Sophie Michael: a nostalgia trip

99-clerkenwell-road
Sophie Michael : still from 99 Clerkenwell Road courtesy of the artist

Trip (The Light Fantastic): Art Now at Tate Britain until October 30:

Three films that rightly celebrate the sensual attraction of 16mm are steeped in nostalgia.

99 Clerkenwell Road (2010) 16mm colour film,silent, 8 min

This was the stand out work for me as its simplicity spoke volumes and it had a visual sucker punch at the mid point. It initially appears to be an abstract work of coloured spheres moving in a  dark void, reminiscent of early experimental art films. So far, so derivative. Then we gradually  pick out the root image: a  globe lamp hanging from a darkened room’s ceiling  observed and obscured from a variety of angles and the viewer is pulled back and forth between figuration and abstraction: it is a clever technique to unsettle our complacent view of the trustworthiness of our perception.

Chapters One to Five (2012) 16mm film, colour/sound, 15 min

This is an overlong meditation on the role of play in creativity as we see a young girl interact with a series of artistic toys. The halting grade 2 piano practice soundtrack and the vivid retro colourscape gave it some charm.

The Watershow Extravaganza (2016) 16mm film, colour/sound, 10 min

This attraction was built for the 1951 Festival of Britain before being installed in a theme park in North Devon in the 1980s. Illuminated fountains dancing to a mechanical organ provide an entrancing contrast with the rather spooky Watershow logos which also catch Michael’s lens. Pleasant to watch but trading on nostalgia can be a bit of a trap for artists working in 16mm.

Tate curators need to give more exposure to the emerging  artists who are commenting on current internet visual culture by exploiting the metaphor-rich boundary that separates digital from analogue rather than succumb to the obvious retro aesthetic appeal of 16mm. (see my Goldsmiths MFA  blogpost)

Supporting emerging artists

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Katie Hare – still from The Edge of the Frame (2016) courtesy of the artist

Constructs at LUX, Waterlow Park until 2 October

Moving image works by emerging artists are often the most original and exciting to experience.  The pressures of external expectations do not seem to weigh them down and so their work is fresh and untrammelled. The inaugural exhibition at the new LUX gallery in the grounds of the idyllic Waterlow Park in Highgate this weekend is a great way to feel better about the current state of MI art as three recent graduates, Katie Hare, Ellie Power and Callum Hill  showcase their work. What these young artists need is an organisation that takes their work seriously. But more of that later.

Katie Hare was for me one of the strongest artists at the Goldsmiths MFA show. My previous blogpost recognises her seminal work, Wrong then, wrong today  conflating the visual and political in her succinct analysis of the culturally insensitive, analogue world of the 1950s cartoon. Another work I had not previously seen, The Edge of the Frame, (illustrated above) also uses slowed down, found cartoon footage from the same era to make a point about the psychological experience of the unreal. It uses a surreal version of the animation trope where a character running too fast to stop at a cliff edge, flails in mid air before plummeting downwards. The profound psychological symbolism of this image is part of its appeal. It may be seen as a metaphor for our desperate attempts to regain footing when the self is exposed to an existential threat with the imminent possibility of a descent into mental oblivion. Katie has selected a prescient post modern version of this trope where the two fleeing creatures skid around a bend and career into the white void that lies beyond the reel. They then desperately try to fight their way back into the scene. It has an eerie electronic soundtrack that mirrors this sense of dislocation. This slide into an unreal world and the lack of traction experienced in delusional mental conditions seems to be perfectly mirrored in this work. It was great to meet Katie at the show and confirmed the fierce intelligence that informs her work.

Ellie Power’s two digital animation works give a powerful sense of our fears of getting lost in the all pervasive digital landscape we are exposed to. In Mesh a human arm tries to force its way into the visual foreground which consists of the shifting planes of macro pixels. In the cleverly titled, Untitled (If an NPC speaks in an empty server do they make a sound?),  a simple scene of waves lapping against a beach with a changing cloudscape in the background is given an unsettling edge by an industrial electronic soundtrack and subtitled messages such as Dead pixels are blind spots.  

Callum Hill’s film Solo Damus shot in Mexico includes sumptuous night footage of a tropical lagoon, an atmospheric subway station and some gritty street scenes. Sadly I only caught a proportion of it (with no  duration time given impossible to tell how much)   because the projector stalled and no-one seemed to be in a hurry to fix it.

