memory. Dietz’s complementary film Bunker on Kummerstrasse (Grief Street), 2018 is a carefully controlled and gripping meditation on a disused building, home to memories we might wish to let go.  The stately progress of the camera as it ascends and descends through the seven stories of an aboveground bunker still standing from the Nazi era gives a sense that a home can be conjured even out of concrete bleakness. The drum solo that accompanies much of the film adds an urgency to the atmosphere but also homeliness when we eventually reach the floor where we fleetingly view the drummer himself. Fluffy bedpillows also get star billing. As Dietz explains: “We just want something soft to fit between our heads and the earth”. On reflection, this is as significant as Anselm Keifer’s work on Germany’s past.

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Still from video Ducks Don’t drown (2018) ©Max Leach

Max Leach’s single channel film Ducks Don’t Drown (2018) has an unsettling aura magnified by being projected on a large linen sheet that gives a subtle and almost imperceptible wobble to the image as it is ruffled by drafts. The hyper-real CGI  of a homely interior contrasts with the disturbing, murky sound track derived from a series of interviews with male Dark Web users relishing their freedom to choose from a long shopping list of recreational drugs. It gives a rather bleak window onto the otherwise opaque landscape of the Dark Web. Leach’s short soundpiece that captures the violent energy of laddish banter provides an enjoyable counterpoint to his film. He has much to say on masculinity so I look forward to more in the same vein.

Ukrit Sa-nguanhai’s Enduring Body (2018) is a captivating and visually sumptuous exploration of the metaphorical power of cancer. It is inspired by a childhood memory of her rural Thai hometown when a number of her teachers died mysteriously one after another from the disease.  The film begins with a teacher’s funeral and ends with a death mask digitally reconstructed by 3D printer. In between she has created touching vignettes to illustrate the dark, anxious humour of our fears.  A writhing massed tangle of crocodiles emerges from the gloom like invading tumor cells. By superimposition of microscopic cell images the walls of a patient’s bedroom seem to undulate.  A cancer patient coyly begins a romance that leads to game of strip poker. I was gripped by the 25 minute film and would have happily stayed to view it again. It was a pleasure to be immersed in the quirky and beautiful world that Sa-nganhai has so carefully crafted. But I was determined to see as much MI art as possible so I moved on to the Fine Art MFA Show.

Many of the Fine Art graduates incorporated MI into their work including VR. I nearly toppled over inside the VR world constructed by Anna Mikkola.  You float above a vertiginous mountain landscape in the midst of a flock of black birds wheeling around you. Hitchcock would have loved VR. As part of her eclectic installation, Life is Necessarily Complex (2018) Mikkola is highlighting the increasingly synthetic and simplified versions of the natural world we are becoming inured to as technology begins to mould life processes and living organisms.

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Installation view of Bedroom, London 2025 (2018) © Alexa Phillips

VR is also the bogyman in the startling live scenario designed by Alexa Phillips. In Bedroom, London 2025 she illustrates the dystopian end point of isolation, withdrawal and listlessness that our self focussed screen based life might lead to with a seven level bunk bed where the occupants are held in stasis by their 1984-style utilitarian tin VR headsets.

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Still from video installation Bunkertown (2018) © Johanne Wort

I was determined to see Johanne Wort’s intriguingly titled Bunkertown (2018) so it was my last stop as the frenetic Preview came to a close. Appropriately sited in the gabled loft space of the converted church which is the latest addition to the Goldsmiths’ art buildings,  the two channel video installation did not disappoint. Here at last was the cutting satirical work I had been waiting for. We sit in an estate agent’s office with water cooler at hand to view a glossy CGI promo for their latest offer to the paranoid home seeker. Building on the current fashion for gated housing developments, she has skillfully envisioned a hermetically sealed  life/work/play “seven star luxury” bunker that owes something to the Eden Project. This type of fantasy world prevalent during the Cold War now seems uncomfortably close to reality as climate change threatens to wreck our environment and the rich head for the hills.

