For those of us involved in north London grass roots politics in the 1980s, the “loony left” tag was an irritating and pervasive insult that we had to tolerate. Since then “identity politics” has become the popular buzzword to berate political activists protecting the rights of oppressed groups. For many commentators the backlash to this trend is the reason for Trump’s electoral success. Ironically Trump himself exploited identity politics by galvanising a range of special interest groups and by conflating all “Us vs. Them” conflicts to the overarching battle of “The U.S vs The World”. This was evident in the Trump rally so tellingly filmed in Cornelia Parker’s recent video installation American Gothic. I find it rather depressing that the “personal is the political” battle cry from the 1960’s that should have transformed politics has become so devalued.
Art is an important force to push back against this trend and this blog has championed many contemporary moving image artists that are successfully pursuing this goal. Among them Alice May Williams has the key quality that they all share- an acute sense of history- and this has greatly enhanced her recently opened exhibition, And Now… Grants for Irish Lesbians! It is showing at Tintype until July 15 and is inspired by the outraged Evening Standard reporting of the Islington council funding decision in 1983. It includes her punchy and engaging video, On the 73, which creates a heartfelt and amusing narrative of a doomed lesbian flirtation from a sequence of iconic still media images compiled from the last 25 years. I gave a rave review to it in December when it was shown as part of Tintype’s Xmas window screening. She has also applied her facility with language to compose a typically rye and poignant “text work”, Grants for Irish Lesbians, 2017, painted onto the gallery wall from which I have quoted in the title to this blogpost:
What’s left? what’s left? of the loony left?/ Where’s Islington now, that was here, was then?/ We dream of grants for lesbians.
Well, part of the answer is that the “loony left” and “identity politics” have been painted into a corner by a prevailing orthodoxy that tries to link them with ideas of victimhood and bleeding heart liberalism. It is heartwarming to see the term “loony left” treated with such nostalgia. The Corbyn surge may yet breathe life into this 1980’s idealism and restore the idea that politics is all about finding our group identities and resolving conflicts of interest by working out how we can all rub along. The lightness of touch that Williams brings to these heavy political issues gives the lie to the dour, po-faced stereotype of the “loony left”. I look forward to her next film at Knole House in Kent next year in a group show that includes Lindsay Seers.
Also included in the Tintype show are a number of her delicately executed paintings.
Tintype have bucked the trend for gallery closures in the Xmas week yet they can still luxuriate in a well-earned break by screening films as their window display. Is it worth braving the cold, standing on the pavement for 45 minutes to watch the eight short films from different contemporary artists all inspired by Essex Road in Islington? Three of them have outstanding narrative drive and one of them is “interesting”. All have some merit. Wrap up and pick a time when there will be fewer revellers/commuters to interrupt your viewing pleasure.
The multi-talented Alice May Williams has shown her mastery of wit and timing yet again in her subtitled story of unrequited love, told against a montage of iconic media lesbian couples. MI artists rarely have the skills to produce their own text, images and music that complement each other so neatly. The synchrony of these three elements was as hypnotic as in her Jerwood/FVU award-winning film, Dream City. MI artists that rely on others to provide words and/or sound track (and that means the vast majority of them, William Kentridge comes most recently to mind ) cannot hope to achieve this level of aesthetically pleasing coherence. Among the many chuckle-inducing touches was the use of different buses (the 38 and 73!!) to represent the incompatible romantic destinations of the film’s two protagonists.
Lynne Marsh was fortunate to discover that the 1930’s Carlton Cinema on Essex Road was the common habitat for two contrasting species; restoration workers and evangelical worshippers, hence the title of her apparently simple yet highly effective film Resurrection /Restoration. The subtle edit switched rhythmically from the fervent gospel singers to the buzzsaws of the builders and the closing shot was a revelation as we see the coming glory of the refound theatre auditorium in its entirety. Heritage and recycling are both “good things” to hang onto in this disposable era.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s atmospheric and gripping film presents a nightmarish impressionistic portrait of the gritty and depressing life of the homeless on the streets of Islington through the eyes of an archetypal “black dog”. The parallel perils of being a stray dog and a street sleeper reinforce the degradation they both suffer. Very moving.
