Hetain Patel: making sense of the weird in the 2019 Jarman Award

Still from HD video The Jump (2016). Copyright Hetain Patel , courtesy of the artist

I am chuffed to see that three of the nominated artists for the Jarman Award 2019 have already been highlighted for praise in previous mialondonblog posts, accessible through the tags Imran Perretta, Rehana Zaman and Mikhail Karikis below. The other three MI artists are new to me so I was delighted to make the final day of screening at the Whitechapel to see what had impressed the selection panel.

Hetain Patel’s admirably concise film, The Jump (2016) is funny, gripping and unsettling. It is weird yet ultimately satisfying because its elements are few but highly concentrated. We seem to be in a homely sitting room faced with a group of relatives arranged in rows just before the shutter clicks. It is the classic pose of the Victorian photographic portrait. The range of facial expressions among this varied bunch is immediately captivating. We can see that some are uneasy about the experience while others are delighted. I fancy I would be in the former category, wishing I was somewhere else. If only I possessed a superpower to teleport me out of there! Is this what the artist is thinking?

We are observing a slo-mo film, not a still. The initial giveaway is the toddler fidgeting in his mother’s lap. Over the next six minutes we gradually pan left to reveal a lean crouching figure in a Spiderman outfit whose anonymity, unlike the others, is guaranteed by his spidermask. (Shouldn’t it be the toddler in costume?) His prolonged graceful, athletic leap in front of the group is met with interest but not shock. As a Hollywood style climax our comic book hero might be expected to shoot out through the window but instead comes to rest on the carpet.

I really rated this film. Some may be asking, why did he win? Not so obviously political or as personal as others on the shortlist, it has the advantage of a brave restriction of imagery which expands the options for our own responses and interpretations. The simplicity of the surreal image of an ur-Spiderman interrupting a family photo-session gives room for the art to penetrate our unconscious. Like all superhero representations, it triggers atavistic impulses of disguise, flight, escape and invincibility. But within the claustrophobic domestic setting we have to cope with a figure that is either a dangerous interloper or a madcap member of the group itself. Is he hoping to break out of the group to assert his individuality or to swoop in to help them? Patel’s film make so much sense of the tensions of family and group dynamics that we are all prone to.

Mikhail Karikis. Still from HD video, No Ordinary Protest (2018) courtesy of the artist

The Mikhail Karikis film, No Ordinary Protest (2018) highlights the place of children in the environmental debate and his signature collaborative method allows his subjects to control the form of the film. Hearing these seven year olds cogent views and seeing them transform their fears into a colourful and chilling masked mime was a real treat.

The two other nominated artists are represented by films that are packed with weird and striking images but whose significance seemed hazy. Both are inspired by other artworks, the ballet Giselle (Cecile.B. Evans) and a Gertrude Stein play (Beatrice Gibson). These had less resonance for me than Spiderman (a polite way of saying I have nil knowledge of either of the source artworks!) so that partly explains why they failed to connect in the same way.

Neither had a clear narrative which some excuse by describing them as dream-like. This seems to me to be a misnomer as dreams are not really that fragmentary; one image seems to morph with pretzel logic into the next. Dream symbolism is highly personal so its use in art seals meanings behind an impenetrable screen (unless like Freud you have the arrogance to attempt to interpret them for the patient). However, Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs (2019)  had some memorable features including a torch singer accompanied by a haunting accordion. Why we saw so much of a poodle in an open-top car being dishevelled by the slipstream, I am still trying to fathom.

The Jarman Award has a great track record for talent spotting although I do not always agree with their decisions. However I cannot quibble with their choice of Hetain Patel as this year’s winner.

Children vs. Brexit: sweet lessons from 1973

 

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Still from film Sweet Feast (2018) courtesy of Ulla von Brandenburg and Whitechapel Gallery

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 Brexit majority 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’s Sweet 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 confectionary cultures of the European countries we were about to join hands 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!

Abu Hamdan explores “truth” through earwitness testimony

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Still of a spectrogram from video Rubber Coated Steel (2016). © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

“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 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.

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Still from video Walled Unwalled (2018) © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

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.

Disorentation of perception at the Whitechapel

Adrian Paci
Still from Adrian Paci’s video The Column (2013) courtesy of the artist

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’s  The 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.

Better migrants
Still from Cengiz Tekin’s video Just Before Paradise (2015) courtesy of the artist

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.

William Kentridge: tearing and repairing

Whitechapel Gallery:  William Kentridge to 15 January 2017

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William Kentridge- Still from Invisible Mending, courtesy of the artist

 “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.