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Video still from installation A Sculpture of your Grief (2018) © Aimee Neat

With sixty artists to survey in one evening I am sure I missed some excellent work. I also enjoyed Aimee Neat’s observation of media performers being reduced to “happy” or “sad” emoticons in her installation A Sculpture of your Grief (2018) where she takes a satirical sideswipe at the rictus grin that hides the pain of living life on the revolving circus of the internet. Sheila Buckley’s Peepers (2018) was a disturbing and thrilling mash-up of explicit Celtic stone carvings with a vortical CGI and laser installation – a visceral and thought-provoking blast.

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Installation view of Peepers (2018) Sheila Buckley  Photo image ©Dave Andrews

For controlled anger I need only turn to the Goldsmiths academic and activist, Ayal Weisman. His Turner Prize nominated Forensic Architecture research group will be the focus of my next blogpost.

Unearthing the talent at Chelsea College Degree Shows

 

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Still from Love Birds (2018) Copyright Molly Burdett

I open a door and enter a darkened room. A screen across the room fills my visual field. I am standing on a thin carpet of soil. The mustiness of damp earth fills the darkness. I am looking at six sets of glazed earthenware bowls and plates perched on the  rim of  circular earth mound surrounding a bonfire that exudes a friendly warmth. But they do not need the heat as they are already fired. This anomalous narrative continues. The pots are buried carefully in the clayey soil and then disinterred and washed by hand in a stream and returned to the mound to dry.  This simple film, Chiara Gilmore’s From…to (2018) has the feel of a strange ritual and packs a sensual and intellectual punch. I am transfixed by the visual delights of flame reflecting on glaze and water dissolving earth. We feel the proximity of the natural material to the human artefact and are reminded that moulding and firing clay is an archetypal example of primordial human material culture. This meditation on the natural cycles that we are all subject to was one of the highlights of the Chelsea Fine Art Degree show this year.

I enter a small alcove with three TV screens on the walls. The atmospheric installation of polished wooden steps so reminiscent of school prizegiving and the type of  industrial carpet tiles and shuttered blinds that homogenise office life  captures the uneasy dissonance inherent in a traditional school  environment seeking to emulate  the corporate world. We feel the claustrophobic school ethos of testing, competition and rewards as it is played out through three dramatic narratives of the different ways to cheat the test. What is impressive is Rosie Abbey’s tight interlocking of the sound and visuals from the parallel  narratives so we feel caught up the midst of the pupil’s anxiety acted with conviction by young adults. The most improved (2018) is thoughtful and incisive. It nails the absurd and damaging  impact of testing on our education system.

Two films from the Graphic Design Communication Degree Show particularly impressed me. Molly Burdett’s accomplished film, Love Birds (2018), is a concise and moving portrait of the dying sport of pigeon racing, showing empathy and respect to all involved. Its emotional significance for the pigeon owners is referenced throughout by visual allusions to the quasi-parental bonds with their birds. Her apposite choice of interview clips highlighted women’s unsung roles in the sport, one woman commenting that pigeons need caring during the day while husbands are out at work.  Burdett’s mini documentary was a carefully crafted masterclass in economy and impact – a talent to watch.

Not many laughs were on offer but La Rupture (2018), Léna le Rigoleur’s hilarious, whipsmart riposte to the etiquette failures in digitally mediated relationships made up for that. It opens with a quickfire satirising of the panoply of romcom break up tropes following the heroine’s receipt of the annoying justification from her boyfriend: “It’s over. Sorry it’s not u, it’s me  xx” As this is a text rather than direct speech the dumpees only recourse is to fire back digitally, directly addressing the dumper in the form of a video tutorial dissecting the gross rudeness of his breakup method. This coolly delivered “revenge art” is a welcome antidote to the self-indulgent art of despair so often provoked by this situation. You can have a chortle as it is posted online at  https://player.vimeo.com/video/274659168.

Many other neat ideas popped up in the shows including Reece Higham’s film being shown simultaneously on multiple screens of different vintages going back to cathode ray tubes to demonstrate the way advances in technology change our perception of narrative.

Overall a really worthwhile day at Chelsea even though much digging was required to unearth these gems. I will be back next summer as the ongoing search is addictive.

