The Infinite Mix: a glorious blast of MI art

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Stan Douglas – Still from Luanda-Kinshasa courtesy of the artist

London’s lack of a venue for showing large collections of moving image art is radically but temporarily resolved this autumn by the upcycling of a vast derelict office block, 180 The Strand. The Infinite Mix presents ten MI artworks which demonstrate technical ingenuity in spades but with varying degrees of emotional connection. Curated by the Hayward Gallery, they have sensibly co-opted Vinyl Factory’s expertise gained through its occupation of various unlikely spaces including the Brewer Street NCP Car Park. The imaginative transformation of this cavernous shell  to create a series of discrete “studios” of varying dimensions and ambience, all with superb sound design, allows each work to be perfectly showcased. This could never be created in a traditional gallery so this is a cast iron “must-see” exhibition.

Stan Douglas:  Luanda-Kinshasa, 2013

This was a blast. You might find it hard to pull yourself away from the nostalgic and addictive jazz-funk groove laid down by these talented musicians whose enthusiasm and focus are captured so vividly by Douglas. The glorious 70’s vibe is enhanced by the olive, ochre and grey of the authentic equipment (including an early MOOG synthesiser) contrasting with the acid  colours of the musicians’  clothing. Douglas has edited the visuals and sound so that an “infinite” mix of  alternate takes (in reality six hours) have been generated. I could have stayed all day.

Elizabeth Price: K, 2015

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Elizabeth Price: still from K, courtesy of the artist

Deserving of the highest praise is Elizabeth Price who has honed her art to the point where her original ideas are presented through parallel text and images that chime with intellectually appealing clarity. She takes two apparently unrelated ideas, a black and white publicity film for a professional mourning service and  a colour digital animation of a slick assembly line producing yellow stockings and then subtly picks out associations between the two. I guess her overarching theme is our present crisis of technological advance stripping us of our humanity.

Price has detected the rich symbolism in the trend of outsourcing our distressing emotions, deferring to experts who appear to have the required skills that we have lost. For example the services of a professional secular celebrant at a funeral is becoming increasingly prevalent. Price creates a marketing text for a fictitious professional dance troupe who provide a tailored mourning ritual that can move seamlessly between funerals and trade fairs. This bizarre concept of institutionalising sorrow speaks of a future where all emotions are mediated through a third party.

Her restricted colour palette of yellow and blue, the sun and the sky, and the shiny gunmetal grey of high tech equipment is used to highlight our desire for technology to reflect the natural world. All the stocking brands packaged at the end of the process have “sun” in the title (Sunburst, Sunstroke etc) and we note how often marketing is exploiting our attachment to nature. Her description of the automated weaving process mimicking the flailing limbs of the dancers again points to our need to find humanity in the deskilled internet culture we have created.

 

Cyprien Galliard:   Nightlife, 2015

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Cyprien Galliard: still from Nightlife, courtesy of the artist

This can be read as a politically charged film. It is backed by the mournful hypnotic soundtrack of a dub phrase “I’m a loser” and we instinctively empathise with the centuries of colonial repression. Slow-mo storm blown trees flailing against a wire fence seem almost human in their futile struggle to escape confinement. Had it stopped there it would have been a concise statement. Then we get a stunning but seemingly unrelated sequence filmed by a drone flying through aerial firework starbursts. Drone cameras are this year’s latest toy for MI artists, this being the the fourth work I have seen in the last few months where they feature. In this case it feels a bit of a distraction from the political momentum of the narrative.

Rachel Jones: Everything and More, 2015

I am taken by her unifying theme of the fragility of the surface appearance of our environment hiding deeper layers. This concept was examined historically in one of her earlier works where the pixels of her filmed images start to break up. Siting her fabric screen against a river-facing window means that certain passages reveal a view of the Southbank which puts the astronaut narrator commenting on his view from space into some kind of perspective. His description of the earth’s surface are accompanied by some home made oil emulsion experiments with food colouring which were interesting in themselves but a poor replacement for the real thing.

Cameron Jamie: Massage the History, 2007-9

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Cameron Jamie: still from Massage the History, courtesy of the artist

This is billed as straight music video. The 10 minute track by Sonic Youth, seemingly about lost love, alternates between tenderness and anger and is an apposite accompaniment to the ambiguous images Jamie presents. The film begins with a skateboarder set alight who becomes a flaming beacon as he hurtles downhill towards the dousing from his accomplices that will save him. The closing shot is the dramatic blaze of a Christmas tree festooned with American flags (see above) that has featured frequently. The erotic male dance moves which dominate the film are all directed at inanimate objects including the tree. This autistic version of sexual attraction is unsettling to watch and seems to indicate both a poverty of connection and a repressed hostility.

Jamie, a white film maker, has made statements that suggest he identifies as a kind of urban anthropologist so I have no inkling of any intended political subtext. However the title points to our tendency to gloss political history, the fiery images images are reminiscent of lynchings and the overall narrative suggests some kind of revenge for a history of  U.S subjugation.

