Hetain Patel: making sense of the weird in the 2019 Jarman Award

Still from HD video The Jump (2016). Copyright Hetain Patel , courtesy of the artist

I am chuffed to see that three of the nominated artists for the Jarman Award 2019 have already been highlighted for praise in previous mialondonblog posts, accessible through the tags Imran Perretta, Rehana Zaman and Mikhail Karikis below. The other three MI artists are new to me so I was delighted to make the final day of screening at the Whitechapel to see what had impressed the selection panel.

Hetain Patel’s admirably concise film, The Jump (2016) is funny, gripping and unsettling. It is weird yet ultimately satisfying because its elements are few but highly concentrated. We seem to be in a homely sitting room faced with a group of relatives arranged in rows just before the shutter clicks. It is the classic pose of the Victorian photographic portrait. The range of facial expressions among this varied bunch is immediately captivating. We can see that some are uneasy about the experience while others are delighted. I fancy I would be in the former category, wishing I was somewhere else. If only I possessed a superpower to teleport me out of there! Is this what the artist is thinking?

We are observing a slo-mo film, not a still. The initial giveaway is the toddler fidgeting in his mother’s lap. Over the next six minutes we gradually pan left to reveal a lean crouching figure in a Spiderman outfit whose anonymity, unlike the others, is guaranteed by his spidermask. (Shouldn’t it be the toddler in costume?) His prolonged graceful, athletic leap in front of the group is met with interest but not shock. As a Hollywood style climax our comic book hero might be expected to shoot out through the window but instead comes to rest on the carpet.

I really rated this film. Some may be asking, why did he win? Not so obviously political or as personal as others on the shortlist, it has the advantage of a brave restriction of imagery which expands the options for our own responses and interpretations. The simplicity of the surreal image of an ur-Spiderman interrupting a family photo-session gives room for the art to penetrate our unconscious. Like all superhero representations, it triggers atavistic impulses of disguise, flight, escape and invincibility. But within the claustrophobic domestic setting we have to cope with a figure that is either a dangerous interloper or a madcap member of the group itself. Is he hoping to break out of the group to assert his individuality or to swoop in to help them? Patel’s film make so much sense of the tensions of family and group dynamics that we are all prone to.

Mikhail Karikis. Still from HD video, No Ordinary Protest (2018) courtesy of the artist

The Mikhail Karikis film, No Ordinary Protest (2018) highlights the place of children in the environmental debate and his signature collaborative method allows his subjects to control the form of the film. Hearing these seven year olds cogent views and seeing them transform their fears into a colourful and chilling masked mime is a real treat. Giving a voice to the unheard without patronising them is both an artistic and interpersonal skill which Karikis applies with great subtlety.

The two other nominated artists are represented by films that are packed with weird and striking images but whose significance seemed hazy. Both are inspired by other artworks, the ballet Giselle (Cecile.B. Evans) and a Gertrude Stein play (Beatrice Gibson). These had less resonance for me than Spiderman (a polite way of saying I have nil knowledge of either of the source artworks!) so that partly explains why they failed to connect in the same way.

Neither had a clear narrative which some excuse by describing them as dream-like. This seems to me to be a misnomer as dreams are not really that fragmentary; one image seems to morph with pretzel logic into the next. Dream symbolism is highly personal so its use in art seals meanings behind an impenetrable screen (unless like Freud you have the arrogance to attempt to interpret them for the patient). However, Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs (2019)  had some memorable features including a torch singer accompanied by a haunting accordion. Why we saw so much of a poodle in an open-top car being dishevelled by the slipstream, I am still trying to fathom.

The Jarman Award has a great track record for talent spotting although I do not always agree with their decisions. However I cannot quibble with their choice of Hetain Patel as this year’s winner.

Children vs. Brexit: sweet lessons from 1973

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Still from film Sweet Feast (2018) courtesy of Ulla von Brandenburg and Whitechapel Gallery

Can the next generation pick up the pieces of our broken world and work together to repair it? There are grounds for optimism with the disappearance of the Brexit majority as the predominantly anti-European elderly demographic shuffle off this mortal coil. Their replacement by optimistic and idealistic young voters could mean an inexorable growth in pro-Europe sentiment, assuming that a corrosive nationalism is not a default mechanism that comes with living through the inevitable instabilties of adulthood. This could not be better represented than in Ulla von Brandenburg’s Sweet Feast currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until the end of the month.