How weird is the RA Schools Show 2018?

 

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Model of Karel Vogel’s Draped Woman with bunch of dahlias and Ribena Mini (2018). Courtesy of the artist, Charlie Fegan

“It’s all a bit weird” said a middle-aged man as he hurried past me at the RA Schools show last week. As a fellow middle-aged male he might have expected me to agree but he did not wait for my reply. Having thought about it since, the overall weirdness quotient of this show was in fact quite low but the two artists that struck me as the most and the least weird were my particular favourites. British-Chinese/Vietnamese artist Will Pham’s film An Viet (Well Settled) was a touching insight into a staple subject of mainstream documentary TV: the fate of migrant communities in the UK. The weird ambiance of Charlie Fegan’s video installation matched the weirdness of his sources: an obscure political/mystical tract on unemployment by the notorious artist, Eric Gill, better known for his erotic art was allied with an unloved, deteriorating public sculpture, Draped Woman, cast in concrete by an obscure Czech artist, Karel Vogel. It languishes on the verge of the A4 Great West Road in West London but is now listed.

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Installation view of An Viet (Well Settled), 2018 – video by Will Pham. Photo credit Andy Keate

Will Pham evidently possesses the key gift required by documentary makers: he can get his interviewees to be uninhibited under the scrutiny of his camera. The highlight of his 20 minute film are two people talking to camera who seem to be relaxed by Will’s reassuring off-camera presence. One is the son of the Vietnamese exile, Vu Thanh Khanh, the founder of the An Viet community centre in Hackney serving refugees from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He reads passages from his father’s autobiography occasionally choking with the emotion and eventually leaving the room in distress. Another is a young woman who describes her work with the centre and her feelings about culture and personhood. As a Scandinavian who reads French, working with the UK Vietnamese community she has come to realise that being a person is more significant than being a member of a cultural group. Pham takes the deliberate decision not edit out an interrupting mobile call  but allows us to see her all too human flash of excitement at the received message.

In the closing sequence a young Vietnamese couple make hesitant moves as they attempt ballroom dance steps together. As their movements become more fluent we are implicitly asked to ponder the balance between the migrant’s competing need to assimilate into the host culture while honouring their own cultural hinterland.

Inevitably your appreciation of an artwork is enhanced if you have some personal connection to its content. I own a copy of the obscure 1933 Eric Gill pamphlet Unemployment quoted at length in Fegan’s three minute video NO BLACK MAGIC? so I was probably a step ahead of most visitors to this workGill’s diatribe against the advent of a future dominated by “machinery” highlights the idea, now commonplace, that the leisure time it generates might be available for life enhancing cultural pursuits (HIGHER THINGS  according to Gill’s emphasis). As if to illustrate the location of the sublime in the everyday grind, Fegan’s video is a reverse tracking shot through an A4 pedestrian underpass. In the closing frame we emerge onto the opposite side of the dual carriageway with the erotically charged Draped Woman sculpture just visible in the dusk as the rush hour traffic roars past her. We are given a better impression of the sculpture as Fegan has produced a scale replica adorned with discarded flowers and a drink carton. Gill’s  grooming of his teenage daughters by using them as life models and his subsequent sexual abuse is well-known and both his misogyny as well as his anti capitalism is apparent in Unemployment.

So many questions are thrown up by this atmospheric and unsettling artwork. What is the legacy of an artist with such a disturbing biograph? Can an artist be both enlightening and antedeluvian? How should we treat his work? Would we be right to censor it? Do we value public art? Can concrete be a sensuous medium? Why are some public sculptures valued and others left to languish?

Hopefully more people will read Unemployment and visit the Draped Woman as a result of the exposure they have gained through Fegan’s work.

