Artistic collaboration across cultural and gender divides

Maeve Brennan HD
Maeve Brennan, The Drift (2017) Produced by Chisenhale gallery, Londonand Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy of the srtist

Understanding  artistic collaboration means gingerly navigating a minefield of arcane terminology.  Following a screening of their brilliant film trilogy, Finding Fanon at Tate Modern last week, reviewed in an earlier blog, the culture-busting partners Larry Achiampong and David Blandy were quizzed about how this worked for them. The discussion moderator referred to the “mannikin” nature of their collaboration, at least this is what I thought she said. I was building on an earlier association with the “avatars” they adopt in the film’s CGI sequences. I was still a bit puzzled when it kept cropping up like a mantra but then realised she was in fact using the term “Manichean”. This exemplifies the kind of opaque academic artspeak that is alienating the “uneducated” public from contemporary art. How much of the audience were bamboozled by this usage? Although it was familiar I had to check after the talk. It simply means “contrasting pairs” .

Well that is something I am interested in: black /white, East /West, male/ female, rich/ poor. Where could that lead? Finding Fanon involved collaboration across genders as women take the roles of the artistic director and the narrator. I feel this balance adds to this work’s humane sensitivity. Maeve Brennan, an emerging talent in moving image art, also works across cultural and gender divides. Her latest film, The Drift (2017) is a meditative study of masculinity in the Lebanon. As a woman film-maker she found that she could use the “gender dynamic” to create “generous encounters” where men are more open with their expertise. She collaborated with several Lebanese men whose occupations all require the care and restoration of different types of broken material: car wrecks, ruined archaeological sites and ancient pottery fragments.

Underlying this reconstruction, but only refered to tangentially,  is the repair of both their war ravaged county and the psychological damage that it has caused. Their generosity extends to an emotional honesty that reveals a deep identification with their work. At one point the gatekeeper of one of the Roman temples in the Beqaar Valley had tears in his eyes describing how the ruins he guards have become part of him. Others in the region have lost their lives doing the same.

Mohammed Zaytoun is part of the salvage economy rebuilding car crash remnants and selling them on, a magpie whose loot is plentiful in  this war-torn country. Brennan’s shot of his wreckers yard has the same presentiment of death evoked by Paul Nash’s graveyard of World War Two fighter aircraft casualties in Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1941. A lone detached dashboard fascia has the poignancy of  a severed limb.  The armed conflict is not directly mentioned until the closing scenes when we are shown the BMW once owned by a Hezbollah commander killed by a car bomb. This shell is now a monument or a temple of remembrance but to Mohammed’s eagle eyes it is a potential source of spares. The car has brand new alloy wheels.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead sea) 1941

There is a stunning array of eloquent images in this film. The “drift” is a boyracer stunt worthy of any macho Essex petrolhead involving the raising of a dust storm by a frantic, angry, circular manoeuvre like a cat chasing its tail. The visual and aural mayhem seems to sum up the desperation and frustration many young males feel about making a mark on the world. At intervals we look over the shoulder of a conservator painstakingly reconstructing a shattered vase. We share the satisfaction of two shards aligning neatly but finally we face the poignancy of a piece that does not seem to fit no matter which angle it is presented at. We reflect on what this might signify in terms of our own desire for psychological completeness. I’m reminded of William Kentridge’s similar sequence involving the tearing and repairing of a self-portrait.

The world of ruins and car wrecks are kept separate for most of the film until Mohammed parks up his BMW alongside one and proceeds to replace the pristine car door with a dusty salvaged one he has brought in the boot. The amplified clinks of his tools in this sequence are typical of the care taken with the film’s sound design. The reversal of his usual mind-set this absurd procedure represents might be seen as a comment on the restoration of the Roman ruins he is surrounded by.

I was gripped for all 51 minutes thanks to Brennan’s sensitive and humane approach to her subjects. This film gives an insight into the real Lebanon that counters the stereotyped nightmarish media portayal of a failed Middle East state and is showing at Chisenhale Gallery until 4 June before touring the country.