Martin Creed : Work No.1701, 2013

Creed’s music video celebrates people with unorthodox mobility and admirably undermines the stereotyped victim disability narrative. As people with a range of mobility issues make purposeful crossings of the same intersection in New York a cheerful and catchy pop ditty played by Creed and his band implies that we can usually find a workaround to the problems we face . The final matter-of-fact portrait of a man dragging his lifeless legs along the ground is a throw back to the medieval image of an amputee on his trolley  but without its gruesome associations.

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Martin Creed: still from Work No.1701 courtesy of the artist

The four other works in the exhibition by Kahil Joseph,  Jeremy Deller and Cecilia Bengolea, Ugo Rondinone  and Dominique Gonzalez-Forester are interesting but not groundbreaking. With the exception of Price, overall this is not a survey of cutting edge MI art. Visually spectacular in many cases but sometimes falling into the trap of revelling in images at the expense of conveying compelling original ideas it is nevertheless a rewarding and enjoyable exhibition. Given the large crowds it has drawn it should generate a welcome increase in the popularity of the genre.

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Can an artwork distil a novel?

The Secret Agent- Stan Douglas

Victoria Miro Gallery, Wharf Road N1 until  24th March.

I have always been very attached to the work of Stan Douglas.  His early film Der Sandemann,  inspired by the nineteenth century folktale, had me transfixed when I saw it back in the 90’s and it made me realise for the first time what potential this medium offered to artists. Essentially the film is an extended panning shot of a patch of ground. Projected simultaneously on either side of the screen are two versions of the same location; one scene when it was an allotment with a old gardener pottering around and the same scene decades later when it is a building site.  The two scenes seemed to merge along the centre rather than cut by a cinematic style split screen. This subtle sense of symmetry underlies Douglas’s latest six screen film installation. The Secret Agent is an adaptation of the Conrad novel of the same name published in 1905, originally inspired by the anarchist bombings in London in 1894 . Douglas sets his version in Portugal in the 1970’s but sticks very closely to Conrad’s plot and characters. All Conrad’s key themes and his distinct ironic style are reflected with great subtlety.

Douglas has installed his 55 minute film across three pairs of screens facing each other across the the gallery. You feel implicated in the action as you position yourself on the line of symmetry between them.  Usually only a single pair is used with one screen showing the action close up while the other projects an obscured view of the same scene as if shot by a hidden snooper. This ramps up the voyeuristic frisson as the viewer is now implicit in the act of surveillance. Sometimes a third screen is used. I particularly enjoyed the screen which focuses on the audience watching The Last Tango in Paris which is being shown at the cinema that acts as a front for the plotters’ base. The viewer is pitched into the role of watching the watchers, mirroring the air of paranoia that pervades the story. There is also the chilling ironic contrast between the static cinema audience and the required mobility of the gallery visitor who must stalk the action  as it moves across the six screens.

The other genius touch is the way that the theme of the original novel is updated. In both the film and the novel the bombing is designed to scare the middle classes away from the communist cause. In the Conrad novel the Russian embassy is supporting the anarchist cell because this is pre revolution politics. In the Douglas update it is the American embassy that takes this position. We thus learn that a government of any shade will use the fear of the “enemy within” as a  pretext for draconian security. How current is that!

Douglas captures so many of Conrad’s key motifs. Bathos is heightened as the bombers plot in a bar accompanied by a clunky pianola playing waltzes and mazurkas in the novel and a cheesy keyboard/guitar duo in the film. Giving this band a screen of their own opposite the plotters is a witty visual master-stroke. The bitter misanthropic nihilism of the Professor, the  chief bomb maker, seemed a grotesque caricature in the novel but on the screen he comes over as entirely credible thanks to some fine acting. His warped world-view makes sense of the current crop of fanatical terrorists.

So far none of the reviews I have read have noted that this film includes a staggeringly clever new solution to one of the key problems that bedevil all artists’ films screened in galleries rather than in cinemas. As they do not have fixed screening times, the audience can arrive at any point in the narrative. If they arrive half way through a conventional film the narrative arc is interrupted and the tension is dissipated as you reach the end and have to return to the start. In Douglas’s film the two halves of the film can be seen in either order without this happening . The narrative is linear in time but split into two: the planning of the bombing  in the first section  is preceded by the caption TWO WEEKS EARLIER and the  second section,  the bombing’s aftermath, is preceded by the caption TWO WEEKS LATER. At whatever point you arrive, you are whisked onto the merry go round of plotting and recriminations.  This neatly parallels the  time shifts that feature in Conrad’s novel.

This is the latest in a long and distinguished line of memorable large scale  film/video installations that VMG have presented over the last decade. Their large gallery space was packed out when I saw the Isaac Julien’s PLAYTIME on its final day in 2014.  In London only Marian Goodman, White Cube Bermonsey and the Brewer Street Car Park can compete with VMG’s ability to stage spectacular installations at the present time.