Film is the medium: Sarah Handelman looks at new works by artists currently exhibited across the South East. Work at Modern Art Oxford, nurse Fabrica, asthma Towner, stuff John Hansard Gallery, De La Warr Pavilion and the Turner Contemporary suggests that artists are “manipulating the medium’s accepted traditions…”
Film as a primary medium links a sextet of spring exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford, Fabrica, Towner, Turner Contemporary and John Hansard Gallery, along with a forthcoming show at De La Warr Pavilion. But the influx of the medium as a mode of expression within contemporary art is anything but limited to this area.
Considering the recent announcement of this year’s Turner Prize nominees, which include two filmmakers, the fact that the medium has found its way into prominence within a growing number of contemporary galleries is anything but coincidence. Specifically, these five distinct exhibitions signal a growing shift in approaches towards film’s place in the gallery. Yes, the exhibitions are related by medium, but it is how the artists in question are connected by their use of film that prompts reflection. In harnessing the ethereal but democratizing nature of the film, these exhibitions succeed at their investigations of a precarious medium’s ability to capture and connect.
Although the featured artists span a range of temporal and physical geography, the notion of diverse space is exactly what draws them together. Film plays a central role in their mutual explorations of identity and movement: Through the work of three emerging international artists, Quarantina, currently exhibiting at John Hansard Gallery, questions the place of the individual within social constructions. In Disturbance Towner presents twice Turner Prize nominated Willie Doherty, whose exhibition of recent work utilises film to question traditional archetypical identities of man and nature. In Brighton, the Otolith Group’s (yet another Turner Prize nominee — 2010) portrait of multidisciplined artist Etel Adnan, shot inside her Paris apartment, carves a meditative path towards understanding the life of a poet. In its forthcoming exhibition, John Smith’s Defining Gravity at Turner Contemporary uses film as a means to capture diverse moments in moving landscapes. And in “Everything Flows: The art of getting into the zone,” Film and Video Umbrella and the De La Warr Pavilion will present a series of new commissioned works that unpack the psychological realm of sport by exploring the unshakeable drive to win among elite athletes, and how any given moments appear and eludes them.
Willie Doherty, Ancient Ground, 2011, Video Installation
For now, the Southeast functions as a microcosm to explore film as an artistic tool, approach and subject. While each exhibition addresses ideas of culture and the self through filmic processes, Modern Art Oxford’s exhibition of Piercing Brightness best represents how we might understand cinema’s potential within the gallery and its ability to reshape the contemporary art-viewing experience.
Piercing Brightness presents new works by British and London-based artist Shezad Dawood, who employs a combinatorial practice of film, light sculpture and painting that forms and reshapes connections through disparate histories, techniques and landscapes. Included with a number of Dawood’s recent paintings are two cinematic explorations — “Trailer” and “New Dream Machine Project” — that seek to simultaneously consider culture on film and film’s place in culture.
Positioning film within the context of the gallery setting has immediate implications. In this set of current exhibitions, film’s presence challenges the very notion of itself — cinematic structures and concepts of distribution are subverted. Genres are flipped. Further, placement of the screen within the proverbial white cube challenges our ingrained popcorn-and-soda expectations by introducing new modes of watching and movie-making. Dawood’s work is no exception.
As a 15-minute edit of the artist’s forthcoming feature length film, Piercing Brightness, “Trailer” is a spliced-together, fictional sci-fi mash-up that depicts an alternate universe of cultural collisions occurring in the factual town of Preston.
Despite what the title leads one to believe, “Trailer” contains few of the necessary devices typical of a sneak preview. Excepting the traditionally placed end credits paired with an ominous and well timed musical track, the preview “contains no honey-soaked voiceover, no release date, no ‘From the director of’ quality guarantee,” writes Freize editor Sam Thorne. Clocking in at quarter of an hour, the film spans “six times the prescribed duration of a Hollywood Studio trailer, and it works harder to mystify than to elucidate.”
The Otolith Group, I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another, 2012
But these subversions are not simply made for art’s sake. Dawood’s implementation of displaced genre and elongated previews exemplifies a multitude of approaches artists within these exhibitions use to manipulate the medium’s accepted traditions. Otolith Group’s I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another, is as much a portrait of an artist as an experimental documentation of the nuance of reading. Like “Trailer,” this film, which portrays poet Etel Adnan reading her 58-page poem “The Sea,” addresses the concept of concentration within the gallery. “Jean Luc Gordard said one of the most important things and one of the most difficult things film can do is show somebody reading,” says Otolith Group’s Kodwo Eshun. “Hollywood tends to avoid it. When cinema encounters poetry, how does cinema envision a poetic encounter?” In their meditations on perceived length, both exhibitions ask whether time spent engaging with cinema is a constructed figment of Hollywood protocol.
