It’s a long time since I’ve written anything here. I’d largely put that down to starting a teaching job at Leeds College of Art whereby most of my critical thinking energies over the last 2 years that are not used in producing my own artworks have been spent planning seminars for Fine Art students. This is a real privilege of course – working with great, inspiring students and getting paid to think and talk about art. Coming to the end of year 2 I am starting to get the hang of the role (at least a little!) So I am hoping to reprieve the blog as a space to mull, to begin to form new thoughts and review things made or seen.
As a first step (to take stock and get back in the writing swing of things) I’ve updated my website so it includes a page of articles and reviews I have written over the years. Some are quite old but I have done a few bits slightly more recently – including articles about Lucy Beech and Chris Paul Daniels written last year when I was a participant in a CVAN critical writing programme, and an article on public art commissioned by Corridor8. Watch this space to see if I succeed in my intention to get other sketchy fragments of writing out of my notebook and onto this page.
One of my favourite films at Leeds International Film Festival this year (and an audience favourite overall too) was ‘In The Crosswind’ (or ‘Risttuules’ in Estonian). The film is like an epic history painting, composed – apart from a brief opening scene – entirely of a series of tableaux vivants. Characters stand motionless whilst the camera weaves between them; their poses and expressions fleshing out the story of each scene. The film is set in 1941 when Stalin’s regime separated Baltic families, with men sent to prision and women and children to forced labour camps. A narrative voiceover reads letters written by a woman, Erna, to her husband when she and her daughter are deported from their home in Estonia to Siberia. On watching the film I presumed the letters were real, archive documents written and kept by the women as a kind of diaristic record and a gesture of communicating with her husband even though they were probably never sent. Research since has indicated that around 60% of the content came from letters written by a relative of the director. The remaining 40% of content was sourced from archives. Thus the woman Erna is based on a real woman but is also in part a composite character, combining details of several people’s stories.
The film is harrowing, its power comes from the sadness of the personal story it relates (one story representing the fate of thousands at this time). It also comes from the film’s artistic language and the interplay between the verbal voiceover and the visual scenes. The films’ posed scenes and its bleak landscape, all filmed in black and white, are beautiful. Scenes range from tableaux of small groups to those featuring hundreds of protagonists. I particularly recall an early scene at the railway station, where Estonian families are being forced onto a train, crammed in with their belongings. Numerous faces and poses fill this epic image. Later in a Siberian forest, swathed in snow, the vertical black lines of the trees and contrasting white provide a harsh but weirdly intimate location for a sad personal event. On the soundtrack, the letters are restrained and incredibly sad as Erna attempts to put a positive slant on her situation, yet the images we see tell us otherwise. Interaction between voice and image is well paced. Camera movement generally alternates with verbal voiceover, so the letters accompany still scenes and then the camera explores the scene further to reveal more details or nuances. Added to this is a subtle but evocative musical soundtrack of low drones, orchestral swoops, choral singing and character sounds such as whispers.
The film is directed by Martti Helde. I wanted to find out more about how the film was made and what he’s done before. It turns out he’s a first time director which I think is pretty amazing for a film of this ambition. I find it hard to imagine how the more complex scenes in the film were produced and I guess that this type of film may only have become possible with recent equipment and computer software. I found the above ‘making of’ video which gives some details of how original footage was combined with 3d mapping and post-production digital editing.
I’ll be really interested to see what Martti Helde does next. ‘In The Crosswind’ has a very specific visual language which is appropriate to the story it tells. Helde explains that the choice to use stills came from a very specific quote he came across in one of the letters, which read: ‘I feel like time has stopped here in Siberia. That my body is in Siberia, but my soul is still in my homeland.’ For me the format works because as a viewer you identify with the main protagonist whose voice is also on the soundtrack, yet the sheer number of others in the shots conveys the mass of people who suffered the same fate and their static poses suggest the lack of agency or control they had over their own lives at this time. It evokes how the individual always lives their lives against the backdrop of a history largely outwith their control. Some of the film’s power may be that I have seen nothing quite like this before. One precedent is Chris Marker’s film La jetée (1962); another film which I love but which is not as complex or epic as this. I hope Helde will go on to push the language of film in other interesting ways in subsequent projects.
Yesterday I visited Coventry for ‘Future day’ as part of the City Arcadia project. City Arcadia is an art project/series of commissions responding to the past, present and imagined future of Coventry. Future day was a meet up and getting to know the city event, for artists (including me) who have made ‘propositions’ to be part of the project.
It was fab to meet Laura Elliot and Michael Mayhew – who run the project – plus some of the other artists who have put in proposals. The structure of the day made a nice change from familiar commissioning processes where you make a proposal and then get either a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether it can go ahead. City Arcadia would like, in theory, to work with all the artists they invited to the day. So, funding and practicalities permitting, I hope that I will be able to go back there soon to work on a project with them. I’ll post more about my idea if it does go ahead. In the meantime here’s a few snaps that I took of Coventry, it was enjoyable to explore the city.