 

Scything semantics at Knole: Alice May Williams dissects primogeniture

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Still from film installation, By the Accident of Your Birth, 2018 .  Courtesy of the artist Alice May Williams

The much anticipated new film by one of my favourite moving-image artists, Alice May Williams, made my journey out to Knole House in Sevenoaks last week very worthwhile. Five artists present their artworks in the house and grounds including the Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid, as part of A Woman’s Place, a project curated by Lucy Day and Eliza Gluckman. Williams dual-screen 23 minute film installation, By the Accident of Your Birth, is the work that most successfully captures the contemporary significance of Knole and its murky family history. Taking the contrasting figures of Vita Sackville-West and her cousin Eddy as her starting point, she comprehensively rolls up a vast range of boundary-challenging issues including division by spatial, gender, botanical, linguistic and national categories. There is even an intimation of the Windrush and Brexit controversies by slotting in a sly aside on the vagaries of defining citizenship and nostalgia for the blue UK passport. Williams instills in the viewer the urgent imperative to address the complexities of identity fluidity in all its forms in this bigoted era of ours.

Williams’ signature strengths, first spotted by the Jerwood Award panel, are applied in creating a compelling multilayered experience that conveys a coherent argument. The film is concisely edited and the carefully synchronised narration and footage incorporate a vast array of historical examples including the third androgynous sex posited by Greek mythology and Vita’s anomalous position of failing to inherit Knole because she lacked a penis. The role of lawyers and doctors in policing gender is contrasted with the naturalist’s obsession with categorising species. The concepts of hybridisation and continuuum infiltrate the film’s imagery which gives a panoramic exposition on how distinct boundaries are required to appease our unconscious insecurities.

There is rich seam of irony to be mined in the Knole disinheritance debacle. Williams is highly sensitive to this and delicate witty touches highlighting the absurdity of gender categorisation pop up throughout the film.  Vita, a pioneering garden designer, had many lesbian affairs and was barred from inheriting her beloved childhood home but produced heirs through her devoted lifelong marriage to the diplomat Harold Nicholson. Her cousin, Eddy Sackville West, a music critic who championed Benjamin Britten, inherited Knole and the barony but as a largely closeted gay man never married and left no heirs. Eddy was drawn to Berlin as more conducive to his lifestyle and eventually left Knole to live in Ireland.

Gender confusion is given a subtle twist by noting that androgynous bisexual plant species can be given masculine names. Just one example, as Williams aptly describes it, of how semantics “scythe” through our conception of the world and divide it into rigid arbitrary categories. A visual counterpart to these binary oppositions is worked out through line drawing portraits that appear superimposed on the filmed footage illustrating the androgynous physiognomy of the Sackville-West dynasty.

Installing contemporary art in a stately home has its problems and the compromises reached highlight the power imbalance between art and the heritage industry. Williams’ film is being shown in a tiny side room that only two people can view at one time. I can see the logic of its location as it is accessed through Eddy’s atmospheric music room high in the Gatehouse Tower. But even under optimal conditions that means that maybe 20 people a day can view the film in its entirety, a fraction of the 500+ daily visitors to Knole. Releasing it online, as Lindsay Seers has done with her film, would be one option. A more radical one would have been to display it on larger screens in the music room itself granting this work the wider audience that it surely deserves. But of course this would jeopardise the National Trust’s sumptuous permanent display. This theme is played out elsewhere on the site through the difficulties in viewing Lubaina Himid’s tiny paintings installed metres above the eyeline in the Stone Court and the restricted access to CJ Mahoney’s installation of stained glass and shuttered screens cordoned off at the far end of the Great Hall. This link between power and spatial relationships has been clinically dissected by Turner Prize nominated research group, Forensic Architecture, led by Eyal Weizman, to be further explored in my next blogpost.

Nevertheless, By the Accident of Your Birth exposes a fascinating story, provoking debate on our current woes. Inheritance is under scrutiny within identity politics as an iniquitous example of gender discrimination. But it has wider economic relevance as the squeezed middle class worry that, as they reach their dotage, their highly valued homes will need to be sold off to finance their expensive nursing home fees. Not a worry for the Sackville-West’s or the rest of the aristocracy. However they are still burdened by the archaic male primogeniture laws that as recently as 2017 deprived Amanda Murray of her baronet father’s title and estate. Although legislation passed in 2013 made succession to the throne gender neutral, if Prince William had been born Princess Wilhelmina, Harry would now be the heir to the throne instead of his elder sister!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Species survival in times of conflict- Maeve Brennan and Imran Perretta

