British Art Show 7 In The Days Of The Comet, Hayward Gallery and Ben Rivers Slow Action, Matt’s Gallery

Borrowing its subtitle from HG Wells’ 1906 novel, this British Art Show survey of contemporary art uses the comet as a motif to introduce several key aspects that occur in the 39 artists’ works selected. The recurrence of forms, omens and signs, the measurement of time, and a concept of parallel universes or possibilities all come to mind when we consider the comet. Furthermore, the comet suggests to us a method by which to view the survey: with a slowness of looking that transcends our terrestrial or everyday paces of life and results in a prolonged impact, and by making connections between ideas, like celestial paths.

Many of the artists display a tendency towards narrative, Charles Avery being a prime example, with his fictional Island and Hunter character, ‘in search of truth’. Through a drawing and written text, Avery creates ‘slippages, gaps and contradictions’[1] that suggest that truth is elusive. There is a prevailing sense of foreboding and dystopia as visitors to The Island leave ‘the beach full of optimism and head for the darkness’. The first person is used, lending the work an ethnographic or Robinson Crusoe type of authority: ‘I too was drawn up here by the scent of this enigmatic cat and am all regret’. The enigmatic cat is perhaps standing in for truth and knowledge: we are like the blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat that isn’t there[2]. The Island itself seems more of an allegory than a physical terrain: Avery poses the question of its existence, subsumed as it is under mountains, flowers, rubbish and defunct machines (which could be substituted with social conventions, politics, ideology and confusion).  Indeed, it is perhaps its reflection of confusion or doubt that saves the work from tending toward nerdy science fiction fantasy. In the text piece, Avery writes of a continued effort in spite of aporia: ‘I am just continuing, one foot in front of the other, hoping for a sign to direct me’. 

Yet somehow Avery’s work feels rather contrived, especially in comparison to Ben Rivers’ film currently on show at Matt’s Gallery. In Slow Time, Rivers also focuses on islands. An island invites investigation; it is a world unto itself, a form of parallel or specimen separate from us. Slow Action is a 16mm single screen projection with sound, set on four islands, some more fictional than others. There is ambiguity and humour, the voiceovers intentionally old-fashioned as they try to encapsulate the islands into encyclopaedic, anthropological, geographical and botanical taxonomies. Sometimes the voiceover, in all its authority, contradicts what we see: a white pigeon is described as a native bird with purple plumes. Somerset is the fourth ‘island’, shown here isolated and primitive due to a rise in sea level that presumably extinguishes British social life, as we know it, and results in a return of tribalism. In two sections of the film (which is divided into four, one for each island) names of areas are reeled off in a list that becomes abstract and rhythmic due to its length and the foreign nature of the names. The voiceover is clearly scripted and stiff, this feature recalling Walter Benjamin’s differentiation between spoken and written language, the former being ‘the domain of the free, spontaneous utterance of creatures’ and the latter pertaining more to allegory and the enslaving ‘embrace of meaning’[3] that might or might not be truthful. Through this, Rivers both enjoys and questions documentary and ethnographic film as an authority; he shows ‘that the authority of a statement depends so little on its comprehensibility that it can actually be increased by obscurity’.[4] Both Harun Faroki’s film Images of the World and Inscriptions of War and Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana come to mind in their similar use of voiceover that is so full of specialised information that it often slips into incomprehensibility, becoming too dense to fully follow, and therefore authoritative.

Ben Rivers

These films also have affinities to Slow Action in their historical research and engagement with the past, in the form of archived material and ruins. Rivers explores a dystopian set of places all of which have suffered a collapse, be it environmental (future Somerset, from sea-level rise; Tuvalu, a Pacific island skirted by putrid flotsam; and Lanzarote, from volcanoes) or industrial (an abandoned city-island near Nagasaki once inhabited by coal-miners). The decision to use scripted narration, crackly sound and analogue film (made explicit in the positioning of the projector in the entrance foyer of the gallery, projecting through into the auditorium) also engages the past and mirrors the ruin. Elsewhere in BAS7, artists such as Luke Fowler are using 16mm film too, signalling the current focus on moribund formats and subjects as a form of allegory. The ruin hints that everything exists in fragments, distanced from their origin, that eventually decay. Thus authority and places, aligned with truth, become viewed as ruins[5], and our modes of perception, symbolised by the camera, are perhaps moribund. Fata Morgana sets wrecked aeroplanes and cars before mirages, like mechanical Ozymandiases, almost disappearing into the obscuring shimmer; Slow Action is full of deserted houses, skeletal feral animals and rubbish merging into the landscape: ‘in the ruin, history has become merged into the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay’.[6] The ruin and period formats such as analogue film also invite flights into fiction, history often being argued to be little more that contemporary fiction in any case.[7]

