Can the next generation pick up the pieces of our broken world and work together to repair it? There are grounds for optimism with the disappearance of the Brexitmajority as the predominantly anti-European elderly demographic shuffle off this mortal coil. Their replacement by optimistic and idealistic young voters could mean an inexorable growth in pro-Europe sentiment, assuming that a corrosive nationalism is not a default mechanism that comes with living through the inevitable instabilties of adulthood. This could not be better represented than in Ulla von Brandenburg’sSweet Feast currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until the end of the month.
The centrepiece of this magnificent installation is her moving and hilarious film featuring children from a local primary school who reenact the bizarre events inspired by the exhibition held at the Whitechapel in January 1973. Its purpose was to celebrate the diversity of the confectionarycultures of the European countries we were about to joinhands with by displaying a vast collection of exotic sweets on nationally badged stands. There was a party atmosphere heralding our new future in the Common Market and a jumbled message from the Whitechapel Gallery PR led to a rumour that on the exhibition’s closing day all sweets would be given away to local children. Five hundred of them turned up and stormed the exhibits in a frenzy of sugar intoxication.
Extensive press coverage from the archives including a cutting headlined EXHIBITION EATEN AS KIDS RUN AMOK is reproduced in the evocative broadsheet newspaper issued to gallery visitors. The prevailing positive attitudes to our new partners are revealed in all the coverage with one exception. Redolent with Farage and Rees-Mogg bigotry is a condescending and bitter article printed in the January 1973 edition of Arts Review. It is worth going just to get hold of this!
“There are different types of truth: scientific truth, legal truth and artistic truth amongst them”
This was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s response when I questioned whether his film might contribute to our increasingly insecure grasp on the “truth” engendered by Trump-era “fake news”. He was addressing an audience at a Whitechapel Gallery event I attended a year ago showcasing the Jarman Award 2017 nominees. His response seemed entirely cogent to me. His nominated film, Rubber Coated Bullets (2016), an artistic extrapolation of his work as an acoustic analyst for the human rights research group, Forensic Architecture, navigates a route between these three “truths” using material from their investigation into the shooting of two Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers in 2014. He makes it clear that his work is has a different aim, a less explicitly advocatory one than the original investigation, which is to raise the problems of defining reality when indistinct perceptual inputs have been filtered through our inbuilt unconscious prejudices.
Much of the film is set in a concrete shooting gallery where ominous streaks mark the walls. We are put in the position of the shooter with the spectrograms (visual representations of the frequency and duration of gunshots recorded by Abu Hamdan) replacing the silhouettes of bodies that are the marksman’s usual targets. An unseen, unheard but gripping courtroom drama unfolds through subtitled text. The spectrograms provide convincing evidence that the boys were shot by live ammunition, not rubber bullets as originally claimed by the authorities. The text of the legal and forensic arguments are fictionalised as the hearing that investigated the killing did not admit the forensic evidence which suggested that the replacement of rubber bullets with live rounds was intentional. The police officer who fired the fatal shot entered a manslaughter plea and was sentenced to nine months for “causing death by negligence.” Abu Hamdan’s text neatly exposes the conflicts between political pressures and scientific evidence playing out in a legal setting.
Abu Hamdan’s originality and flair has already been recognised by winning a number of international art prizes. Although he did not win the Jarman Award I felt he was robbed: he was the strongest nominee by miles. His groundbreaking work has recently been recognised by a showcase performance at the Tate Modern and at a solo exhibition, Ear Witness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery. I am delighted to see he has been nominated for the 2019 Turner Prize.This is a really exciting time for art as he has invented a fascinating new sub-genre that combines acoustic science, aesthetics, cognitive psychology and politics.
Walled Unwalled(2018) shown at Tate Modern in early October is a film inspired by Abu Hamdan’s interviews with ex-political prisoners as part of an Amnesty International investigation. They had endured incarceration in the notorious Saydnaya torture/interrogation centre of the Syrian regime in which an estimated 13,000 people have been executed since 2011. He found that since they were held in almost complete darkness their memories were encoded entirely in auditory form. As with the blind, their sense of hearing became markedly more acute and they were able to build up an accurate auditory map of the prison. As Abu Hamdan explains ” Hearing things meant making images in the mind…it really is cross-sensory” The starvation diet they suffered led to distorted memories so their acute hunger massively attenuated the relevant sounds such as the thud of bread hitting the floor outside their cell doors. In the 20 minute film a wide range of examples illustrate the symbolic nature of walls and the unreliable nature of auditory testimony collected through them. He also reaches the astonishing conclusion that the latest sub-atomic detection technology means that all walls are penetrable so now there is literally nowhere to hide.
The performance that followed was build around 95 objects that were associated with sounds generated by his investigation. So for example a punch does not sound like we expect it to because the cinema foley artist substitutes a simulation for the real thing. These objects were named but unseen at the Tate. At Chisenhale the same text is used but here all the objects are on show as an installation, Earwitness Inventory (2018).