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Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Over the past five years the annual Jerwood/FVU Awards have been a sensitive weathervane for assessing the prevailing currents in moving image art and for demonstrating the new approaches and concerns of the next generation of MI artists (when supported with generous funding!) The £20,000 award allows the fortunate artist the time and resources to generate complex and carefully crafted films often involving extensive research and the coordination of a diverse team.  In the last few years it has launched the careers of some of my favourite artists including Alice May Williams and Marianna Simnett. This year the quality is as high as ever with stunning films from Imran Perretta and Maeve Brennan. They have chosen universal, politically charged themes and integrated the expertise and personal accounts of a wide range of sources while paying homage to specific communities. The judicious use of dramatic archive inserts (Brennan) and mixing live footage with CGI (Perreta) are highly effective and indicative of MI art’s current strengths.

Responding to the set theme of Unintended Consequences, the two artists have illuminated a more profound question: how to respond to the struggles that threaten our species survival – the  conflicts within the human environment in Perretta’s 15 Days, and our perilous relationship with the natural environment in Brennan’s Listening in the Dark. Perretta’s film highlights the challenge that mass migration poses to the tired notion of the nation state, now past its sell-by date and in need of radical rethinking. If we cannot fix this, national rivalries will bring us all down. Through an investigation of the impact of wind turbines on bats, Brennan’s film scrutinises technological progress and the need to restructure the way we perceive our relationship with our fragile ecology.  If we cannot listen to our planet’s distress it may finish us off even sooner.

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Still from Listening in the Dark.Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Both films exemplify the merits of collaboration with experts from other fields so the credit listings are revealing. As noted in previous blogposts on the Jerwood/FVU Award this can lead to an unsatisfying incoherence but this is not the case in these works.  In Brennan’s film even the ten species of bats she features are name checked in the closing credits (their magnified chirrups are a key element of the sound design which is always a strength of her films). The input of bat researchers and geologists has been carefully marshalled and her decision to hand over the narration to the scientist,  J. David Pye, the pioneering inventor of the ultrasonic bat detector is in keeping with her Jeremy Delleresque modus operandi. His measured and committed tone of voice conveys a lifelong dedication to the scientific community and enhances the film’s modest integrity.

Brennan explores the blowback effects that all technological advances generate. Although averting climate change, renewable energy structures have their own deleterious impacts here symbolised in the destruction of wildlife by wind turbines. The chirrups of bats against the sonorous roar of the wind turbines point to the power of technology to overwhelm delicate ecosystems. Bat lungs explode when flying downstream of the rotor blades  yet the concrete bases of offshore wind farms form artifical reefs which provide novel food sources for seal populations, neatly encapsulating the double-edged nature of scientific advance. Many MI art landscape tropes appear including caves, windfarms and rocky shorelines but they are all given a fresh treatment that draws us in to the film’s elegiac atmosphere.

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Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Perretta has mixed Italian / Bangladeshi heritage and his global perspective has fuelled his anger over the failings  of nation states as they desperately attempt to shore up their relevance. He relies on the combined insights gleaned from his encounters with migrants and refugees and gives a writing credit to “15 days”. This is the self-styled moniker of one his sources who has lived in the makeshift encampment in the woods on the outskirts of Calais following the bulldozing of the notorious “Jungle” camp in 2017. The writer and actor Elham Ehsas, himself an Afghan asylum seeker who I saw on stage in the inspirational play The Jungle at the Young Vic, has also had a key input. His personal experience is embodied in the poetic text and the emotional intensity of his narration in his native Pashto. It includes many stark and memorable images refering to the sense of  burial and dissolution into the soil as a metaphor for the weight of white oppression. As the Calais migrants complained, the term “Jungle” had, in crude Daily Mail fashion, reduced them to the level of animals.

The most significant innovation is the way the CGI foreground, like the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy, acts as a both as a framing device and a commentary on the live action footage.  The tent suffers unseen physical insults, with accompanying sound effects,  gradually deflating until it is flattened by the film’s end, a poignant proxy more powerful than the actual violent scenes that might have been used.