Harun Faroki

Werner Herzog

Many of BAS7’s artists embrace fiction in their practices, exploring types of narrative and allegory so that we are constantly experiencing one text ‘read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent, or chaotic their relationship may be’.[8]  Olivia Plender’s practice is an example of this, in its combination of historical research and fiction. For BAS7 she has constructed a character, supposedly a little known American film director from the 1970s, about whom she has curated an archive and lecture. In this fabrication, as in Avery and Rivers’ work, there is a definite sense of humour. Even sculptor Ian Kiaer, whose research of 1920s Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov is non-fictional, has an element of wit in its investigation into past figures, ideologies and movements. It is as if these artists are seeing the funny side of the 20th century’s authoritative truth-values, from their position of uncertainty, ambivalence and curiosity. Tris Vonna-Michell’s performance and documentation for BAS7 is rich in this uncertainty, comprising rapid-fire monologues that fuse historical narrative, fiction, stream of consciousness and personal anecdotes in a way that is ‘visceral, inconsistent, and aloof from an intended meaning’.[9] Again, the format is a ‘period’ one, this time comprising a Telex Caramate 4000 slide projector, with headphones for the sound component. The slides themselves also depict historical objects, from modernist buildings to analogue photographs pinned on notice boards. Not only do these elements evoke the allegorical ruin, but also the multiplication of histories: in using images of several photographs shown together, as well as in a simultaneous use of contrasting voiceover and subtitle, Vonna-Michell piles up references in a form of cannibalistic homogenisation. All histories merge in the performance and projection; all become words and images – compressed, as it were. This recalls Craig Owens who says that allegory is

‘the projection – either spatial or temporal or both [as is the case with Vonna-Michell] – of structure as sequence; the result, however, is not dynamic, but static [as static as the boxy Telex Caramate], ritualistic, repetitive [like the performance]. It is thus the epitome of counternarrative, for it arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic [using linguistic units sequentially] disjunction for one of diegetic [narrative] combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic [using mutually exclusive syntactical units] reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events’.[10]

This reading of allegorical structure is interesting, as well as problematic, when applied to Duncan Campbell’s contribution to BAS7, a film about Northern Ireland MP and activist Bernadette Devlin. Consisting of news footage of Devlin during the 1970s, collaged and often non-diegetic sound, ‘gaps’ of blackness, and scripted dramatic monologue, the film constructs a spiral of contradictory messages. We are unsure whether Devlin was a martyr or a terrorist, the media depicting her as both. While the film is basically chronological, offering a narrative of her increasingly disrupted and disruptive career, the photomontage effect of the format is more a vertical pile-up of material than a diegesis. Yet the feeling is anything but static. It is perhaps that the movement is both vertical and horizontal: the film follows Devlin’s life while also piling secondary meanings upon the images and story. Clips are appropriated from BBC news and TV interviews, and begin to speak another message apart from their primary one (allegory: allos other + agoreuei to speak). Campbell cuts the sound so that marchers are suddenly silent; images cut to black and all we hear is a clock tick. Clips begin to speak of their ulterior motives as broadcasts: their political allegiances and their ontological state of being constructs.

