Jaki Irvine takes on the macho bankers and other MI artworks of 2017

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David Ferrando Giraut, The Accursed Stare, video still, 2017, courtesy of the artist

I  aim to keep a fairly complete record of the moving image art that is worth a comment. Here is a summary of some of the works I’ve seen in 2017 that have not been covered elsewhere on mialondonblog.

David Fernando Giraut, The Accursed Stare, 2017 Digital animation film at Tenderpixel Gallery 

I am finding the fashion for films analysing art history is starting to a wearing a bit thin. The artworld incestousness feels rather claustrophobic. However this added one interesting insight – that paleolithic art remained unchanged in style and content for thousands of years. So what is driving the present pace of change? The time scale covered, from cave paintings through the Renaissance to today, was impressive but perhaps too ambitious in its scope to be digestible.

Jaki Irvine, If the Ground Should Open… , 2016, at Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square 

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Jaki Irvine, still from video installation, If the Ground Should Open.., 2016, courtesy of the artist

Eight channel black and white video installation on standard sized monitors. This was my kind of music video with echos of Reichian style use of the spoken word as musical content. Samples of spoken audio from a notorious leaked Anglo-Irish bankers phone conversation in which they talk cynically about how they conned the government are edited in staccato repetition to highlight their nervous complicity. Irvine’s own lyrics celebrate the female activists in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising and she uses Irish folk instrumentation played by an all female ten-piece band (bagpipes, fiddle, cello etc) to provide a surreal counterpoint to the macho posturing of the bankers.

Anna Bunting-Branch The Labours of Barren House-The Linguists at Jerwood Space 

Helpful exposure of the  idea that language is literally manmade and excludes the female construction of meaning.  Laadan is a constructed language by the feminist linguist Suzette Haden Elgin that aims to remedy this with its own vocabulary and grammar that was used in her speculative fiction trilogy Native Tongue. Unfortunately the video did no more than publicise this innovation and shed no light onto why it has failed to catch on.

John Latham at Serpentine Gallery

I feel he was the U.K’s Robert Rauschenberg. The sixties encouraged artists with eclectic interests to roam widely, so they dabbled in various styles and media which led the way for others to develop. Lathham’s video work was just one element of his experimentation including a quirky take on public school types strutting  in the London stock exchange before the invasion of the 80’s Romford market wideboys. I prefer his sculptural work with scorched and paint-spattered books and his destructive performance artworks. His theory on Flat Time was a bit unnecessary and a distraction from his art. He should have left it to the cosmologists.

Wael Shawkey, Telemach Crusades, 2009, at Lisson Gallery

A two-minute film featuring Bedouin children riding donkeys along a beach approaching a North African fort. Colourful, atmospheric and slightly unsettling but with no coherent narrative.

Christian Jankowski, Director Poodle, 1998, at Lisson Gallery

A ten minute black and white video that sees the magician transform a German gallery director into a poodle who then wanders around the gallery with a kind of skittish curiosity. A great parody of gallery pseuds.

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Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017

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Lawrence Lek, still from Geomancer, 2017, 40 minute HD video courtesy of the artist

These annual awards are always a good indicator of the direction of moving image art. As the two winners have to work to the same theme, this year it was “Neither One Thing or Another”, the contrast is often illuminating. Narrative is a bit unfashionable but here its value seemed incontestable.  The two films are currently touring the country, having opened at the Jerwood Space.

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, 2017 

This was a gripping 40 minutes.  Set in a version of Singapore in 2065, the visual world is straight out of videogames and as we recline in luxurious gaming style padded chairs we are transported in graceful swoops through a glossily rendered futureworld of natural landscapes, exotic cityscapes and cavernous  interiors. The structured narrative is given chapter headings and the text is delivered in Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles so we get a clear map of Lek’s ideas even when they are at their wackiest.

We are required to accept that artificial intelligence will develop a human level of consciousness and free will which places this scenario firmly in the sci-fi realm. Following Helen Knowles’ recent thorough investigation of this issue in Superdebthunterbot for some this may be a bit of a stretch but let’s suspend our disbelief. Lek achieves the seemingly impossible goal of eliciting our empathy for a form of artificial intelligence, embodied in an orbiting surveillance satellite, the Geomancer of the title. He anthropomorphises the satellite giving it solar panel “arms” and a goldfish bowl “head”. It also helps that the narration is largely from Geomancers first “person” perspective and so we are able to identify with his/her/its problems. Lek posits that advanced AI would have to cope with the boredom of access to total knowledge and if they were inclined to create art as an escape from this information overload they would be frustrated by the art establishment’s resistance to granting AI art the same status as human art. The debate on the “artistic creativity” of computers has been controversial since the 1960’s and by reviving it at a time when AI is becoming more pervasive, Lek is asking the same kind of  pressing questions against a vividly realised and convincing futuristic backdrop.