Now onto the issue of LUX’s apparent relaxed/disrespectful attitude to the artist’s work. The lack  of either wall labels or a gallery plan identifying the artworks seemed a very strange omission. OK, there were only five works but even so it saves you having to work it out by inference from the descriptions in the exhibition notes. For an organisation that should understand about displaying MI works it was even more puzzling that the duration of each film was not available. There was similarly relaxed approach to the preview start time of 4.00 pm which was unusually early, due presumably to the constraints of the Park closure. Arriving at the advertised start time, a peek into the gallery where the  floor was strewn with leads and power tools revealed that the installation was still underway. I have not joined the twitterati so the tweet that LUX posted earlier in the day changing the start time to 5.00 pm had passed me by.  Thinking about this, is it a “thing ” to follow Twitter updates from the gallery you are intending to visit?  Have I missed something here? Or perhaps this is just a way of offloading the embarrassment. After 90 minutes of hanging around  it was a bit galling to be told: “We are running a little late and will be open shortly”.  At 5.40 the throng of expectant MI enthusiasts  were allowed in. This felt like deja vu as only last month I had turned up at another small London gallery to find it unstaffed and locked during its advertised opening times. The contrasting obsessional and laid back personalities that seem to dominate the art world is something I have mused about and will feature in a future blogpost.

So a catalogue of problems. What bugs me about these mishaps and errors is that the young artists and their prospective audience are being treated in such an unprofessional way. There is so much competition that they are deemed to be incredibly lucky to get a public show regardless of the niceties. However  I do not doubt that if it had been an opening for an established artist this disruption would not have occurred. LUX is a crucial part of the MI artworld. They just need to get their act together.

Razor sharp insights from Goldsmiths MFA video artists

Goldsmiths  have a reputation for producing quality video art and I was not disappointed by their MFA show this week. Political awareness in an artwork is a big plus for me, as long I do not feel preached at. All of these managed that and more.

Ruth Waters
Installation view of J.A Generalised Anxiety Relaxation, 2016, Ruth Waters, courtesy of the artist

Ruth Waters is a coolly subversive satirist. She covers so many bases and spices her work with wry humour, social commentary and visual appeal. In her installation J.A Generalised Anxiety Relaxation she has created a simulation of a relaxation class complete with yoga mats. She starts with an original image: immaculately  groomed, pencil sharp, straight hair blowing seductively in the wind filling the screen like a curtain. A laid back narrator soothes us with a standard relaxation tape visualisation mantra: the lapping of waves, the warmth of a sandy beach. Gradually less calming images intrude. We are asked to imagine we are Jennifer Aniston and to meditate on “weddings”. We begin to feel uneasy. The mention of the personification of coiffured perfection and a nerve-wracking life event make us giggle uncomfortably. We have been subtly drawn into the pervasiveness of social comparison anxiety for which mindfulness can only act as a sticking-plaster. Aniston’s recent complaints about media intrusion reinforce the ambivalence caught so aptly in this work.

king of the Kats
Still from the video King of the Kats,  2016, David John Beesley, courtesy of the artist

David John Beesley’s film King of the Kats has him as an ur-cowboy, an alter-ego wandering the empty streets of the City of London on a kid’s toy horse.  The bankers have left, their eerie ghosts remembered for their childish games. Beesley create a timeless environment by exploiting the weird contrast of the medieval and the modern in the City streetscape and manages to blend a critique of our current crisis through multiple personal, political and religious lenses.

Daniel Dressel
Still from  Polygon, 2016, Daniel Dressel  courtesy of the artist

Daniel Dressel’s four screen installation, Polygon, is a skillfully edited video montage where sounds and images flip  around the viewer like a boxer prancing around the ring. He uses documentary archive material and his own footage to explore the history of the East End and draws parallels between the estate agents and boxers fighting for the glittering prizes. I loved the sense of time collapsing as the different eras slide across each other. Another single channel video, Sensation, neatly shows how Damien Hirst’s public sculpture guarded by CCTV provides the opportunity for our surveillance society to enforce its grip over the kids who just want to clamber over it.

