Three Dead Mackerel

Adapted from a talk I gave earlier this week at Goldsmiths, rather than discuss a project after completion, this piece explores my forthcoming film project in a hypothetical, future tense. Or rather, it looks at other models of filmmaking in an attempt to shape my own. With the talk, I screened Zarina Bhimji’s latest film, Yellow Patch, currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery, and the Maysles brothers’ 1975 film, Grey Gardens. After the talk I took a camera, microphone and tripod, and caught a train to the North Wales coast to film a derelict ship.

One evening I gutted a mackerel to eat. When I slit lengthways down its body and pulled it open, there were two other mackerel lying inside. They were small-scale versions of it, not yet born, barely dead.

Three dead mackerel, in their pristine states, got me thinking about the challenge architectural ruins pose. While a ruin declares its collapse – ruin from ruere, ‘to fall’ – it also testifies to its former life, which barely seems to have left it. Robert Smithson describes this state of ambiguity as ruins in reverse, documenting its emergence along the grubby rim of New Jersey, where construction sites resemble ruins. Likewise Smithson photographed a hotel in Mexico that was simultaneously falling into disrepair and rising, with new extensions being grafted to it. Smithson used his photographs of the hotel in a lecture-performance that was itself a ruin in reverse, at once delivering information and slipping into tangents as if down disused corridors of the hotel. Ruins provide intellectual uncertainty over their state. They are allegories that show, as if through double-exposure, life and death at once. Film captures our imagination in a similar way because while we know it comprises photographic stills taken from time past, it appears to move, lithe, lively, in the present moment that we view it. Films dealing with ruin can reflect their content in different ways, from Ion Grigorescus’s unsteady, pixellated images of rubble-strewn Bucharest to Tarkovsky’s mist and reflections that imitate ruin’s metaphorical capacity for double-exposure.  

Zarina Bhimji, still from Yellow Patch

Zarina Bhimji explores architectural ruin and dereliction. The distinction drawn by Gilda Williams between ruin and dereliction provides an interesting entry into Bhimji’s film, Yellow Patch. The inhabitants of a ruin, argues Williams, have been forced out, whereas the derelict’s inhabitants have left of their own accord – derelict from de- ‘utterly’ -relinquere ‘to leave’. Ruin, therefore, suggests violence, and dereliction, a melancholy relinquishing of space due to dissatisfaction with it. Yellow Patch is filmed in Indian ports that Bhimji’s elder generations left for Uganda. Following Williams’ idea, these ports are derelict. Derelict seems a particularly apposite term for the sites given its original usage for ships abandoned on shore: Yellow Patch creates a psychological space of departure and desolation. Yet in interviews and artist talks – at the Whitechapel Gallery most recently – Bhimji complicates this idea. The port buildings and hulks of ships half-built are not in fact derelict: Bhimji requested the port workers vacate the space during her filming. ‘I go with a shopping-list of shots,’ she explains. The closest the sites come to ruin is on the day of filming, when Bhimji forces their inhabitants out, but otherwise, they are more like stage-sets for enactments of melancholy. Bhimji’s camera pans majestically across the harbour, the 35mm film toned to imitate a dusky light suggestive of endings. A non-diegetic soundtrack of echoing construction noises and human voices is added afterwards, and resonates in the cinematic blackout spaces of the gallery in which it is projected. In his recent essay that accompanies the Whitechapel exhibition, T. J. Demos refers to Bhimji’s withholding of information (we are left to guess at locations, the origins of sounds, and all direct political references) as a post-documentary approach that encourages our emotional response to exile. While this is a valid interpretation of Bhimji’s approach, the extent to which her editing and installation prescribe our reception of dereliction threatens the capacity these spaces have for challenging our understanding of them.

An entirely different approach to filming ruin is found in Grey Gardens, a documentary made by the ethnographic filmmakers Albert and David Maysles. Though threatened with eviction, the two inhabitants of Grey Gardens, a crumbling mansion in East Hampton, continue to live there. Eighty-year-old Edith Beale and her fifty-eight-year-old daughter, also Edith, were once glamorous socialites. Over the extended course of filming at Grey Gardens, the Maysles expose a double portrait of the Beales, as they once were (they recount engagements and hold photographs up to the camera) and as they are today, in ruin. The ruin in Grey Gardens is not only that of the architecture, dilapidated and surrounded by jungle, but that of its inhabitants. Unlike Bhimji’s films, the Maysles’ editorial and auteurist hands do not feel so present. The sound is diegetic, comprising the Beales’ and their cats’ whining. Takes are extended in length, allowing the subjects their own time to speak, complain or reminisce. Grey Gardens wavers between comic and tragic, leaving us unsure of the Beales’ and their home’s status. They are like the dead mackerel, embodying life as it was – shiny with potential – and in an already present state of decay.

Albert and David Maysles, still from Grey Gardens

What, then, are different ways in which ruin and dereliction can be filmed? If it is ambiguity between coming into being and falling into decay that makes ruin interesting, is ambiguity in filmmaking the best way to approach it? While replacing information with suggestive soundtracks might increase possible interpretations of a place, it can also dictate an emotional response too generic to allow appreciation of specific contexts. Tomorrow I will film a derelict ship. Deciding the amount of information to disclose in the film is difficult. But maybe, remembering how I opened that mackerel, the necessary information is there on site, and by taking a camera and filming it, little more need be done.