Michael O’Pray Prize

A Long Shot

Dan Ward on artists’s attempts to slow the viewer

Maeve Brennan <em>The Drift</em> 2017

Maeve Brennan The Drift 2017

How is the material world produced and distributed? What are the underlying systems that govern its logic and, crucially – along with its violations and exclusions – how is it being documented? These are questions posed by recent film and video works exhibited in London, where artists employing different forms of documentary language examine systems of vision, commodity production and historical objects across the globe, to link together and expand on their relations and contingent politics.

Three recent exhibitions, Amie Siegel at South London Gallery, Maeve Brennan at Chisenhale (Profile AM406), and Filipa César and Louis Henderson at Gasworks (Reviews AM408), use a film practice that emphasises the material composition of their chosen subjects through use of long takes and montage without dialogue, narration or intertitles to guide the audience through particular locations and ideas. The long static take is used extensively in all three, a tool to slow the viewer’s insensitivities to perhaps increase consideration of setting, material or image association (though with particular applications by each work). For an audience trained visually on TV and mainstream cinema, where the average shot length now stands at roughly two seconds, it is ironic that this longer length is a standard of the art gallery film.

Indicative is Siegel’s recent exhibition ‘Strata’, which comprised two videos and a smaller installation of objects in SLG’s upper gallery. Ostensibly about the production of marble, the first film seen upon entry, Quarry, 2015, was projected onto a cinema-size screen in the main exhibition space with surround-sound playing a mix of classical music and audio from the locations shot. The film documents the extraction of marble from a deep quarry underground in Vermont through to its installation in a luxury apartment under construction somewhere in Manhattan.

Long takes both still and travelling of the extraction process examine the assembly line, with particular attention given to the cutting and moving of massive marble blocks from the earth. Travelling shots document the factory floor absent of workers, which are juxtaposed with shimmering close ups of the marble accompanied by orchestral climaxes.

What this film omits is the crushing labour (assumedly male and underpaid) necessary to excavate, cut and prepare these goods. Occasional bodies drift into shot, but are never focused on or confronted by the apparatus of the artist’s camera. The machinery is large and cold, the physical strain necessary to operate such equipment is no doubt immense, yet this interaction is completely absent. What does it mean for an artist to travel to a distant location to film a specific industrial process in detail, only to wait until the work is over or paused, seemingly ignoring the workers involved?

The long shot foregrounds what this material constitutes beyond matter, and what value is assigned to it, but lacks the tools to reveal the deeper ideological roots embedded. This tableau of labour, shot in a dark, cold and wet space, cinematographically matches the location in which the marble is ultimately consumed; both subjects are framed at a similar distance (wide-angle shots, closer details of machinery or marble) and feature similar camera movements. The images are slow and restrained like a promotional video, yet factories and luxury housing are antagonistic to each other, at opposite ends of a process of extraction and property.

A second video on the floor above, Fetish, 2016, records the cleaning of Sigmund Freud’s rare collection of archaeological statues. Filmed at the museum dedicated to him in north London, this careful process of maintaining a collection of artefacts housed in the home of the father of psychoanalysis seems to provide an obvious cue about how to interpret Quarry, and accompanying both is a series of marble objects (one supposedly bought from Trump Tower after the eponymous property magnate was elected as president of the USA). These frustratingly literal fragments try to encapsulate material economies as a world of possessions and symbolic accessories, and to show that what seduces us is produced through an industrial process that continues to be problematic, yet Siegel uncritically re-presents this problem rather than seeks to address it.

In a similar documentary methodology to Siegel’s, Brennan’s 52-minute film The Drift, 2017, presented at Chisenhale Gallery earlier this year, provides a different image and narrative to one created by western news networks about the Middle East, and instead focuses on the rich historical objects and architecture juxtaposed with modern economies and materials. The landscape of Lebanon and its ecologies are given a similar focus to the subjects in Siegel’s work, but throughout are interspersed with short sequences showing several male characters at work: a guard, a conservationist and a mechanic (the film’s title is taken from the activity of power-sliding, aka drifting in cars). The labour each character performs for the camera (necessary in order to appropriately document the work) connects different histories and forms of work in the region that never quite coalesce into a simple and familiar portrait, yet also don’t explore ideological antagonisms via material working conditions enough to allow for other meanings or possibilities to surface.

