Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Sites of Collective Memory

Roz Mortimer; photo by Val Phoenix
Opening today in the atmospheric and ever so secluded grounds of Southwark Park is the group exhibit Sites of Collective Memory, featuring works by four artists (including one pairing) on the theme of place and memory. Quite intriguing as it follows on from my visit two weeks ago to the day-long symposium Anxious Places, featuring one of the group, Shona Illingworth, in conversation with two of her collaborators.

Illingworth's talk that today focused on the process of developing the piece showing here, 216 Westbound, a recollection by John Tulloch of being on board one of the Tube trains that was blown up on July 7, 2005. Unfortunately, on the night of the private view there was so much chatter from the assemblage outside the room where the work was showing, it was difficult to hear what Tulloch said. Then a message flashed up onscreen that the computer showing it was scheduled to shut down in nine minutes! Those of us in the room watched the clock counting down with mounting anxiety. I did have a thought it was part of the artwork, but I don't think so, and went off to ask someone to reset the machine. It definitely deserves a more sympathetic viewing and full attention. Later, I spoke to Illingworth in the lovely garden adjacent to the gallery, and we chatted about her process. "I'm not so interested in making objects," she declared, before turning the conversation to allotments. She has a plethora of courgettes.

A cosy living room was the setting for CHUVIHONI, Delaine Le Bas & Damian James Le Bas's multi-disciplinary work on collective memory, in which voices reflect on seeing ghosts, as a pastoral setting with flickering animation is shown onscreen. I noted with alarm that the photographs book next to the plush chair had some liquid on it, as if a careless guest had dripped his or her drink on it. I shook the book and the liquid slipped off. Thankfully, the photos were unharmed.

It's interesting to walk in on works shown on loops. Sometimes it's hard to tell the beginning from the end, and in the case of Jordan Baseman's Little Boy, I actually came in toward the end, an explosion of manipulated film, with holes and burns marking it. When it restarted, I heard the brief testimony of a survivor of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima, which gave context to the subsequent abstract morass.

But, the most thought-provoking work for me was also the longest, Roz Mortimer's This is History (after all), which juxtaposed quite lovely, painterly compositions with a reflection on a hideous war crime, the slaughter of Roma by the Nazis in Poland. To this day, there are unexcavated mass graves under fields and in forests sitting side by side with a seemingly placid village. And people remember what happened, but there is no official recognition. It is one of Mortimer's "rebellious archives", as she explained to me afterward, aware of the tension between beautiful images and a grim story that is part of her working practice.

Sites of Collective Memory continues at the CPG Gallery in London through 10 August.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Whitstable 2014 Biennale

Whitstable; photo: Val Phoenix
My return to Whitstable was an afternoon sojourn rather than an all-dayer, but the weather was highly cooperative, and I had some company in the form of my friend Bev, who pointed out the abundant bird life as we made our way through town. First stop was the beachside HQ, where Collaborative Research Group were doing some demos of surveillance equipment. We returned later to pick up a map and find our way around.

The Horsebridge Gallery was a useful stopping-off point for a refreshing lunch, as well as site of two exhibits. I was quite keen to see the VALIE EXPORT film showing as part of Mark Aerial Waller's Welcome to the Association Area, but we ended up in the midst of the Sapphire & Steel clip, which featured a youthful Joanna Lumley and David McCallum bellowing at people in a cafe. I was quite taken with it, as I found their 1960s hair mesmerising, but Bev wanted to move on, so we went into the other gallery space to see Louisa Martin's film, The Lighthouse: Scenes 1 and 2. Despite two additional visits to the first gallery, it was always Sapphire & Steel, so never got to see EXPORT.

Moving on to Dead Man's Corner, we visited Laura Wilson's installation, Black Top, which makes use of the site-specific industrial conditions, i.e., a mound of black earth. Then we went for a stroll on the beach, taking in the beach huts. Bev was disappointed that the beachside bar stopped serving at 3pm, which is precisely when we arrived. So, it was off to find refreshments, and finally we made it to the highlight of the visit, Louisa Fairclough's Absolute Pitch, which was way off the beaten path at the Whitstable Museum and Gallery.

Because it is at the back of the museum, which charges an entry fee, one needs to get a token to see the installation, a film sculpture, but we had picked up our tokens from HQ earlier. Featuring five functioning projectors linked by crossed strips of film, Absolute Pitch is reminiscent of Lis Rhodes' Light Music. Pulleys hanging from the ceiling assist in the crossing of the strips of celluloid, while the projectors also emit streams of light, sometimes coloured with gels. And then there is the interimittent sound, an explosive female pitch. Bev and I wandered in and out of the patches of light as they hit the wall. It really was a marvellous experience and I could have stayed a lot longer, but we had a train to catch.

Much, much more is happening on the weekends, which is when the performances and live events are on, so it is worth checking the programme.