At Chisenhale his audio work, Saydnaya (the missing 19db) is a powerful and moving experience. You listen in a darkened chamber recalling a prison cell with two narrow slits to allow us to see out into the gallery. It is filled with tense periods of silence highlighting the gruesome testimony of the prisoners whispered reenactments and their interview statements. Whispering was the only way to communicate with fellow prisoners. The 19 decibels refers to the drop in the typical whispering volume recalled by those prisoners who were detained after 2011 compared to the ordinary prison regime prior to his time. It is a chilling physical manifestation of the degree of terror imposed.
Forensic Architecture’s investigations and the spin-off work by artists like Abu Hamdan give hope to those of us who are keen to see the dissolution of the art/science divide and the blurring of the boundary between art and advocacy.
The International Film Series at the Whitechapel continued to offer a stimulating programme in 2017. The three films I saw in September all had an element of visual surprise. This destabilisation of perception forces us to reorient our understanding of the visual field and reminded me of our tendency to make unwarranted perceptual assumptions.
Adrian Paci’sThe Column (2013) was a visual treat. Paci is an Albanian refugee now living in Italy whose films reveal an acute sensitivity to light. He followed the journey of a block of marble from its delicate extraction in a quarry in China to its loading onto a cargo ship where it is arduously carved by stonemasons into an ornamental column as it makes its journey to Europe. An amazing sequence that took a while to interpret was created by sunlight casting shadows through the slits in the deck onto the hold below as the ships orientation slowly changed.
Cengiz Tekin’s Just Before Paradise (2015) was a moving portrait of another type of cargo – young male migrants. Initially we only see their faces but they are finally revealed to be standing waist deep in the sea contemplating an uncertain future. This Kurdish artist created a profound impact with the careful marshalling of simple elements.
Jūrmala (2010–16) takes its name from a beach in Latvia, the setting for this collaborative film by nine Berlin-based women artists and filmmakers. Each one took the same sequence and played around with the sound track to give it a different spin. The version with a director’s voiceover in homage to John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum was quite neat.
Whitechapel Gallery: William Kentridge to 15 January 2017
“Tear and repair”, a slogan that appears in one of Kentridge’s animations, is a clue to the significance of his ideas. As a metaphor for the struggle we all face in fashioning a life from the rag-tag of material at our disposal, it also intensifies the power of his art. His innovative stop-motion charcoal animation technique which involves erasing and adding to his initial illustration leaves an after-image like the vapour trails of aircraft or the memory traces of our past suggesting that our repairs will always leave a hidden shadow.
For me, the most emotionally evocative work in this exhibition is a short looped film inspired by George Melies, Invisible Mending (2003) combining live action, animation and old school special effects also viewable on youtube.com/watch?v=hEaQ0h72GNg . I first saw it ten years ago standing in the street on a freezing December day looking at the screen through the plate-glass of Brighton University’s Art building. At the time I was reflecting on the hard graft you need to patch yourself up following a period of personal turmoil and it provided a comforting image of survival. We see Kentridge take torn sheets of drawing paper and miraculously piece it together on his studio wall. He wipes away the scrawls and smudges that obscure the drawing, a full-size self-portrait, admires it, then ambles out of the frame. The drawing then transforms into his real figure that also walks away in the opposite direction. Although we know this is an illusion formed by reversing the film reel we cannot resist the optimistic interpretation that recovery from our self-destructive acts is possible.
Invisible Mending at 90 seconds is easy to miss. The Refusal of Time (2012), is not. It is a compelling thirty minute, six screen installation surrounding the viewer on three sides buzzing with ideas about time and space, infinity, mortality, migration and colonialism. I could not decide whether or not it suffers from an overenthusiastic embrace of too many collaborators including the composer Philip Miller and history of physics academic, Peter Galison. There are some great quotes from cosmologists including the idea that the universe acts an archive of all the images that have ever existed. The sight of the artist walking endlessly around a circuit interrupted at regular intervals by having to hurdle over a padded bench reflects his own expressed reliance on walking as a stimulus to his creativity. It also evokes the idea of an artist measuring out his life in a series of physical challenges much like a migrant. The image of six metronomes gradually losing their synchronicity is a neat metaphor for the relativity of time perception. Some poignant sequences of a mournful procession of cutout figures look to be outtakes from his simpler and more emotionally engaging multi screen More Sweetly Play the Dance shown at Marion Goodman gallery in July 2015.
This ambitious layered work, overwhelming in its scope and ambition, reminds me of the Graham Swift novels Ever After and Waterland which present a rich tapestry of so many associations that it is difficult to detect an overarching theme that is given its full attention. I can admire them without being emotionally engaged by them. Less is usually more but sometimes intellectually curious artists cannot resist the temptation to give their scattergun enthusiasm full rein.
Kentridge is one of my top five MI artists and I hope this exhibition will raise his profile to the level he deserves. Not all of his best work is here so a comprehensive retrospective is surely due.