 

The holiday video subverted: Blandy and Conroy

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Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection until 17 July

When an artist turns the camera on themselves there is the risk of a narcissistic selfie. Gilbert and George assume that their personas are intrinsically interesting as human artworks and as a result their performance videos appear self-absorbed, cloying and flat. Self portraits can generate universal insights but this usually requires the artist to have a certain modesty and to locate themselves in a compelling context. David Blandy has managed to pull off this trick many times over the past twenty years and his refreshingly honest video Child of the Atom (2010) now showing as part of the exhibition Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection is an example for other budding MI artists to follow.

Blandy’s starting point is a family holiday video with ultra high production values capturing beautiful views, a peaceful park, a homely cafe and a cute toddler clambering around. The normality of this scenario is in dissonant counterpoint to the horrific context of the film – the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. Blandy and his daughter  wander around the reconstructed city encountering newly built memorials and the poignant husks of buildings that remain from that fatal day in August 1945. The role of narrator is generously handed over to Blandy junior looking back on the trip. Her tentative musings on the morality of the military choices and their personal impact create a meditative mood. This is helped by the video’s installation on a raised platform with a traditional rush tatami mat to sit on which adds to the sense of intimacy. She tells us that her grandfather was a Japanese POW and by ending the war the bomb is said to have saved his own life and permitted her own arrival into the world:a puzzling and heartfelt moral dilemma.

Blandy  does not avoid the brutal truths of the attack but instead of using archive material which we all know too well he chooses to switch to home-grown anime clips. This serves to leaven the atmosphere with an absurdity that any consideration of nuclear warfare demands. The bomb personified as a superhero diving headfirst to ground zero is reminiscent of the iconic scene of a war crazed US major riding on a nuclear missile in Kubricks’s  dark satire, Doctor Strangelove illustrated above. Interleaving  animation with live film has been  a key feature of MI art in recent decades and has been developed by Blandy in many of his films. It reminds us of the fantasy/reality confusion that we are all emeshed in (including the nuclear Cold war strategists).  It has also been exploited to great effect in both this year’s Jerwood/ FVU Award films so its popularity is not waning.

Similarly gripping is David Raymond Conroy’s You (People) Are All The Same.  Also set in a city with a dark alterego, it also plays on holiday video tropes, opening with a blurry meander around his Las Vegas hotel bedroom.  The washed out footage undermines the stereotyped garishness we anticipate from the cityscape as we hear the artist’s gloomy prognosis of what sort of film he will eventually be able to concoct. Bravely, the lo-fi production values are maintained throughout but this is consonant with his mission to reveal the bleak underbelly of Las Vegas life.  The film is a mini thriller with dramatic turns as the artist desperately attempts to reconcile his twin goals of doing good to others while making an artwork. His altruism is pitted against the fear that he may be exploiting the homeless people he is trying to help. By alternating between his own story and that of his potential subjects he avoids charges of egotism and by handing over much of the commentary to others we get different takes on his struggle.

All the potential scenarios discussed involve divesting himself of the grant that he has been awarded but none of them get filmed. We assume that this is because of the artist’s moral squemishness but it may also be the result of his failure to identify or recruit genuine homeless subjects. Conroy has given us an original portrait of Las Vegas while interrogating the ambivalent relationship of the artist filmmaker to his subject. As with Blandy, the personal and the political are subtly entwined to give a powerful sense of artist’s convictions without descending into an egotistical diatribe.

Coincidentally Maria Eichhorn is exploring a similar issue in her latest work at the Chisenhale Gallery. She has closed the gallery and partly used her sponsorship money to pay the staff  to take a prolonged vacation.  Her subjects have no say in their involvement as without their cooperation there would be no artwork. Conroy’s film provokes some uncomfortable thoughts about this power imbalance. Jayson Musson has also produced a scabrously funny critique of this style of artwork, relational aesthetics,  which was one of the standout works at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition Electronic Superhighway and  can be found on his Youtube channel presented by his alter-ego rapper art critic Hennessey Youngman. This is not to say that the audience cannot fruitfully be brought into the production of an artwork as the self-effacing Jeremy Deller has so elegantly demonstrated.