Interdependence is the theme for this year’s Art Licks Weekend programme and we could certainly do with more of that in our divided world. Before she was assassinated by a man raving “Britain First!”, the M.P Jo Cox voiced the opposing slogan: “What we have in common is greater than that which divides us.” So it is heartening to see the five artists in Ballpark Collective living this unifying ideal by carefully attending and responding to each others work to create a unique and absorbing film.
Short Straw is the moving image art equivalent of ‘Chinese Whispers’ a game which teaches us, at an early age, some of the key principles of communication. When the person at the end of line speaks out loud what they think they heard everyone can compare it to the phrase started at the other end. We learn about the fallibility of perception and that the cause of this failure is more to do with our personal biases than faulty hearing. It is fascinating to see this process at work in a visual dimension.
Aimee Neat pulled the short straw and kicked off the series of five sections with a performance piece recasting gender relationships as a competitive sport. We spectate a furious domestic as a couple hurl wads of wet J-clothes at each other. The woman is angry, her male opponent mildly amused. (How relevant to the exchanges in the current gender role debate!) They are confined like aggressive squash players in blue walled space. We winch at the amplified squeaks and slaps of the action. A tranquil soundtrack provides an ironic contrast. What is uncanny is that reverberations of this piece lasts through to Sarah Lewis’s fifth film which gives another take on the same theme. This is despite the fact that each artist is responding to the previous work filtered through their own conceptual and perceptual screens with no discussion between them outside the ritual of passing their work on.
Sarah Lewis offers some wry juxtapositions: archive clips of womans’ relay races and footage of a woman fondling her pet snake. This subtle undermining of the phallic symbolism of snakes and batons returns them to the hands of women. The hilarious clip of a child relay runner taking the baton and setting off in the opposite direction of her opponents to the consternation of the adult coach says something about the absurdity of a competitive worldview.
The three segments linking these two neatly reference the futility of conflict and competition. In her thoughtful and beautifully paced section, Sun Park introduces us to the Korean adage that pointless conflict is like trying to “cut water with a knife.” Susanne Dietz, in a section paralleling human culture with the physical earth, references the Goya painting, Fight with Cudgels which portrays two men bludgeoning each other oblivious to the quicksand into which they are sinking. Max Leach in his continued exploration of machismo digitally manipulates an image of the Frederic Leighton sculpture, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, highlighting its frenzied melodrama.
When an artist submerges their ego in a collaborative work the result can often lack focus. Yet the format of this film allows individual visions to shine through while creating a unity of shared meanings. Surely a lesson in there for us all.
Immolation, self harm, masochism: these are all behaviours that have been ascribed to Brexit. One Brexit supporter declared:
“I don’t think we’ll be poorer out, but if you told me my family would have to eat grass, I’d still have voted to leave.”
Why are we all so hell-bent on self-destruction? Are we all screaming inside but trying to hold it together so what emerges is a strangled shriek?
As you enter Ballpark Collective’s inaugural show that strangled shriek intermittently pierces the air. It is emanating from Aimee Neat’s looped 4 minute video 104 million (referencing Justin Bieber’s instagram followers). Is the shriek coming from a besotted Belieber or is it from Bieber himself, strangled by his meteoric ascension. Perhaps its origin doesn’treallymatter as he is justan avatarfor the feted YouTubeinfluencerthat any one of them or us can become. But do we really crave that poisoned chalice?
So many seem to crash and burn after theirtime in the sun. The desperate huntforlikes andfollowers eventually consumes their identity leaving anexhausted, burnt out shell. Neat gives an alarmingly accurate Cindy Shermanesque recreation of the Bieber shell in asuccession of subtly different static poses complete with a goofy cat face baseball cap and hoodie. This outfit comically undermines the James Dean scowl and we cannot help wondering if Bieber is fated to be yet another celebrity Icarus. His pursed lips trademark is telling us something – maybe he rejects smiling as a signifier of falsity? The manufactured inscrutability must be hiding something – disdain or despair maybe? Or do we just project those emotions to protect us from our own repressed shrieks of envy? Fellow Goldsmiths alumna Ruth Waters has pastiched the facial tropes of female Youtube influencers in an equally hilarious video, Outtakes and Bloopers ♥Again, viewable at https://vimeo.com/255754921. It is no coincidence this video climaxes in suppressed shrieks of giggling.
Physical immolation features in two of the other videos on show and we start asking- why do we beat ourselves up? Why are we heading for a self harming Brexit? Why do artists debase and immolate themselves? Is gender relevant? From Yoko Ono to Marina Abramovic and Mona Hatoum to Marianna Simnett, displaying, cutting, probing, contorting, injecting, even asphyxiating the female body have become performance art tropes so it is interesting to see the male take on this. In Max Leach’s Flesh and Glass, a murky and unsettling 8 minute video with an intense and spooky binaural soundtrack, we see a Hatoumesque sequence of bodily penetration filling the screen with saturated pinky red tissue but with few clues as to what we are viewing. The remaining footage hints it might form part of a macho initiation cult that demands lonely, late-night vigils in vulnerable motors and bloody, self-harming rituals involving blunt pencils. For men, is immolation and masochism a validation of their masculinity?