Tris Vonna-Michell

Duncan Campbell

Research as art practice figures strongly here, as it does also in the films of Luke Fowler. Fowler’s documentary (not at BAS7) about RD Laing and his asylum-come-commune in Bow in the 1970s is very similar to Campbell’s on Devlin, in its use of archive footage and its stutters, gaps, slowing down and non-diegetic sound. In using archived material, both films capture an aesthetic we think of as The Seventies, but in doing so they also question this notion of historicity. If the clips look and sound as crackly and yellow as we expect, then they are deemed ‘authentic’ and appropriate material for cinéma-verité. Aware of this, Fowler and Campbell (and Rivers too) leave it up to us how we treat the footage they relay.
Both Campbell and Fowler’s films explore characters that do not perform as they are supposed to (Devlin politically, and the dwellers in Bow, mentally), not necessarily suggesting that these characters are admirable, but that they are examples of differentiation from social norm and authority. Perhaps artists are currently looking to the past (or making parallel realities) as a way both of bypassing and of informing the present, as disenchanting and confusing as it is.

Luke Fowler

Confusion is certainly an important aspect of Fowler’s work, his film on RD Laing moving from straightforward archive montage into an increasingly fragmented one of words, colour and sound. For BAS7, Fowler continues this exploration of elemental film forms, this time foregrounding sound, which usually plays second fiddle to image, supplementing its realism. A Grammar For Listening encourages not just a slowing down of looking, but an acuteness and delicacy of hearing that thus informs what we see. Fowler is making a report (each part of the film is titled as such) on the sounds of everyday phenomena: a walnut burning, water running, traffic passing. His visual vocabulary and attention to detail recall fellow-Scott Margaret Tait, but while her films lead into music, sound-collage and poetry, Fowler’s Grammar feels more scientific, although equally poetic. Amidst so much artwork that deals with politics and social history, it is refreshing to see  (hear) Fowler’s contribution to BAS7. While it does, of course, touch upon issues of cinema and scientific exploration, it is also a beautiful field study that reclaims the spirit of enquiry and inquisitiveness from territory that might be criticised as flawed hunting after some form of nonexistent ‘truth’ elsewhere.

Elizabeth Price

Fowler’s sense of questioning is present, but in a way that is more sceptical and cynical, in photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ practice. As part of BAS7, his collection of newspaper stories of current affairs maps out the process of ongoing research and revaluation. The Otolith Group’s trilogy of films comprising archived material on subjects ranging from Le Corbusier’s buildings at Chandigarh to casting characters for films has a similar sense of broad questioning; and finally, Christian Marclay’s 24 hour long montage of films, The Clock, and Elizabeth Price’s film User Group Disco question conventional modes of filmmaking and corporate marketing. In all there is a sense of disquiet because we are often seduced (we get drawn into the plots of Marclay’s clips, and the synthetic soundtrack that accompanies Price’s slick shots of consumer items) before realising that we are supposed to be being made aware of the entrapment of regimes. Yet paradoxically, in the artworks’ forcing of our awareness of the dubiousness of truth, marketing or narrative, we question the role of art too. At one stage in Price’s film, Kruger-esque red capital letters read ‘LET’S START WITH THIS/ THIS THING HERE/ LET US SHOW YOU’ echoing corporate slogans that announce authority. But in a way, her entire film is hypocritical, as are many of the other artworks in BAS7, because they all whisper ‘let us show you (show you that you have been taken in by capitalism/ social norms/ history lessons, and that our way, the artist/ leftist/ post-modernist way is preferable)’. Yet the artists are aware of this, and their repeated expressions of doubt and openness testify as such. ‘Let us show you (we know that we know nothing)’ is perhaps closer to what they are saying. 

Chritian Marclay

[1] BAS7 In The Days Of The Comet (2011)  [Leaflet] London: Hayward
[2] Attributed to Charles Darwin, speaking about the impossibility of knowledge. From Roland (issue 4 Nov 2009 – Jan 2010) London: ICA
[3] Benjamin, W (1977) ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’ in The Origin of German Tragic Drama London: NLB p.202
[4] Ibid. p.207
[5] ‘Allegory is consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete – an affinity which finds its most comprehensive expression in the ruin […] The works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape; ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay, a progressive distancing from origin.’ Owens, C (1992) ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’ in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture Berkeley: University of California p.55
[6] Benjamin, op. cit. p.177-8
[7] History as: ‘The “simulacrum”, the identical copy for which no original has ever existed’ Jameson, F (1992) Post Modernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
[8] Owens, op. cit. p.54
[9] BAS7 In The Days Of The Comet (2011)  [Leaflet] London: Hayward
[10] Owens, op. cit. p. 57