Species survival in times of conflict- Maeve Brennan and Imran Perretta

15days_(still)_Imran Perretta, 2018_Courtesy of JerwoodFVU Awards_05_preview
Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Over the past five years the annual Jerwood/FVU Awards have been a sensitive weathervane for assessing the prevailing currents in moving image art and for demonstrating the new approaches and concerns of the next generation of MI artists (when supported with generous funding!) The £20,000 award allows the fortunate artist the time and resources to generate complex and carefully crafted films often involving extensive research and the coordination of a diverse team.  In the last few years it has launched the careers of some of my favourite artists including Alice May Williams and Marianna Simnett. This year the quality is as high as ever with stunning films from Imran Perretta and Maeve Brennan. They have chosen universal, politically charged themes and integrated the expertise and personal accounts of a wide range of sources while paying homage to specific communities. The judicious use of dramatic archive inserts (Brennan) and mixing live footage with CGI (Perreta) are highly effective and indicative of MI art’s current strengths.

Responding to the set theme of Unintended Consequences, the two artists have illuminated a more profound question: how to respond to the struggles that threaten our species survival – the  conflicts within the human environment in Perretta’s 15 Days, and our perilous relationship with the natural environment in Brennan’s Listening in the Dark. Perretta’s film highlights the challenge that mass migration poses to the tired notion of the nation state, now past its sell-by date and in need of radical rethinking. If we cannot fix this, national rivalries will bring us all down. Through an investigation of wind turbines on bats, Brennan’s film scrutinises technological progress and the need to restructure the way we perceive our relationship with our fragile ecology.  If we cannot listen to our planet’s distress it may finish us off even sooner.

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Still from Listening in the Dark.Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Both films exemplify the merits of collaboration with experts from other fields so the credit listings are revealing. As noted in previous blogposts on the Jerwood/FVU Award this can lead to an unsatisfying incoherence but this is not the case in these works.  In Brennan’s film even the ten species of bats she features are name checked in the closing credits (their magnified chirrups are a key element of the sound design which is always a strength of her films). The input of bat researchers and geologists has been carefully marshalled and her decision to hand over the narration to the scientist,  J. David Pye, the pioneering inventor of the ultrasonic bat detector is in keeping with her Jeremy Delleresque modus operandi. His measured and committed tone of voice conveys a lifelong dedication to the scientific community and enhances the film’s modest integrity.

Brennan explores the blowback effects that all technological advances generate. Although averting climate change, renewable energy structures have their own deleterious impacts here symbolised in the destruction of wildlife by wind turbines. The chirrups of bats against the sonorous roar of the wind turbines point to the power of technology to overwhelm delicate ecosystems. Bat lungs explode when flying downstream of the rotor blades  yet the concrete bases of offshore wind farms form artifical reefs which provide novel food sources for seal populations, neatly encapsulating the double-edged nature of scientific advance. Many MI art landscape tropes appear including caves, windfarms and rocky shorelines but they are all given a fresh treatment that draws us in to the film’s elegiac atmosphere.

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Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Perretta has mixed Italian / Bangladeshi heritage and his global perspective has fuelled his anger over the failings  of nation states as they desperately attempt to shore up their relevance. He relies on the combined insights gleaned from his encounters with migrants and refugees and gives a writing credit to “15 days”. This is the self-styled moniker of one his sources who has lived in the makeshift encampment in the woods on the outskirts of Calais following the bulldozing of the notorious “Jungle” camp in 2017. The writer and actor Elham Ehsas, himself an Afghan asylum seeker who I saw on stage in the inspirational play The Jungle at the Young Vic, has also had a key input. His personal experience is embodied in the poetic text and the emotional intensity of his narration in his native Pashto. It includes many stark and memorable images refering to the sense of  burial and dissolution into the soil as a metaphor for the weight of white oppression. As the Calais migrants complained, the term “Jungle” had, in crude Daily Mail fashion, reduced them to the level of animals.

The most significant innovation is the way the CGI foreground, like the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy, acts as a both as a framing device and a commentary on the live action footage.  The tent suffers unseen physical insults, with accompanying sound effects,  gradually deflating until it is flattened by the film’s end, a poignant proxy more powerful than the actual violent scenes that might have been used.

For the first time in the last four years of the Awards I cannot choose between the two. I was engrossed by both of them and their insights into the problems we face gave me much to chew on. I have often wondered, if we are facing an apocalypse, will it be conflict with each other or conflict with our natural environment that will finish us? Lets hope that our species soon realises the imperative to reconcile our differences and unite against the environmental catastrophe that threatens all of us.

Next year’s Jerwood Award theme is Going, Gone to mark the divorce from our European partners. So more sombre reflection then.

 

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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.