In Sarah Lewis’s Death by Blonde a female body appears trapped and cocooned inside a giant nest woven from straw-like blonde hair. With only her splayed thighs visible her sexual vulnerability is heightened by the superimposition of a clip from Lewis’s family video archive showing a child jumping on a trampoline. The much debated controversial lyric from Paul Simon’s Graceland – “the girl from New York City who called herself the human trampoline” – comes to mind. Blonde and yellow tones appear throughout so the film glows with sensuous warmth. But the double-edged impact of the stereotype is highlighted by the home movie footage of blonde female children who are bashful and confused as well as cheerful and bouncy.
Susanne Dietz’s What’s Yours is Mine provides some kind of resolution to the disturbing images in the rest of the show. Her 13 minute film investigates the conflict of self-doubt with self-love through the fictional biographical fragments of a woman who is in constant conversation with her alter-ego. She is not afraid to ask difficult questions. What happens when, not only God is dead, but the hippies and disco as well? How to feel better? How to be in the World? What to do about an ex-lover’s name tattooed on her neck? Images of beauty (blue sky seen from a train), comfort (pillows being plumped) and contentment (sleeping babies) give some hope. But hope is fragile and temporary. The babies are wax candles that slowly melt from the flame, the sky is fleeting and lacerated by powerlines, the pillows remain unslept on. The carefully edited ambient electronic soundtrack is alternately soothing and alarming. The film is gripping, concise, sometimes lighthearted and never portentous which is a triumph considering the weightiness of the questions it tackles.
Sun Park’s two short gem-like videos loop on tiny screens. Looking up will only make you fall distorts a common trope of video art, the shopping mall, by shooting into reflective architectural surfaces. The camera is always moving and the shimmering, crazed, fragmented effect is original and disorienting. It is viewable at https://vimeo.com/manage/329739672/general
Sympathetic Magic is a playful comment on the trick photo beloved of tourists where the human figure appears to interact with a famous landmark. Here a finger appears to ping the Shard which resonates like a tuning fork before rotating by a quarter turn. If only the global financial institutions it houses were so easy to control! Viewable at https://vimeo.com/329739541
Reality Sandwiches showcases the work of a group of moving image artists who graduated from Goldsmiths University in 2018 and is a model for the effective installation of several video artworks in a relatively confined space, in this case a disused warehouse in Bermondsey funded by the art organisation, SET Alscot Road. Remarkably, there is no sound leakage between the works with each granted sufficient territory to own. The electronic soundtrack from Dietz’s speakers creates a suitably ambiguous aural atmosphere in the gallery.
Like all worthwhile exhibitions this generated much thought. I now have a deeper sense of the psychological processes that underlie Brexit. If we are living in a failed world does that mean we are failures? If hipster London has turned its back, our failed lives will not improve whatever we do. If this means we are fundamentally worthless we deserve to be beaten up. But we prefer to immolate ourselves rather give the opportunity to someone else. Anger against ourselves is often turned outwards to the inchoate Other but in reality we are punishing our own failure to fulfil our uniquely human, conscious prosociality. All these contradictory emotions fighting for expression leave the body politic no choice but to emit a strangled shriek.
This is the third of my annual encounters with the artists at the Goldsmiths’ Degree Show and the impact they have on me is still startling. This year there was less of the controlled anger on display but many of the works seemed to get to me at an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. I started with the artists graduating from the new MFA in Artist’s Film and Moving Image.
For me, Now and There, Here and Then (2018) was one of the most moving works on show. It is a sensitive, intelligent, concise and sharply observed work seemingly inspired by the Korean artist Sun Park’s sense of alienation at being so far from her home and family. It is presented as an enlarged phone screen projected into the centre of a phoneshaped screen set on the floor at an angle. We are immediately confronted with the ubiquity of video recording and how it mediates and distances our experience of the world. We hear a conversation between a mother who lives in Korea and her daughter who is a student artist in the UK relaying their experience of their environment to each other by video footage (a neat reversal of the face-focussed video call!) Their own video clips, mostly of the sky, create a sense of intimacy and the topics they discuss include the daughter’s insecurities as an artist, the mother’s disillusionment with her life choices, the nature of art and the limitations of the video image. Among the highlights was the comment when a vapour trail is recorded and the mother says: “Look, the aeroplane has made you an artwork.” At one point we hear the comment about a shot of the dawn: “You can only see the half of it through the camera” – a vital warning to all moving image artists. This was a highly original work that had much to say on the emotional side-effects of globalisation and technology.