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Still  from  video, Precarity, 2016, Michael Dignam courtesy of the artist

Michael Dignam’s short video Precarity,  viewable on his website, -http://michaeldignam.eu/Precarity – creates maximum impact with minimal material. His black and white film is constructed from three takes all focusing on a rapidly moving shadow sweeping over bends in  a rutted countryside track. My first thought is that these are formed from the rotor vanes of a wind generator. Through digital manipulation the shadows become more frenzied and stuttering and threaten to blackout the sun before eventually settling down into their original steady beat. This almost musical piece is in fact more powerful as there is no sound track. Sometimes less is more.

Katie hare
Still from the video  Wrong then, wrong today 2016, Katie Hare courtesy of the artist

Katie Hare’s short single channel video Wrong then, wrong today is again so simple, yet it packs a huge punch. Over a loop of a 1950’s MGM Tex Avery cartoon clip her narrator points out the parallel between the botched attempts to both politically and visually “clean-up” the original. The politically incorrect assumptions of the cartoon are whitewashed by the distributor of the newly released version with a disclaimer referring to its historical context, hence this works title. We observe that the digital filtering of the analogue noise of the original  results in the erasure of some outlines, indicating perhaps that updating such “corrupt” material is doomed to failure. This apposite melding of the conceptual and the visual was for me one of the most exciting experiences of the Goldsmith’s show.   Hare’s interest in the analogue /digital  transition will surely  prove fertile material for the  future.

Almendarez
Still from the 7 channel video installation Voices of our Mothers: Transcending Time and Distance, 2016, Frances Almendarez, courtesy of the artist

I was able to meet the artist Francis Almendarez who exploits nostalgia for his South American heritage to moving effect in  a 7 channel video installation, Voices of our Mothers: Transcending Time and Distance.  His grandmothers’s tales of adventure and the rich oranges and greens of El Salvador’s rural landscape contrasts with the downbeat contemplation of a murky grey riverscape as global sea-traffic ploughs by. The time slippage of the same footage on the seven screens is deployed to great effect. We need more of this style of visual analysis of globalisation.

I could not get round to all the MI artworks at this show but the trend for artists to disseminate through their websites means I can catch up at my leisure. Andy Nizinskyj’s work Everything is Bright,  http://andynizinskyj.co.uk/Everything-is-Bright is a three channel video  ideal to view on a computer screen as it uses videogame tropes to raise the hot topic of what is missing from the pin sharp CGI and HD world we increasingly inhabit. His poetic commentary over a dreamlike and entrancing, digitally rendered desert landscape uses the metaphor of thirst to describe that missing element.  Even the arrival of a water torrent tacked on to the landscape does nothing to relieve this. It is only when we get a smeared image of a tree canopy as if “shot” through a plastic sheet passing in front in of the “camera” that we get a glimpse of what is really missing. His two subsidiary screens provide a mute chorus from the lo-fi analogue world. This type of implied critique of digital imagery has great appeal. It is a shame that the expense of celluloid film is restricting access to analogue creativity at the moment although Tacita Dean is doing a sterling job in preserving the processing infrastructure.

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Still from three channel HD video Everything is Bright , 2016,  Andy Nizinskyj courtesy of the artist

 

I found many of the Goldsmiths MI artists invigorating. The efficiency of their razor sharp skewering of current issues had a freshness about them that in some ways puts them streets ahead of the more established video artists I’ve seen in the commercial galleries this year.

 

Children’s role in video art

When a child appears in an artwork we grant them privileged status. Their words seem surrounded by an aura of honesty, 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 reflex response by placing children in post apocalyptic landscapes and asking them to carry the burden of our adult fears and hopes.

Mikhail Karikis at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery – Children of Unquiet 

I am usually disappointed when artists attempt to philosophise in their artwork through their own written text  (Philosophising through visual language is fine.) So often it can end up as an incoherent mess when they try to verbalise complex abstract ideas – after all if an artist has a talent in visual expression is is unlikely that their written language is equally compelling. I was therefore relieved and intrigued that Karikis had selected apposite passages from 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 workers 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.

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 derelict 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 it!

Leslie Thornton at Raven Row Gallery- Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding

This work  as been developing over Thornton’s entire artistic career and has cropped up in 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  ensures that we get bite-sized visual treats with a 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 all pervasive white noise of conflict that Peggy and Fred have lived through. Their childhood analogue adventures 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 the sound of a hell-fire preacher reading from the Bible. 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 quite compelling when the artist puts them at the centre of their work as Karikis and Thornton have done.