Artistic collaboration across cultural and gender divides

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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.

 

Resolving racial conflict with kid power

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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 discredit 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