To continue an intermittent series of blog posts about artworks I love, I want to talk about The Cloud Collector by Lisa Stansbie. It occurred to me that my first two posts are both about artworks that are very verbal. The Black Tower and Let Me Take You There both have spoken monologue soundtracks that are core to their structure and how they convey meaning. Yet both films depend on a visual image or motif as a central element (a photo of a field in Rooney’s work, the recurrent black tower in Smith’s). To diverge briefly, this also makes me recall another film – Rules of the Road, by Su Friedrich – which tells a story of a relationship break up by way of recurrent sightings of of a brown oldsmobile car. I loved this work too, but alas have only seen it once in the distant past and so I probably can’t write about it in a coherent way.
For now, I want to talk about Stansbie’s work. ‘The Cloud Collector’ is similar to the above in its use of a simple visual image track, combined with a monologue voice over. But the weighting between word and image is shifted slightly. The soundtrack is structured around titles for the top 10 best selling novels of the 1950s. Elusive titles, such as ‘The Adventurer’ and ‘Across the river and into the trees,’ have been used as the basis to write a short narrative about a character called ‘The Cardinal.’ At first it seems that the images – a series aeroplane jet streams in a blue sky – act primarily as a holding mechanism, keeping the viewer’s attention as they listen to the winding narrative. But as I listen I realise that these photos have an impact on how I make sense of the story.
I love the work firstly because of its nice turns of phrase. The ‘poetry’ of the book titles seeps into the manner of the narratives telling. For example the video begins: ‘Delivering the news to those who still required it in paper form, he rode his rusted BMX along Joy Street each morning.’ I found myself enamoured by the language, the tone of the voice on the soundtrack and its pacing. I had to watch the video through a few times to work out what the Cardinal’s story actually is. The Cardinal, we are told, is a collector. He looks up at the sky and he has a camera. The soundtrack, the work’s title and the images collude to suggest a tale of a man who photographs jet streams. The project begins with a list of titles and a challenge for the artist to build these into a story. It ends with a densely packed video piece where word and image playfully combine.
I don’t know why Stansbie chose to use 50s novel titles in the production of this piece. The video is one of a series of pieces in which she used lists of words as the basis for writing stories. Other instances have included the names of racehorses and Airfix aeroplane kit names. My interpretation would be that it’s perhaps something to do with the nature of information in our contemporary internet-drenched world (and as I type this I am dimly recalling another work exhibited alongside the Cloud Collector that I think was to do with the associative nature of hyperlinks). Certainly there’s something appealing to me about an artwork that takes a series of words and uses it to generate something new. It produces one story out of a series of endless possible stories and then shapes this into something quite formally tight, neat and satisfying.
Lists, collections and artworks are all ways to delimit and to organise the mass of stuff that we encounter in the world.
Christian Marclay’s new video installation ‘Pub Crawl,’ currently being exhibited at White Cube, Bermondsy, is brilliant. Unfortunately the new paintings he’s exhibiting as part of the same exhibition are not. They have no nuance, they go through the motions of being paintings but evoke not very much. Words depicted in each of the paintings relate to liquid (splatting, glooping and plopping). ‘Liquid’ – along with the relationship between sound and image or sound and physical form – provides a conceptual continuity throughout the exhibition and the gallery hand out explains that these particular ‘liquid’ words refer to the act of painting, to what paint does. But these are not sploshy, oozy paintings. They are slick surfaces that, for me, have no charm.
Maybe my encounter with them suffered for going to see exhibitions by Marlene Dumas and Sigmar Polke on the same day. These artists both have a much better grasp of painting both compositionally and in their tactile treatment of paint (although to be fair in the converse, I didn’t think Polke’s films were much good). The surface quality and use of words in Marclay’s work is perhaps more akin to Ed Ruscha’s paintings. But Ruscha’s works have strong verbal quality – they trip off the tongue – where Marclay’s words don’t. I can’t help thinking Marclay was probably cajoled into making his paintings to have something big and shiny to sell.
The rest of the exhibition is great and ‘Pub Crawl’ – fun and perplexing – was my favourite. 11 projections run the length of the gallery’s central corridor, projected at floor level so that as you walk between them the shadow of your legs also become part of the piece. Each projection shows a hand-held camera shot as its protagonist (the artist I presume) walks the streets of London. Each time he come across an empty bottle or glass, in the the gutter or propped on a wall, he reaches into shot and taps it or kicks it. The piece is reminiscent of a single-screen work ‘Railings’ by Francis Alÿs where he walks around London playing railings with a stick. But Marclay’s work becomes more complex in its use of multiple projections. The screens are choreographed so that the taps and the kicks add up to a musical composition. As I watch I wonder how the piece was composed; how planned and how random. This conundrum becomes part of the work’s appeal.
Another series of works, each titled after a drinking song, includes the musical score for said song framed behind bullseye glass. Bullseye glass (the cheaper cuts of blown glass which have a circle in them where the glass blowing implement met the blown plate) is often seen in old pub windows. Here the effect is to warp the scores behind them like a funny mirror, so they appeared as if you were looking at them with a booze sozzled brain. I found this amusing. Plus the bullseye shape in the glass had a nice visual resonance with the stack of records being made by a vinyl pressing machine in the same room.