Whitstable 2014 Biennale runs through 15 June in Whitstable, Kent.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lost Endings and Hidden Meanings

Since I was in the area, I popped into the current exhibit at Space, Cherchez la Femme, about French feminist activist videos. Since there were no captions for any of the myriad screens, I wasn't sure what I was watching and since none of the headphones worked, I couldn't be sure what was being said except for the English subtitles on the screen. But, a familiar face caught my eye. "Is that Jane Fonda?" I wondered and sat down to confirm or deny my suspicion. Yes, it was, and she was discussing one of my favourite films, Julia, so I stayed put.

Well, it was most interesting. Jane, in translation, was talking about the representation of the female friendship in the film (between her and Vanessa Redgrave) and how it made the crew uncomfortable. The director, Fred Zinnemann, actually COUNTED how many times she touched Vanessa in their scenes together, because he didn't want anyone to think the characters were lesbians. Well, no doubt, their emotional intensity and the ambiguity of the relationship is exactly why the film made such an impact on me as a child. How often is a female friendship the anchor of a film? Jane's thoughts, exactly, as she elaborated on how rare it is to see two women behave "naturally" with each other and her realisation that that behaviour is so threatening to men.

Recently, I have been checking out films on DVD, including those I have seen before but many years before, as well as some I have missed. Last week's viewing included the commercial DVD of Desperately Seeking Susan, with director's commentary by Susan Seidelman, as well as three women involved in producing the film. Most illuminating were their comments that they had great feminist intentions for the film and wanted the two women to stay together at the end of the film. "I hate to say it," opined Seidelman, "but it's a love story between two women." A lot to ponder in that statement. Why "I hate to say it"? Presumably, because that implies a lesbian relationship between the two leads, Susan and Roberta, and that's (as Jane had stated) just not allowed, because it makes men uncomfortable and threatened.

Most startlingly to me, and I may be the last person on earth to realise it, but the ending of DSS was actually changed after shooting, because it "tested badly", i.e., audiences reacted badly to the two women RIDING OFF TOGETHER ON CAMELS at the end. This ending is actually included on the DVD and made my jaw drop. It totally changes the meaning of the film. How the %&*$£"! was that allowed to happen? To please the studio, presumably. And this is how female relationships are edited out of cinematic history. Cherchez la femme, indeed.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Tower

Entrance to The Tower;
 photo by Val Phoenix
Starting off the month with a multi-media site-specific installation! The day was grim and rainy, but that only added to the atmosphere as I made my way to unvisited location, a church in Bethnal Green. Not only a church, but as it turned out, the belfry of a church, lit by tiny tea lights set out on the steps. No electric lighting here! A Health and Safety nightmare, methinks.

But, I made my way carefully up the stone steps to the belfry, where I was met by a knot of people and a voice shouting, "The witch is here! The witch is here!" Indeed, she was, though I could not see her through the crowd, even when I crouched. Though I did make out a candle, as she read from a text and invoked "Away, black dog!" This turned out to be text by Jude Cowan Montague, one of the artists, as read by Jo Roberts, who also offered various potions for hair and skin. I did not require further moisturising, so did not partake. The installation was two-fold, two towers one in front of the other, with flickering lights (so there was electricity!) creating mesmerising patterns on the wall and the people gathered in the small space. Both artists, the other being Miyuki Kasahara, had taken inspiration from buildings, as well as transgressive women, to look at "how women express themselves in the face of societal persecution".

I suppose being sent to the tower holds its fears, but I felt quite relaxed as I made by way back down the stairs, past the flickering candles and out onto the street, enjoying the play of light on the puddles.

The Tower is on view Saturday afternoons through 5 June at St. John on Bethnal Green.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

On the Buses

An urgent errand in South London prompted one of my now-frequent epic bus journeys, but today's was a bit more pleasant than usual. For a start, I broke my journey in sunny Shoreditch to catch the last day of the Carolee Schneemann exhibit, Water Light / Water Needle, which I've been meaning to catch since it opened.

Set in one warmly lit room, the spotlit photos, which she'd painted on, were of her performances from 1966 of the titular piece, which was also recalled in a film, which I found most intriguing. Starting with a group of nude people emerging from a lake, it developed into a kind of naturism/naturalism study. Among the participants were Meredith Monk, James Tenney and Schneemann herself. Alas, I couldn't recognise Monk, but did pick out the other two. The piece absolutely screamed Hippy! But, that's no bad thing.

Then I had the great fortune to pick up one of the heritage buses running just for the day. Being a bus nerd, it was a great pleasure to hop aboard the Route 22 for just two stops to savour the atmosphere (OK, it was a bit musty, but it's 75 years old!) of one of the old RT buses, and I even got a ticket! And it was free! Very exciting. I switched to one of the newer, not so exciting buses for the rest of my journey, but felt v. satisfied indeed. Still, questions remain. When were digital clocks installed? Why is it the Year of the Bus and why only in central London? Why don't we in the outer areas get those nifty signs?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

BFI Flare: Tru Love and Conscious Coupling

Tru Love
When I booked my last day at the festival yesterday, little did I realise it would be the first day of equal marriage in the UK, and the trappings of weddings were all around: Sandi Toksvig was renewing her vows next door, the festival delegate centre laid on mimosas and the screen was showing footage of happy same sex couples getting spliced. Even Twitter was running a hashtag called #sayido. Oh, my. A bit much for early on a Saturday. Or any day. I shared a few grumbles with another old hand as we stood by the bar, ignoring the cocktails and chocolate hearts. Assimilation. Grumble, grumble. Homonationalism. Grumble. Privatisation of relationships. Grumble. Good luck to 'em, but my view is: #sayidont.