Brennan’s film depicts several Roman temples around Niha in Lebanon, one chief restorer and guard of these often imperilled sites proudly claims that anyone who sees his presence immediately leaves in fear. Another staged scene features the guard handing a cigarette to someone in the foreground, stating that it will look good on camera, while a car mechanic later points out the wrecked car of Ali Hussein Saleh, a Hezbollah leader assassinated by a car bomb allegedly detonated by the Israeli government. He jokes that one day he will take away parts from the debris – the wheels are undamaged and highly valuable, a waste of good material. These interactions charge the Lebanese backdrop as a clash of recent history reverberating within and against ancient civilisations. Yet these scenes are too few in the composition of the film, and the longer shots of the landscape take priority over such interactions and slow the pace of association, the characters often getting lost in the flow of images rather than found and contextualised.

Finally, Henderson and César’s exhibition ‘Op-Film’ comprised a large collection of documents and objects about lighthouses and Fresnel lenses accompanied by a 30-minute video essay titled Sunstone, 2017. The work is as uneven as it is ambitious, often feeling more like a research project than a complete work. Starting with a lighthouse at the most westerly tip of Europe, the film focuses on this defunct infrastructure, eventually expanding into the history of vision and image representation and its military or colonial origins. The material César and Henderson seem most interested in is digital imagery, and the transformation of one visual system into another: their montage works and reworks similar imagery throughout the film’s 30 minutes, juxtaposing historical examples of image production with contemporary forms, alluding to its impact on vision and knowledge broadly, but without a specific analysis or focus.

The work begins with a simple demonstration of the refraction of light through a fragment of a Fresnel lens, shot with 16mm (or post-produced to look as such). The montage quickly progresses to a mixture of this footage, CGI mappings of a coast, images of sharks attempting to bite through ocean cables, desktop recordings and satellite images, all overlapping on screen, where a cut is often accompanied by an image partially layered over another. This places a kind of historical trajectory of vision parallel to visual affect; a flattening of image-making into geopolitical mapping, perhaps from nation to globe, or cinema to individual laptop.

There is a short sequence in the film which makes extensive use of a montage from Sans Soleil, 1983, by Chris Marker, in which the filmmaker travelled to one of the last working lighthouses using oil, an act mirrored in Sunstone at a modern day lighthouse. In Sans Soleil, Marker suggests the lighthouse is at the end of the world narrating from the future (from which the whole narration is set); conversely, Henderson and Cesar suggest there is no end in the present, only greater visual representation and data mapping as they search for an alternative history or language. The film and research presented here never seems to find a route out of this depression (it seems to be presented as such), as etchings on the fragments of Fresnel lenses in the space allude to the loss (or impossibility) of unmediated experience from vast contemporary technological infrastructure. Whether Marker would agree with such a sentiment is doubtful, as he constantly worked with new forms of media and technology (Immemory, 1997, or via the online game Second Life) or documented historical examples of such moments (Le Train en Marche, 1973) in order to find opportunities for revolutionary thought and action in local, national or global settings.

All three projects attempt to redress an imbalance by offering broader political representation on a global scale and by finding possible alternative histories, systems and imagery. Each uses similar strategies to draw out these ideas, with all sharing similar failings. The works are an effort to provide a frame that links the power and politics of one locality to another – Vermont to Portugal to Lebanon to London – or one parallel image/history to another that has gone unexamined. Whether it be the circulation of material or digital images, data or artefacts, the representation of this system (capital, racial and patriarchal) and its logic are important to visualise, along with its impact on living bodies and quickly eroding material ecologies.

‘There is no other meaning than the meaning of circulation’ said French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. But how we interpret this circulation of material, what we try to make visible and how we present this to an audience aesthetically, are all crucial in transforming their relations and the order of things.

Dan Ward is winner of the Film and Video Umbrella and Art Monthly Michael O’Pray Prize 2017.

The Michael O’Pray Prize is a Film and Video Umbrella initiative in partnership with Art Monthly, supported by University of East London and Arts Council England.

2017 Selection Panel

  • Steven Bode, director, FVU
  • Chris McCormack, associate editor, Art Monthly
  • Lucy Reynolds, artist, curator, researcher and senior lecturer at University of Westminster
  • John Smith, artist, filmmaker and professor of fine art at University of East London
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