Throughout the duration of the exhibition a series of musical performances are happening in the gallery and being written live to vinyl. Then they are being pressed as multiples with screen printed covers, also made in the gallery, and sold. This is a much better way of making something sale-able. It’s a project that coheres with the exhibition as a whole and demonstrates Marclay as a continually engaging artist trying new approaches. I won’t get to see any of these performances, but I think they give another dimension to the exhibition and – unlike the unfortunate, staid paintings – activate the gallery in a more unusual way.
In the current exhibition of Marlene Dumas’ work at Tate Modern – The Image as Burden – quotes from the artist are pasted around the walls alongside her paintings. This one struck me particularly:
There is a crisis with regard to Representation.
They are looking for Meaning as if it was a thing.
As if it was a girl, required to take her panties off
as if she would want to do so, as soon as
the true interpreter comes along.
As if there was something to take off.
Marlene Dumas The Artwork as Misunderstanding 1991
I like to think that someone, perhaps a number of people, have traveled to the field in Calderdale central to Paul Rooney’s ‘Let Me Take You There – A guide for a field in Calderdale.’ The piece starts with instructions on how to get to the field and the work was exhibited in Artranspennin03, so presumably this live mode of viewing was encouraged during that exhibition. However I saw the work at Site Gallery in 2004 as part of a joint exhibition of work by Paul Rooney and Susan Phillipsz. Since then I have also listened to it online. You can access it through the Artranspennine03 website.
To my mind it is successful as an artwork where you travel only in your imagination to the snowy field depicted in the work’s only image. This image is paired with a monologue audio piece, listened to through headphones. The audio loops and diverges to cover numerous topics, but always returning to the field and its image. It gives a detailed description of the photographer Charlie Meecham taking the featured photograph, as recorded by a Granada TV documentary, and conveys a strong sense of both the cold, crisp day and the process of choosing and framing a section of the landscape to depict.
I love the idea of creating an audio guide for a field. It’s a place that, notwithstanding the location of of the battle of Culloden (where I know you can listen to an audio guide), is unlikely to be a tourist attraction. This field is one of many in the Yorkshire/Lancashire hinterland, general and yet – as we hear here – specific. We are told that Meecham’s image was used on the cover of an album by the band Joy Division and about poems by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath written in this locality, evocative of its atmosphere.
I enjoy the sense of there being a logic to this artwork, a kind of puzzle to how the disparate stories are connected but one that I can’t quite keep up with. As well as referencing events directly linked to the field and its image, the narrative uses leaps of association. The snowy scene reminds the narrator of a diary entry about Trotsky’s last train journey; the photographer’s blanket recalls a blanket used by a singer at a gig (by Paul Rooney’s erstwhile band ‘Rooney’) who shouts out words to a Russ Abbot song ‘Atmosphere.’ Snow is compared to the icy sound of synthesizers on a particular Joy Division track or to to white sheets of Sylvia Plath’s hospital bed.
We are told at the start of the guide that some of its themes are: winter, the photographed moment – it’s frozen time, and the rebirth of spring. This along with the theme of atmosphere, gives a tenor to all the stories and how they are told. I like the detail, the texture of the telling. It’s at once quite a sad work, where we are repeatedly reminded of death by war and by suicide, and an optimistic one that describes creative ventures – a band, songs, poems, photographs – that can come from small beginnings to give substance and meaning to many people’s lives.
Last week I went to a talk in Leeds as part of a series based around items in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library. Entitled ‘Dialect in the Museum‘ the talk involved Dr Fiona Douglas from The University of Leeds English Department telling us firstly about the scope of the libraries Archive of Vernacular Culture and secondly talking about a project with her students to embed materials related to the Yorkshire dialect in 3 museums around Yorkshire. Shibden Hall, Rydale Folk Museum and the Dales Countryside Museum all house material objects from rural Yorkshire that tell the story of a way of life that has become partially obsolete. The project aims to preserve language contemporary to the objects alongside them.
A large part of the Archive of Vernacular Culture pertains to the Survey of English Dialects. This was a nationwide survey of the vernacular speech of England, undertaken by researchers based at the University of Leeds from 1950 to 1961. I was interested to hear that the first interviews undertaken as part of the survey were not audio recorded (as recording equipment would have been cumbersome and impractical at that time) but written down in the international phonetic alphabet. Researchers would also draw pictures in their notes if they did not have a word for the item being described. I think there’s a kernel of something interesting here (a possible art project?!) as regards to the relationship between objects, words and pictures.
My favourite fact from the talk was that, when selecting subjects for the survey, the ideal candidate was an older man with good teeth. Apparently men typically adapt their manner of speaking less readily to the influences around them than women. Older men would take the researchers as far back as possible in terms of past dialects and, well, the good teeth part is obvious. Gaps and gums would not influence their pronunciation.