Patrick Hough, And If In A Thousand Years, 2017

This has less appeal. It is less structured and has too many disparate ideas arriving scattergun without an engaging narrative. Hough’s initial inspiration is the bizarre 2014 archaeological dig in the South California desert which disinterred the remnants of the 21 full size plaster sphinxes built for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments that were left to be covered by the windblown dunes. This story could be neatly encapsulated in a 2 minute clip but extending it to a 20 minute video artwork requires some crafting. As in Lek’ s Geomancer we are asked to identify with an invented character, in this case the resurrected sphinx. Its portentous narration delivered through philosophising artspeak aims for poetic profoundity but only manages to be vaguely mystical. Real poets can do so much better. Quality text is crucial in this style of video art so when it is irritatingly obtuse it can mar your enjoyment as happened in last year’s FVU award-winning film by Karen Kramer. In the second half of the film LiDAR technology transforms the world into a moving pointillist artwork. Fun to watch but not really adding significantly to the work’s ideas. Coordinating the huge number of people involved in making the film (30+) may have resulted in the lack of artistic focus?

No plain live action footage in either of these films. Expect more of this in the coming year. Digital rules O.K.

 

Jerwood Solo Presentations showcase emerging MI artists

Jerwood Space Gallery until 27th August

This gallery has a reputation for fostering young talented moving image artists. The intellectually and visually thrilling film by  Alice May Williams shown here in April 2016 was a delight to experience. None of the works in this Jerwood Solo Presentations show quite captures the alchemy of concept, text, music and image sparking off each other in Williams film but they were all interesting in their own right.

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Still from HD video Macrobeads courtesy of the artist, Rachel Pimm

Rachel Pimm, like many video artists who graduate from Goldsmiths, appreciates the value of setting a video artwork in a sympathetic installation. She creates a spa atmosphere with a range of elements including an ambient soundtrack and a dreamy blue and green lightbox. In contrast she plays entertainingly with black and white circles and spheres in her HD video, Macrobeads.  The appeal of the illusion of white dots that appear when a shiny black sphere is illuminated is widely used. Coincidentally this effect can be seen in one of Mona Hatoum’s sculptures currently on show at the Tate Modern. Although the images of carpets of black spheres on water reference oil and plastic pollution, the political implications are kept rather vague. Lacking a commentary, the film felt a bit lacking in bite, but her restrained blue/ green and black/ white contrasts indicate that she has a sure feel for the symbolic power of colour.

Luke Fowler has set a high bar for me for documentary art films as he always delivers a social critique through an intriguing visual aesthetic. Lucy Parker’s film Apologies  has a strong political sensibility but uses the more conventional form of recording discussions and speeches to examine the legal and personal ramifications of the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry. The cavalier way that corporate industry prioritises profit over workers rights by using devious and immoral practices is an under-publicised scandal that deserves to be exposed. Sadly by screening this work in a gallery only a tiny audience  will get to see it. I only hope it gives the project the momentum needed to propel the planned full-length film into widespread distribution.

The exhibition notes slightly overegg the “artist filmmaker”  tag  by referring to Parker’s “construction of  scenarios for exchanges to play out”  Surely this is standard documentary practice for filmmakers that do not claim the “artist” tag . It would have been a different film but the obvious missing scenario is a meeting of the construction industry bosses with the workers whose lives have been blighted. They owe a personal rather than a legal apology to them. The “artistic” input in this film is mainly seen in the careful positioning and the calm, unfussy shooting of the blacklisted union activists and law students discussing the case in a small raked university lecture theatre. I was moved by the contrast between the controlled formal atmosphere of the discussion and the raw emotion bubbling under the surface and there was some useful ventilation of the problems of corporate apologies .