For the first time in the last four years of the Awards I cannot choose between the two. I was engrossed by both of them and their insights into the problems we face gave me much to chew on. I have often wondered, if we are facing an apocalypse, will it be conflict with each other or conflict with our natural environment that will finish us? Lets hope that our species soon realises the imperative to reconcile our differences and unite against the environmental catastrophe that threatens all of us.

Next year’s Jerwood Award theme is Going, Gone to mark the divorce from our European partners. So more sombre reflection then.

 

Snowscapes in moving image art

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Copyright Hiraki Sawa. Still from video, ulo.ulo.ulo (2017) courtesy of  Parafin, London

It is not the blanket of snow settling outside my window that has triggered this post. It was Hiraki Sawa’s new show at Parafin which started my longterm memory stores pinging with past MI artworks featuring scenes of snow and ice. This often blank landscape acts as a ready-made canvas on which the filmmaker can draw and has been the backdrop for many of my favorite MI works. For me, its superficially charming ambiance always carries an aura of bleakness and tragedy instilled in childhood by encountering the story of Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition and Hans Christian Anderson’s heart-rending tale of lost love, The Snow Queen. The unsettling otherworldliness of snowbound landscapes was fully exploited in Sawa’s 38 minute, two channel  video installation, ulo.ulo.ulo (2017).

Sawa had found a perfect location. On an iced up lake shot in darkness he created a circular stage lit by a movable lightsource recording the digging and probing of a small team of performers whose shadows seem as important as their own figures.  We follow a close-up of a lamp and its filament as it drops into the depths beneath the ice. In one memorable sequence the lamp is twirled like a lasso around a performers head producing shadow effects similar to a timelapse sequence of the sun traversing the sky. Without a narrative we a looking at a work of abstraction with images of threat and comfort competing for dominance. At the Parafin Gallery preview show Sawa had brought his young family. The noise of Sawa’s excitable infant children broke through the eerie tinkly sound track but then I realised that they were chiming with the recorded sound of children that Sawa had used to accompany a homely, poetic sequence featuring enormous black balloons floating through the snowscape.

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Copyright Hiraki Sawa. Still from video, ulo.ulo.ulo (2017) courtesy of  Parafin, London

In 2003 Darren Almond brought back footage from the Arctic and Antarctica and created a stunning two channel video installation 11 miles… from Safety at the White Cube. I remember to this day the visceral impact this had on me.  On one screen we dimly follow the back of the artist as he trudges through the Arctic night drawing a sledge on which an infra red camera is mounted. His anxious face is spotlighted when he turns to the camera at intervals and with the ambient sound of his heavy breathing we are drawn back to Scott’s doomed trek.

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Copyright Darren Almond. Still from film Artic Pull (2003) courtesy of the artist

On the opposite wall we contemplate the peaceful passage of the ice strewn ocean shot from a boat gliding sedately across an Antarctic seascape. Like Sawa he distills the fear and grace of this forbidding landscape but with a simpler, less cluttered approach. Much of Almond’s work has been shot in polar regions and his video interview, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opXvILcy2vs,  gives an engrossing insight into the attraction of this landscape for the artist.

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Copyright Pierre Huyghe. Still from video, A Journey that Wasn’t (2005) courtesy of the artist

In 2005 Pierre Huyghe also made a trek to Antarctica and the ambitious video that emerged from this trip, A Journey That Wasn’t shown at Tate Modern in his Celebration Park  exhibition in 2006 has etched itself in my visual memory. Interesting how artificial  light sources and disembodied spheres crop in up in both the Sawa and Huyghe films.

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Copyright Guido van de Werve. Still from the film Everything is going to be Alright (2007) courtesy of the artist

Guido van de Werve’s  film Everything is going to be Alright shot on location in the Gulf of Bothnia, just south of the Arctic Circle, shows the artist striding  just ahead of a giant icebreaker. The peril he is in dissipates the longer you watch it and the ludicrous scene somehow sums up the absurdity of human hubris.

Bruce Conner’s legacy and assorted 2017 clippings

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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.

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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.