The centrepiece of  this magnificent installation is her moving and hilarious film  featuring children from a local primary school  who reenact the bizarre events  inspired by the exhibition held at the Whitechapel in January 1973.  Its purpose was to celebrate the diversity of the confectionary cultures of the European countries we were about to join hands with by displaying a vast collection of exotic sweets on nationally badged stands. There was a party atmosphere heralding our new future in the Common Market and a jumbled message from the Whitechapel Gallery PR led to a rumour that on the exhibition’s closing day all sweets would be given away to local children. Five hundred of them turned up and stormed the exhibits in a frenzy of sugar intoxication.  

Extensive press coverage from the archives including a cutting headlined EXHIBITION EATEN AS KIDS RUN AMOK is reproduced in the evocative broadsheet newspaper issued to gallery visitors. The prevailing positive attitudes to our new partners are revealed in all the coverage with one exception. Redolent with Farage and Rees-Mogg bigotry is a condescending and bitter article printed in the January 1973 edition of Arts Review. It is worth going just to get hold of this!

Resolving racial conflict with kid power

Still from Finding Fanon, Part Three, Prologue (2016) a film by David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  Image courtesy of Claire Barrett

Amid all the current journalistic talk of whitelash and the attempt to hdiscredit identity politics following Trump’s election success, the ideas of Frantz Fanon, the black Martinque post-colonial thinker and psychiatrist who died in 1961, could not be more urgent or prescient. His insights into the link between colonial oppression and psychopathology provides the springboard for the Finding Fanon trilogy.  These fine films are carefully crafted meditations produced over the last two years by the “culture-busting” partnership of David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  The interim version of Finding Fanon Part Three (which in fact looked highly polished) premiered on December 6 at Tate Modern as a live performance with a hypnotic musical accompaniment on cello, synth and percussion. Rich in powerful images and with a gently delivered but hardhitting text, it kindles hope that, though our malaise is deeply rooted, our children may point the way towards a more tolerant and cooperative world.

The problems they try to grapple with are huge and difficult but crucial. They point out that the world has shrunk and social media can reduce us to icons and totems.  Essentially they are probing the dilemma of how a personal identity can be forged in a world where the internet has transformed our view of the world and our past.  Are we going to allow the internet to reduce us to data networks which either perpetuate or ignore our colonial legacy? The two artists appear as a dapper, besuited, somewhat querulous duo, reminiscent of the notorious Gilbert and George or the absurd Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But the thrust of the text is encouraging us to see them as avatars diminishing their individuality but acting as coathangers for the film’s ideas. Their worsted wool three piece suits and their steam punk goggles are subtly different as if to say : “We strive for commonality but the colonial legacy still sets us up as unequal associates”

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Still from Finding Fanon-  Part Three Prologue (2016) courtesy of artistic director, Claire Barrett

Iconic images are beautifully captured in HD – the sea, the sky, a forest canopy, flaming sticks – but the commentary is pushing us to examine what new meanings they might have acquired in our current political and environmental crisis. Are the oceans now seen as a threatening no-man’s-land  claiming migrant lives rather than in the Windrush days when it provided safe passage to the  mother country? Will our landscape be degraded by climate change? The Blandy and Achiampong broods feature as signs of hope. When the children work together to build a shelter from discarded branches is their ability to cooperate a model that the world can follow in its mission to stop global warming? But could their wooden teepee just as easily be a bonfire? Social psychology research on US children in the 1970’s confirmed that we will always create outgroups unless there is a bigger problem that requires collaboration to resolve. Will it take the threat of extinction for us to recognise our common humanity?

Sumptous abstract digital animation simulating a vortical maelstrom is inserted to dramatise thoughts of black holes and the loss of identity. A strange fantasy sequence of the digitally rendered artists swimming gracefully in the ocean depths undercuts the usual Mediterranean migrant narrative of the sea as a potential killer. They have begun to develop the use of gaming tropes and graphics software to generate stories from the struggles of other oppressed groups such as ex-prisoners under the banner of Finding Fanon Gaiden.

The problem with the current  permanent Tate Modern collection is that it is not nimble enough to be truly reflective of our current concerns. They need to show works like this that are immediate responses to our rollercoaster world. There is no better illustration of this than Finding Fanon’s commentary comparing the racist imagery of Enoch Powell and Donald Trump:

“They were wrong. There were no rivers of blood.  Instead there are walls in people’s minds wishing for boundaries from “the other”… trying to contain something that does not exist”

The mere fact of two artists from different sides of the post-colonial divide coming together to explore the personal and historical implications of that troubled relationship and the image of their offspring forming a harmonious group to pursue a common purpose is what makes this such a moving and thought-provoking artwork.