Grasping my glass of prosecco-free orange juice, I pondered my first viewing of the day. Tru Love. Oh, great. But, this turned out not to be so much a rom-com as a reflection on unfulfilled promise and what people settle for. A Canadian drama written by and starring Shauna McDonald, the film starts off as a bit of a sex farce, with McDonald's character Tru jumping out of bed with someone to rush back to a friend's to let in her mother, Alice. It seems Tru is always running away: from relationships, jobs, any form of commitment. As her relationship with Alice unfolds, Tru reveals some early hurts, such as losing her parents and being thrown out on the street, that may explain some of her behaviours. But, that doesn't make them any less difficult for those around her. Another relationship, between her friend Suzanne and Alice, also needs some attention, while Suzanne and Tru also have some simmering issues. And, so, though the film starts off looking pretty formulaic, it actually turns into quite compelling viewing, as one wonders how all of this will unwind. I was quite touched, even if I thought the ending left one important strand unresolved while wrapping up another unconvincingly.

My last two screenings were both shorts programmes, both of a very different character. You're the One, Aren't You? turned out to be about love (that again!), with a range of relationship dramas, comedies and even an animation in which lesbian astronauts save the world! The Spanish farce Vecinas was a highlight, as two lesbian couples decide to swap partners for the night, with amusing consequences. I especially liked the translation of confusion which spelled it as "confussion", surely a lesbian neologism that fuses fuss and confusion. I have definitely experienced "confussion" in my life.

And then it was on to Past (Im)perfect, the experimental shorts programme which featured the world premiere of Bev Zalcock's and Sara Chambers' The Light Show: A Trilogy. Bev has been telling me about these films as she's been working on them over the last year, and so I was quite keen to see them. And they are lovely, a mix of digital and analogue, with dollops of disco iconography (Helen de Witt's term), melancholia and nostalgia. It can be hard to get into abstract work sometimes, but the audience was rapt and the sound was great. I very much enjoyed it. Some of the other works were hard-going, most notably the last film, a 29-minute piece that seemed to be five or six films strung together. I should have known when the first section was one shot of a man shaving in a shower that went on for several minutes. The one bright spark was a girl singing Nirvana's "Dumb" a cappella in a locker room.

Everyone seemed to be attending parties in the evening, but I had to rush home, meaning I missed the Vagina Wolf screening, attended by none other than Guin Turner. I did see Turner sneaking out for a crafty fag, earlier in the evening as I took another turn in Killjoy's Kastle, as I wanted to listen to the footage of the zombie folk singers, which you can only hear on headphones. The performer featured is none other than Gretchen Phillips, whom I well remember from her days in Two Nice Girls. Here she was sending up the hoary days of lesbian folk singers, in an all-Canadian set. And her choices were Kathy Fire and Ferron! I am still not sure if her white braid, which she had to flick out of the way of her guitar, is real or was part of her costume, but she gave her zombie character her all.

I also ran into Carol Morley, currently in post-production on her schoolgirl drama The Falling, which she is prepping for the spring festival circuit. Grading starts Monday, and Tracey Thorn is doing the music, so that sounds fab.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

BFI Flare: Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?

Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?
So far, this is hands-down the best thing I've viewed at the festival, and there are rumours afoot that director/star Anna Margarita Albelo will be bringing her vagina costume to the screening tonight, so it should be quite the event.

Part farce, part reflection on success and failure and part mid-life crisis drama, Vagina Wolf is a delightful melding of comedy and pathos, with Albelo at its heart. As struggling film director Anna arrives at her 40th birthday party, she realises she is at a crossroads: "I had sacrificed love for my career, and now I had neither." Dressed in the vagina costume in which she earns a crust as a performer in galleries, she is exposed and lonely. And her friends (including Guin Turner in marvellously bitchy form) are no help, either, egging her on to chat up women with whom she has nothing in common. She lives in a garage and dreams of making that breakthrough. Once she embarks on a lesbian reworking of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in order to impress a young lady, she is on a collision course with herself, as her frailties and fears come to the surface.

What I love about this film is that Albelo, a seasoned comic actress, isn't afraid to make herself look ridiculous, as she spends much of the film hiding inside this costume. But, once on set, as Georgie, Anna is exposed emotionally, having to confront her worst fears, and the tone becomes quite serious. It isn't played for laughs. This character is going through hard times and we are not sure how she will emerge. It's very brave film-making. The film-within-a-film trope has been done many times, but here it really works. And the fact it may be autobiographical also has resonance.

Albelo's Hooters was a highlight for me of a previous festival, but here she really comes into her own as an actress and film-maker.