I love the easy  conviviality and sudden bursts of energy that you get in amateur choir rehearsals. Katie Schwab in clearly taken by this as well as it provides an evocative soundtrack to her video Covers. It does not capitalise on the singers’ energy but focuses instead on their shoes and clothing, peripheral elements in the process of vocal projection. The impact of this work was lessened further by being poorly installed on a tiny monitor which irritatingly gives a clear reflection of the viewers. The main elements of her presentation are tasteful furniture and textiles, so the video itself seemed like a bit of an afterthought.

Overall a show worth seeing  and I look forward to the future work of these artists.

Jerwood/FVU Awards

Borrowed Time at Jerwood Space until 24th April.

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Courtesy of Alice May Williams

These  annual award shows are an excellent opportunity to see cutting edge MIA work by emerging artists. In 2015 Marianna Simnett was an impressive newcomer (see my  other blogpost 28th March 2016) and this year I was similarly excited by Alice May Williams’ short film inspired by the history of Battersea – Dream City – More, Better, Sooner. This film is a gentle polemic (if that is not an oxymoron) as it subtly but persistently prods at the ridiculous inconsistencies that we are bombarded with as the developers try to convince us that we are living  the urban dream .

I was initially struck by the careful craft she employs in ensuring that text and images are tightly interlocked in pursuit of her overarching theme.  MI artists tend to use existing texts which too often have only tangential relevance. But in this work she has honed a commentary where each word or phrase  has a visual counterpart. This makes it a very charged and thought-provoking experience. Her intent is clear from the start where an archive shot of the smoke spewing from the four giant chimneys of Battersea power station is juxtaposed with a passage where the narrator recalls a mindfulness class which focussed on the importance of breathing to instil a sense of calm. The simple relationship to our bodies that mindfulness assumes is undermined by the complexities of our anxious interactions with a polluted environment that we cannot divorce ourselves from. The simplistic  platitudes of the mindfulness movement are deservedly exposed. Our bodies are at the mercy of the environment or as the narrator puts it – she “feels the ground growing soft beneath our feet”

Throughout the film the themes of control, the environment and the body are linked together to create a dense tapestry of interwoven ideas like a visual poem. There is a clear parallel between the decay of the  body ” going southwards” and the dereliction of the built environment. We spot a man frantically perfecting his body on a  gym machine. Is he inspired by the developers billboard slogan “An Icon for Icons” ?

The film is beautifully paced and structured  like a  mini symphony with three movements: an introductory  meditative slow movement, followed by a faster middle movement where the images and words tumble out as  we get the  highlights of a compressed  history of Battersea. There is even a recapitulation of images and ideas in the slow final movement which reinforces the  film’s message.

This work displays so many of the qualities that I admire in a good MI artwork: the subtle use of personal and political anecdotes including a comment that stripping public services is like lopping a limb off, a haunting but unobtrusive electronic sound accompaniment and little flashes of dry humour (a digital animation of Battersea Power Station transplants Chelsea’s football ground into the centre of it!).  I sat through this film three times and would still like to go back to extract more of its subtlety.

I have to disagree with the Time Out art critic’s verdict that rated this film as less rewarding than the other nominee Karen Kramer’s The Eye that Articulates Belongs on Land which is shot in Japan’s tsunami wrecked coastal regions. Kramer’s work is portentously languorous while Williams  dense film has a sense of urgency. Kramer’s intention is more opaque than Williams’. Kramer has included some zany animation and a commentary in Japanese that verges on the mystical but these are laboured effects which suggest a desire to please rather than a drive  to communicate. An extended continuous take of the detritus in a wrecked home indulges the film-makers desire to reveal the beauty of disorder without really conveying anything more insightful. The most interesting element of the film was the idea in the text that the land and sea are in a lender/ debtor relationship.

To emphasise the peril of living in a dangerous  environment, Kramer employs the trope of a wild animal (a fox) wandering through an urban landscape. The French artist Pierre Huyghe has previously explored this  aspect of the nature/civilisation binary in a Japanese setting to much greater  effect. In last year’s exhibition at  Hauser and Wirth his film Human Mask  stealthily tracked through a tsunami ravaged town ending up spying on  a monkey as it uncannily impersonated a waitress in a deserted cafe. I saw his film Celebration Park at the Tate Modern in  2006 and the image of a young deer as it wanders tentatively through an empty house on a newly built upmarket estate was moving in  a way that Kramer’s fox was not.

The density and richness of the Williams work is for me the reason I would rate it more highly. If you prefer a more elliptical and mystical approach then the Kramer would no doubt get your vote. Both are well worth seeing to get a feel for the way MI art is developing at the moment.