Two of my top MI artworks of all time have also been the longest and potentially the most boring. Yet I was gripped for over an hour by Tacita Dean’s Fernsehturm (2001) and Mark Wallinger’s When Parallel Lines Meet At Infinity (1998-2001). Although both films are perverse in their apparently arid visual content and are restricted to a single take from a static fixed camera, their pace and rhythm create an almost hypnotic state that transfixes the viewer. In Wallinger’s film we get a driver’s eye view of the Circle Line tube as it completes its full circumnavigation. We are lulled into a state of mindfulness by the train journey’s rhythm of starts and stops. In Dean’s work we see the view from the revolving restaurant of the iconic TV tower in East Berlin. As it makes its barely perceptible rotation, dusk falls and the glowering light gives the cityscape below an eerie fascination. In both instances the exposure to narratives so slow and lacking in incident produced a strange effect on me. I might have chosen to leave after a few minutes thinking that I had got the drift of the artist’s intention. But in these works the focus and curiosity of the viewer is captured and you enter a dimension of uncanny, Zen-like timelessness. It is as if our brain’s defensive reaction to the numbing boredom is to heighten the acuity of our perception and we enter a hyper vigilant state of consciousness where the search for subtle distinctions is totally absorbing. Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine channel film installation The Visitors at the Barbican Gallery this week was a similarly enthralling experience
One of the many manifestations of Kjartansson’s perversity is in making an hour long live music video that consists of eight musicians that remain isolated from each other in separate rooms whose only communication is through headphones. A drummer , a cellist, an accordion player, several guitarists and two pianists each have their dedicated screen and loudspeaker. The disconnect which Kjartansson has exploited in his direction of the piece has some electrifying effects. At times it feels that the music is about to fall apart under its own fragility. At other times the beauty of singers fighting blindly against each others harmonies creates a crazed surface to the sound. The eight bar chorus in waltz time seems to give the musicians the freedom to extemporise and although repeated hundreds of time over it never flags.
Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
When I saw this work last year at the Brewer Street Car Park under the auspices of the Vinyl Factory the lyrics :”Once again I fall into my feminine ways” seemed to be a joyful assertion of the value of gender fluidity. Other critics have described it as a melancholy dirge, whose lyrics were written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife following their break up. But for me the underlying message of the work is the sense of community and reassurance that music can instill in both performers and audience. We get visual confirmation of this as one by one the musicians leave behind their individual “sound booths” and their instruments and make their way outside still singing and dancing across the countryside. In parallel as the rooms empty the audience follows the musicians eventually gathering in front of the single screen watching the rag tag ensemble disappearing into the distance. No one seems to want to leave as long as the barely audible singers are in earshot. This level of audience solidarity is unique in my many years experience of video art .
It is impossible to review all the London MI art I see in depth, so here is a brief overview of works that have caught my eye in recent months.
Anne Tallentine – Hollybush Gardens
Morning Lane, a single channel video comprising a static shot of two contrasting surfaces on an urban roadside. Ripped polythene flapping in the wind and a single plastic cover that seemed to inhale and exhale. Schematic but visually arresting contrasts of this random fluttering and the rigid lines of the traffic traversing the view.
Themersons- Camden Art Centre
These Polish expat artists made a political piece for the exiled Polish Government during WW2. Calling Mr Smith is a rallying cry to wrest back Germany’s cultural heritage from Hitler. As an artistically driven documentary film it was way ahead of its time
Mark Wallinger- Hauser and Wirth
He offered two very original videos.
1 A barber’s shopfront seems eerily still with only the revolving spiral red pole showing the passage of time. However this is an illusion as the film consists of two frames which alternate at a high enough speed to give the sense of continuous movement. Time has actually been caught in an endless loop that we can see by the metronome action of the second-hand of the shop’s clock.
2 The viewer is inside a four screen installation of the same scene in the four seasons. It happens to be a roundabout with an ancient oak tree at its centre in Barkingside that I know well. The film is shot from a car driving endlessly around the roundabout similar in theme to the infinity loop of his Circle Line train cab video.
Aleksandra Domanovic at the Zabludovicz Collection- Emotional Supply Chains
19.30 is a two channel video feature a vast array of TV news idents from ex Yugoslav republic TV stations selected from the archives. This is set against footage of impromptu rave parties. She conjours up nostalgia for analogue formats in the pre-digital broadcast age. Interesting to see how the ubiquitous globe in the newscasts is retained when model props in the 70’s were replaced by computer animation in the 90’s. This is paralleled by the stentorian timbre of the music intro themes that survived the usurping of live musicians by the MIDI synthesiser.
Abandoned buildings are like cat nip to the video artist. Abandoned international airports (and there a ridiculous number of them around the globe at present) have a poignant glamour to them and they provide an opportunity for reflection on the arrogance and corruption of venture capitalists and politicians. The lone figure in such spaces is a highly evocative image. This week I was reminded of the many moving image artworks that have exploited this, some more successfully than others.
Airport- John Akomfrah
Lisson Gallery, Bell Street until 12th March
A spaceman plods around Athens derelict international airport for much of this 52 minute film. It reminded me of Mark Wallinger in a bearsuit wandering through the empty spaces of a Berlin art gallery at night in his Turner award winning film Sleeper. The Akomfrah spaceman is featureless and unreadable behind his smoked glass visor and there is no apparent emotion in his movements. At least in Sleeper we can adopt the viewpoint of the naturalist observing the animal’s behaviour. We know that Wallinger is inside the bearsuit but as we watch him padding around the gallery we suspend our disbelief and empathise with the animal’s excitement and boredom.
In Airport the spaceman is meant to remind us of 2001: A Space Oddessy as we also encounter a man in an apesuit echoing Kubrick’s signifiers of human progress. Although this is the curator’s view, to me it seems that Akomfrah is driven by the wider symbolic power of placing a human figure in an abandoned building. Is it the first created Man in the Garden of Eden or the last man standing in a post apocalyptic wasteland? Freud might argue that it represents the dream scenario of the person exploring in the recesses of their psyche as they go from room to room. Wallinger humorously cuts through this poncy intellectualising by playing up the droll absurdity of a man masquerading as a bear caged by the sleek glass and steel lines of a modern gallery.
In contrast Akomfrah’s spaceman is deadly serious. His smoked glass visor robs him of humanity and we can only regard him as an aesthetic image. The dissonance between his high tech garb and the dilapidated wreck of the disused airport buildings is visually arresting but that palls after a while. The other figures who appear are styled in the fashion of the 1940s when the airport first opened and they too make their visual point but hang around too long in enigmatic tableaus. It is the contrived portentousness of these figures raising expectations of a denoument that never arrives that is unsatisfying. If this film had been 15 minutes long it would have been just as effective. Even without the figures we would have plenty to absorb.
I’m reminded of the excellent film on a similar theme in Fiona Tan’s Ghost Dwellings shown in May 2015 at the Frith Street Gallery. The buildings were family homes in Ireland abandoned by the bankrupt developers before completion standing forlorn in the landscape. The simple soundtrack of wind and rain and the absence of human life were all that were needed to give this film its emotional punch. There are many still images of the shell of Athens airport on the internet. The one that is most compelling is the departure hall escalators stacked high with redundant cardboard files, an image too ugly and unsettling to make its way into Akomfrah’s stylish film. His 2013 film documentary, The Stuart Hall Project, compiled from archive footage, is a worthy tribute to this famous cultural theorist but is similarly languorous.