Bruce Conner’s legacy and assorted 2017 clippings

Bruce Conner
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.

Willie Doherty
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.

 

 

 

The dissonant beauty of boy’s toys: Mosse and Banner

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Copyright Richard Mosse- still from  three screen film installation Incoming (2017) courtesy of the artist

In the early seventies, when Cold War rhetoric cast its all-pervasive gloom over our teenage angst, we all reacted in different ways to the existential nuclear threat.  I remember a rather intense fellow student, middle-aged before his time, who had stockpiled a forensic knowledge of the missile technology acquired by the opposing sides. After regaling me with arcane differences in missile range, payload and propulsion mode, he got me thinking.  What did he find so absorbing about the technical  details of these murderous weapons?  Was it glorification of war or a fear of it? Did focussing on the machines rather than the potential victims provide a means of controlling the terror we all felt? Are the “boy’s toys” collected by adult males such as weaponry, games consoles, cameras and cars a defense reaction to the uncontrollability of their destinies?

I wondered the same during Richard Mosse’s current spectacular three screen video installation at the Barbican Curve, Incoming (2017), the title itself hinting at the parallel between missiles and human traffic. He has not ignored the victims of war but much of its unsettling visual impact derives from the dramatic and poetic “boy’s toys” imagery: missiles being loaded, fighterjets launching from aircraft carriers, ships ploughing through the ocean, trucks rumbling through the desert, firefighters hosing blazing refugee encampments. They have been captured using the latest hi-tech supergadget for the video artist, a thermal imaging camera sensitive to objects 20 miles away usually deployed for military surveillance. Mosse is clear about the irony of using a camera that in borderforce hands might be deployed to locate and eliminate incoming migrants. However we cannot ignore the strategic motivation that underlies an artist’s desire to create work that will stand out from the welter of art films vying for our attention. The shock value of novel technology to represent the  visual world is a great help. But when refugees are the focus there is a danger that such an approach converts them into lost souls wandering in a netherworld constructed by the artist.

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Copyright Richard Mosse – still from  film installation Incoming (2017)

To be fair to Mosse his edit ensures that this is far from an arms dealers promo. A truck carrying refugees is comically overloaded but we fear it might topple. The movement of a man bowing in prayer mirrors a later shot of a man stooping to load a missile. A blur in the sky that might be a plane turns out to be a bird. In this way Mosse firmly locates the technology in a human context. He  carefully rejects sentimentality or sensationalism in representing the refugee crisis. Life goes on as usual even in a refugee centre with a cheerful exchange between women about the size of their respective broods using hand gestures  while the children are transfixed by their handheld screens. Two refugee boys are seen wrestling in a desperate tussle that seems to express a  frustrated need for resolution. Among its many breathtaking images is a sunset where the clouds and sun appeared to be tacked to the sky like fabric cutouts. Some of the more brutal footage was excluded from the final version, but it is still a harrowing experience. It runs until 23 April.

Another artist who has contributed to the beauty of weaponry debate in her deliciously understated work is Fiona Banner. The Harrier jet fighter suspended from the roof of the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain in 2010 with its nose cone inches from the floor will not be quickly forgotten by those lucky enough to have seen it. This absurd installation reduces the war machine to a helpless puppet or trussed bird that we can toy with at will. Like Mosse, Banner does not shy away from the unsettling, functional beauty of these killing machines.

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Installation view of Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar (2010). Photo credit: angelgil.co

Her exhibition Buoys Boys, at the Bexhill De la Warr last December explored this unreality of warfare through the story of the Red Baron, the infamous WWI  German fighter pilot who kept a meticulous tally of the pilots he downed in his dogfights.  He entered popular culture as the sworn enemy of the much-loved cartoon beagle Snoopy. In her film black balloons in the form of five large inflatable full stops, each in a different font, float ominously on the skyline like a parody of a fighter plane formation with the sea below and only the seagulls as absurd spectators. On the soundtrack a schoolboy’s choir sweetly sing the 1960s hit  Snoopy vs the Red Baron  with the ridiculously chirpy chorus:

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more, the Bloody Red Baron was rollin’ up the score.

Eighty men died tryin’ to end that spree of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany.

Art can convey the absurdity of war far better than any other creative form and for me Banner has nailed it in the most original way. Mosse  has focused on the tragedy of war but ironically its impact is more aesthetic than thought-provoking.

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Image copyright SabellaMai 2012-17