Performance credits. Camera and artistic director: Claire Barrett. Cellist: Yoanna Prodanova. Synthesiser: James A. Holland. Percussion: Shepherd Manyika. Speakers: Ima-Abasi Okon and Nicola Thomas

Karikis and Thornton valuing the child’s voice

Copyright Mikhail Karikis. Still from video Children of Unquiet (2015), courtesy of the artist

When a child appears in an artwork we grant them privileged status. Their words seem surrounded by an aura of purity and authority.  “What does he do, Mr. Godot?” asks Vladimir and the Boy, Godot’s messenger, replies “He does nothing, Sir”. We believe him and the simple clarity of Becket’s modernist world view strikes our hearts more profoundly than if the words had come from an adult.

Two artists’ films  I saw this week exploit this response by placing children in post-apocalyptic landscapes. The burden of our adult fears and hopes seems to weigh on their shoulders.

Mikhail Karikis at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, Children of Unquiet 

Asserting a philosophical debate through visual language can often be a success. But I am usually disappointed when artists attempt to philosophise through their own written text. So often it can end up as an incoherent mess  – after all if an artist has a talent in visual expression is is unlikely that their written expression is as skilled. I was therefore relieved and intrigued that Karikis had selected quotes of the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri and allowed his cast of children to voice them. He filmed them against the backdrop of the remnants of a derelict village that housed the now redundant workers of the recently fully automated geothermal power station in Tuscany close to the town in which they are growing up. This gives the film a rich brew of political, aural and visual ingredients. The artist’s website has a trailer.

Putting Negri’s aphorisms on “biopolitical science” into the mouths of children gives them added resonance and poignancy. The essence of the quotes is the contrast of wasps and bees. Bees are social insects in a symbiotic relationship with flowers in the biological economy. Orchids attract solitary wasps without giving them anything thus undermining the overall productivity of the system. Bees are the good guys. This has direct lessons for the de-industrialised community of Lardarello which is the film’s location. It is recovering from the automation and subsequent mass redundancies at the geothermal power generation plant.  The children’s bright mono-colour outfits and melodious chanting evoke the flowers and insect life in Negri’s utopia, bringing new life and hope to the abandoned worker’s village.

This film is part of a more wide ranging installation that is based on Lardarello’s story of decline which includes a board game that revolves around the forces that led to the geothermal plant’s closure. I hope the kids learnt something about global capitalism from playing it!

Leslie Thornton at Raven Row Gallery

Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding

This work has been developing over Thornton’s entire artistic career and has cropped up in many different incarnations over the past three decades. It seems to have been initially inspired by her young protagonists’ love of the limelight that was evoked by the whirring cine camera when they first met her.

Shot in black and white video and 16mm, memorable landscapes form a bleak backdrop to the action:  a sunset, a beach, a roaring river, a storm all emanate a tired, bleached, beauty. In colour these images would be too sentimental but here their stark symbolic load presses home: the world is a threatening place. Moving through these environments with a sense of unfettered, but sometime anxious, recklessness are two children, a girl and her younger brother. These siblings sing, dance, fight and role-play. There is no overarching narrative tension but nevertheless the 95 minutes are engrossing. A clear episodic structure presents bite-sized visual treats with frequent changes of atmosphere and location. The images are often filtered through an interesting repertoire of mainly “old school” special effects. There is one short burst of colour digital animation highlighting the destructive power of warfare – a toppling cityscape (Hiroshima?) and clinical missile strikes (Iraq?) reflecting the pervasive white noise of conflict that Peggy and Fred have lived through. It is as if their childhood analogue adventures are punctured by the digital realities of a cruel adult world.

At specific points the adult world intervenes in an unsettling way. It was fascinating to see again the astonishing sequence of the lunar module docking with the Apollo mother ship against the background of the Moon’s surface overlaid by a Bible-basher preaching hell-fire. Perhaps the most poignant and bizarre sequence occurs when Peggy and Fred sing from memory. Fred sings a rousing country gospel song while in whispered tones Peggy gives a spooky, downbeat rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

Children are our future and should be granted a voice so it is compelling when the artist puts them at the centre of their work as Karikis and Thornton have done.