When a child appears in an artwork we grant them privileged status. Their words seem surrounded by an aura of 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 response by placing children in post-apocalyptic landscapes. The burden of our adult fears and hopes seems to weigh on their shoulders.
Mikhail Karikis at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery – Children of Unquiet
Asserting a philosophical debate through visual language can often be a success. But I am usually disappointed when artists attempt to philosophise through their own written text. So often it can end up as an incoherent mess – after all if an artist has a talent in visual expression is is unlikely that their written expression is as skilled. I was therefore relieved and intrigued that Karikis had selected quotes of 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 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 abandoned 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 playing it!
Leslie Thornton at Raven Row Gallery
Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding
This work has been developing over Thornton’s entire artistic career and has cropped up 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 presents bite-sized visual treats with 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 pervasive white noise of conflict that Peggy and Fred have lived through. It is as if their childhood analogue adventures are 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 a Bible-basher preaching hell-fire. 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 compelling when the artist puts them at the centre of their work as Karikis and Thornton have done.