Susanne Dietz, originally from Germany, also uses mother-daughter relationships as a springboard in her films. One film comprises handheld footage as she follows her mother around a graveyard incidentally passing by the distinctive and beautiful grave stones. (Maybe stonemasons in Germany are given a freer hand in designing exotic monuments for the dead.) Her mother is looking for her chosen plot and final resting place but she is stymied by her failing memory. Dietz’s complementary film Bunker on Kummerstrasse (Grief Street), 2018 is a carefully controlled and gripping meditation on a disused building, home to memories we might wish to let go. The stately progress of the camera as it ascends and descends through the seven stories of an aboveground bunker still standing from the Nazi era gives a sense that a home can be conjured even out of concrete bleakness. The drum solo that accompanies much of the film adds an urgency to the atmosphere but also homeliness when we eventually reach the floor where we fleetingly view the drummer himself. Fluffy bedpillows also get star billing. As Dietz explains: “We just want something soft to fit between our heads and the earth”. On reflection, this is as significant as Anselm Keifer’s work on Germany’s past.
Max Leach’s single channel film Ducks Don’t Drown (2018) has an unsettling aura magnified by being projected on a large linen sheet that gives a subtle and almost imperceptible wobble to the image as it is ruffled by drafts. The hyper-real CGI of a homely interior contrasts with the disturbing, murky sound track derived from a series of interviews with male Dark Web users relishing their freedom to choose from a long shopping list of recreational drugs. It gives a rather bleak window onto the otherwise opaque landscape of the Dark Web. Leach’s short soundpiece that captures the violent energy of laddish banter provides an enjoyable counterpoint to his film. He has much to say on masculinity so I look forward to more in the same vein.
Ukrit Sa-nguanhai’s Enduring Body (2018) is a captivating and visually sumptuous exploration of the metaphorical power of cancer. It is inspired by a childhood memory of her rural Thai hometown when a number of her teachers died mysteriously one after another from the disease. The film begins with a teacher’s funeral and ends with a death mask digitally reconstructed by 3D printer. In between she has created touching vignettes to illustrate the dark, anxious humour of our fears. A writhing massed tangle of crocodiles emerges from the gloom like invading tumor cells. By superimposition of microscopic cell images the walls of a patient’s bedroom seem to undulate. A cancer patient coyly begins a romance that leads to game of strip poker. I was gripped by the 25 minute film and would have happily stayed to view it again. It was a pleasure to be immersed in the quirky and beautiful world that Sa-nganhai has so carefully crafted. But I was determined to see as much MI art as possible so I moved on to the Fine Art MFA Show.
Many of the Fine Art graduates incorporated MI into their work including VR. I nearly toppled over inside the VR world constructed by Anna Mikkola. You float above a vertiginous mountain landscape in the midst of a flock of black birds wheeling around you. Hitchcock would have loved VR. As part of her eclectic installation, Life is Necessarily Complex (2018) Mikkola is highlighting the increasingly synthetic and simplified versions of the natural world we are becoming inured to as technology begins to mould life processes and living organisms.
VR is also the bogyman in the startling live scenario designed by Alexa Phillips. In Bedroom, London 2025 she illustrates the dystopian end point of isolation, withdrawal and listlessness that our self focussed screen based life might lead to with a seven level bunk bed where the occupants are held in stasis by their 1984-style utilitarian tin VR headsets.
I was determined to see Johanne Wort’s intriguingly titled Bunkertown (2018) so it was my last stop as the frenetic Preview came to a close. Appropriately sited in the gabled loft space of the converted church which is the latest addition to the Goldsmiths’ art buildings, the two channel video installation did not disappoint. Here at last was the cutting satirical work I had been waiting for. We sit in an estate agent’s office with water cooler at hand to view a glossy CGI promo for their latest offer to the paranoid home seeker. Building on the current fashion for gated housing developments, she has skillfully envisioned a hermetically sealed life/work/play “seven star luxury” bunker that owes something to the Eden Project. This type of fantasy world prevalent during the Cold War now seems uncomfortably close to reality as climate change threatens to wreck our environment and the rich head for the hills.
With sixty artists to survey in one evening I am sure I missed some excellent work. I also enjoyed Aimee Neat’s observation of media performers being reduced to “happy” or “sad” emoticons in her installation A Sculpture of your Grief (2018) where she takes a satirical sideswipe at the rictus grin that hides the pain of living life on the revolving circus of the internet. Sheila Buckley’s Peepers (2018) was a disturbing and thrilling mash-up of explicit Celtic stone carvings with a vortical CGI and laser installation – a visceral and thought-provoking blast.
For controlled anger I need only turn to the Goldsmiths academic and activist, Ayal Weisman. His Turner Prize nominated Forensic Architecture research group will be the focus of a future blogpost.