Amikam Toren’s minimal and subversive art has always appealed to me. In Going Nowhere two coordinated looped images on a split screen spark some thoughts. A helicopter (air ambulance?) repeatedly approaches its rooftop landing pad but then goes into reverse. In the adjoining image a young man paces aimlessly up and down a row of shops whirling a chain around his finger. Are we are just going round in circles making the most of our lives until we run out of rope?
ESSEX ROAD III is showing at Tintype daily from 4-11pm until 14 January. Worth a look if it’s not too chilly.
These annual award shows are an excellent opportunity to see cutting edge MIA work by emerging artists. In 2015 Marianna Simnett was an impressive newcomer (see my other blogpost 28th March 2016) and this year I was similarly excited by Alice May Williams’ short film inspired by the history of Battersea – Dream City – More, Better, Sooner. This film is a gentle polemic (if that is not an oxymoron) as it subtly but persistently prods at the ridiculous inconsistencies that we are bombarded with as the developers try to convince us that we are living the urban dream .
I was initially struck by the careful craft she employs in ensuring that text and images are tightly interlocked in pursuit of her overarching theme. MI artists tend to use existing texts which too often have only tangential relevance. But in this work she has honed a commentary where each word or phrase has a visual counterpart. This makes it a very charged and thought-provoking experience. Her intent is clear from the start where an archive shot of the smoke spewing from the four giant chimneys of Battersea power station is juxtaposed with a passage where the narrator recalls a mindfulness class which focussed on the importance of breathing to instil a sense of calm. The simple relationship to our bodies that mindfulness assumes is undermined by the complexities of our anxious interactions with a polluted environment that we cannot divorce ourselves from. The simplistic platitudes of the mindfulness movement are deservedly exposed. Our bodies are at the mercy of the environment or as the narrator puts it – she “feels the ground growing soft beneath our feet”
Throughout the film the themes of control, the environment and the body are linked together to create a dense tapestry of interwoven ideas like a visual poem. There is a clear parallel between the decay of the body ” going southwards” and the dereliction of the built environment. We spot a man frantically perfecting his body on a gym machine. Is he inspired by the developers billboard slogan “An Icon for Icons” ?
The film is beautifully paced and structured like a mini symphony with three movements: an introductory meditative slow movement, followed by a faster middle movement where the images and words tumble out as we get the highlights of a compressed history of Battersea. There is even a recapitulation of images and ideas in the slow final movement which reinforces the film’s message.
This work displays so many of the qualities that I admire in a good MI artwork: the subtle use of personal and political anecdotes including a comment that stripping public services is like lopping a limb off, a haunting but unobtrusive electronic sound accompaniment and little flashes of dry humour (a digital animation of Battersea Power Station transplants Chelsea’s football ground into the centre of it!). I sat through this film three times and would still like to go back to extract more of its subtlety.
I have to disagree with the Time Out art critic’s verdict that rated this film as less rewarding than the other nominee Karen Kramer’s The Eye that Articulates Belongs on Land which is shot in Japan’s tsunami wrecked coastal regions. Kramer’s work is portentously languorous while Williams dense film has a sense of urgency. Kramer’s intention is more opaque than Williams’. Kramer has included some zany animation and a commentary in Japanese that verges on the mystical but these are laboured effects which suggest a desire to please rather than a drive to communicate. An extended continuous take of the detritus in a wrecked home indulges the film-makers desire to reveal the beauty of disorder without really conveying anything more insightful. The most interesting element of the film was the idea in the text that the land and sea are in a lender/ debtor relationship.
To emphasise the peril of living in a dangerous environment, Kramer employs the trope of a wild animal (a fox) wandering through an urban landscape. The French artist Pierre Huyghe has previously explored this aspect of the nature/civilisation binary in a Japanese setting to much greater effect. In last year’s exhibition at Hauser and Wirth his film Human Mask stealthily tracked through a tsunami ravaged town ending up spying on a monkey as it uncannily impersonated a waitress in a deserted cafe. I saw his film Celebration Park at the Tate Modern in 2006 and the image of a young deer as it wanders tentatively through an empty house on a newly built upmarket estate was moving in a way that Kramer’s fox was not.
The density and richness of the Williams work is for me the reason I would rate it more highly. If you prefer a more elliptical and mystical approach then the Kramer would no doubt get your vote. Both are well worth seeing to get a feel for the way MI art is developing at the moment.