Dryden Goodwin, Poised, 2012, © Dryden Goodwin courtesy of Film and Video Umbrella
An artist’s quest and ability to manipulate the cinematic experience is echoed in De La Warr’s Everything Flows. Avoiding purely aesthetic depictions of athletes, the forthcoming exhibition tests the camera’s limits within sport. “Despite how much people train, there’s something beautifully unpredictable about sport,” says Steven Bode, director of Film and Video Umbrella, the collaborating organization for Everything Flows. “Even if you’ve been drilled do it efficiently, anyone can have an off day. What gives people the edge? Why does it appear and elude?” In questioning film’s ability to capture the precarious spirit of a split second, the exhibition subverts the notion of the athlete-hero, an archetype-illusion perpetuated by win-in-the-end blockbusters and televised playbacks.
Shezad Dawood himself is a master of illusions, both cinematic and conceptual: “Trailer” — a preview — acknowledges the existence of Dawood’s feature film, which also shares its name with the exhibition’s title. Yet Piercing Brightness the motion picture is nowhere to be found. Structurally, he plays tricks too. A bright-white, purpose-built amphitheatre appears out of the darkened gallery’s black air. Its circular frame and organic curves conjure images of science fiction’s most quintessential space stations. Almost glowing in darkness, it beckons viewers to slide into its circular body, to behold the film on the screen above, to succumb to its power.
“Trailer” and the film it cites are the result of three years of research and visits made by Dawood to Preston, and the film features 100 extras local to the area. In using the city to explore itself, “Trailer” draws parallels on the town’s identity as a place still fairly segregated and its history as a well-known center where new life congregates (Preston holds the highest number of UFO sightings in the United Kingdom). We encounter a film where alien life has mixed into human society, but who are the real outsiders?
“At first sight there are moments where the viewer might stereotype,” says Piercing Brightness curator Melanie Pocock. “But the film is meant to play with our expectations of what we think migration to be.” Initially, the sole Asian couple appears to be the other life form that threatens the “humans” — a race comprised of Caucasian men and women. Nothing, however, is as simple as black and white. Even life that was previously thought to have existed in Preston all along is thrown into question. Through the flickers of city appear grainy clips of wildlife. In a picture-perfect migratory, birds escape to or from nowhere in particular. Shots of unassuming deer are actually clips of a Muntjac, a non-native species introduced to the area in the 19th Century. Here, “migration is a natural cycle of life and life beyond the human species,” says Pocock. “There’s both a sense of immediacy and an age-old narrative at work.”
This collision of narrative histories is ever more apparent in Dawood’s “New Dream Machine Project,” which references mid-century beat artist Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine and his performances staged at the 1001 Nights bar in Tangier. “New Dream Machine Project” is a filmed iteration of an event directed and staged by Dawood, also in Tangier, at the renowned Cinemateque. The project portrays a digitally captured event, manipulated through retro-style filters — a technique that pays homage to the past and one that is currently enjoying a rediscovery in the 21st Century: As the physicality of film becomes more archaic, it’s potential is refreshed through genre-bending flicks like Super 8 and apps such as Instagram that lend tactility to digital photos through distressing techniques.
Although the film and event make aesthetic comparisons to Gysin’s original swirl of fast-moving psychedelic cutups, Dawood’s work is anchored in its awareness of the present: The artist has not simply remade Gysin’s dream machine. This exhibition is an occasion to capture the surrounding events, enabling Dawood to trace strands of geographic and cultural histories in his attempt to understand the influence of liminal or fleeting networks over time.
Within the context of the smartphone-universe, this cyclical work is infused with a more urgent cultural relevancy. This captured work is only one version of the performance that occurred. In its presentation as a “version” of itself, the zoetropic cycle of “New Dream Machine Project,” signals no end.
“Dream Machine was a democratic way to open art,” says Pocock. “With Shezad’s work, there is a sense of the ongoing. The film is simply an iteration of other possibilities,” a democratising idea in and of itself.