Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: has narrative gone?

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Installation view of For the First Baby born in Space courtesy of Jerwood/FVU

Since its launch six years ago, the Jerwood/FVU Award has highlighted many talented emerging artists of whom I unashamedly single out Alice May Williams selected in 2016, whose riviting film, Dream City was an intelligent fusion of  text, image and music with a symphonic, three movement structure (slow, fast,slow) .

This year’s award winning films on the theme of Going, Gone produce some memorable moments but the overarching sense of a narrative structure is (perhaps intentionally) missing. They have both opted for videos playing on a continuous loop which is a tricky structure to get right. Any narrative that emerges will be non-linear. A circular narrative with no start or finish point means you can dip in and out.  The images you experience will be ordered but it’s up to you to impose a structure (or not, if that is your choice). The danger is that the film loses coherence and it provides an series of unrelated images that are left unresolved. The potential benefit is that the viewer is engaged to fill in the gaps and make some sense of what they are seeing.

For The First Baby Born in Space (2019)  is a two channel observational documentary of Whitby teenagers devised by the artist-duo, Webb-Ellis. For them it is a “political” act of the artist to resist offering a meaning to their work, a view I thoroughly endorse. An artist who insists that the meaning imposed by others on their work has less validity than their own has really missed the point of art. Looking at art makes us more aware of the delicate process of constructing meaning that we are all engaged in. Our unconscious is devoted to filtering the booming, buzzing confusion of our environment. An artwork is however a pre-filtered sample of the world. Simply by choosing what to present to the viewer the potential meanings we can construct have been narrowed down considerably. The knowledge that the work was commissioned in response to a set theme will also direct our response. This year’s theme references Brexit but also alerts us to alternative meanings about boundaries and transitions filtered through our own cognitive and affective biases.  

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© Webb-Ellis – still from the film For the First Baby born in Space (2019) courtesy of  the artists

Teenagers are interesting subjects for documentary film-makers because of their wobbly, reticent perch on the threshold of adulthood.  Images of the funfair, beach, sea, bonfires, music, dance, flirtation all shout “our last teenage summer” as they bid farewell to childhood. The most striking images for me were the nightmarish, gaudy reflection of the funfair lights in the waves at night and a dying fish flopping around next to the flowered, flip-flopped foot of the girl angler who hooked it. Death is ever present in this film as teenagers often drift towards it with an attitude of nihlistic bravado. “I’d rather die than be a failure” is one boy’s comment. Given the rise in young male suicides this is either tasteless or requiring immediate intervention. A sense of fragmentation pervades this gentle, non-judgmental  film in which its many subjects are glimpsed so briefly, their narratives so sketchily portrayed that they seem to float untethered from the everyday concerns of living. The source of this fragmentation remains obscured and unexamined so ultimately the artists have achieved their aim of leaving space for our reflections. 

Something has gone. It might be the creative confidence of the artist reluctant to present a definitive line or narrative. It might be absence of development and structure as required elements of post-modern artforms. It might be the rejection of objective truth and the acceptance of subjectivity as the only reality. Whatever has gone, there is a clear alibi available : “iyou find this work incoherent …well that’s intentional… it’s not a sign of our inability to create a coherent narrative. Remember we live in the post-modern era where narratives dissolve into nothingness”  

The other selected artist, Richard Whitby, also uses a looped narrative in his film The Lost Ones but in this case it confers a claustrophobic and absurd atmosphere ideally suited to this satire on citizenship and its control by officers of the state which will be the subject of my next blogpost.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What’s left of the loony left?” asks Alice May Williams

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Installation view of wall text Grants for Irish Lesbians, 2017, copyright Alice May Williams and Tintype Gallery

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.

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The Lesbian Kiss Episode#1, 2017 , copyright Alice May Williams

 

 

 

 

 

Street entertainment on chilly Essex Road

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Alice May Williams -Still from her film On the 73 (2016) courtesy of the artist and Tintype Gallery

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.

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: a lesson in crafted MI art

Borrowed Time at Jerwood Space until 24th April.

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Courtesy of Alice May Williams

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 the post 28 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 the narrator recalling a mindfulness class where breathing exercises 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 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 to give 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 who 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 in comparison to the urgency of Williams’ densely packed film. 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-maker’s 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 culminating in the survellance of a monkey in a deserted cafe as it uncannily impersonates a waitress. In his film Celebration Park 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.