Friday, 25 January 2019

REVIEW: Spit That Out North West Artist Film Programme - HOME, Manchester

In the late nineties I studied at a university that specialised in Conceptual Art and Live Arts. One of my fellow students had been labouring on some fine art paintings for weeks in the studio and upon showing her mentor/assessor her work, received nothing but dismissive criticism. However, before turning away from her work the mentor picked up some other works and examined them. “Now this is much better! Tell me about this.” She said. “Well,” my fellow student began, “it is an exploration into light, form and colour that I have been dabbling with.” “I want you to pursue this” said her mentor enthusiastically. So that friend of mine finally received a 2;1 Honours degree for cleaning her brush on rags.

This story is not apocryphal and sums up my feelings about my own undergraduate experience. Three years of studying contemporary arts led me to the conclusion that aside from some rare exceptions, it offers little more than aesthetic quality and needs guidance notes to explain what the artist means. Otherwise it seems to offer the producer more pleasure and meaning than the audience.

HOME’s ‘Spit That Out 2019’ is an artist film programme that I approached with trepidation, but not without an open mind. I adore film and long to find influential and new film forms in the hope that I will one day see those permeate more mainstream narrative or documentary films. Could tonight offer some startling images or exploration of the form to change my position on contemporary art films? No. It categorically could not.

The first film was ‘Northern Lights’ (Dir: Daniels, C P. 2018) which explored the Blackpool Illuminations through “an inquisitive voice from the far future, or ‘visitor from another place’, [which] interrogates the traditions and artefacts of the Blackpool Illuminations, the annual light festival first established in 1879.” Except that it offered nothing like an exploration of the traditions, the voice quickly descended into a stream-of-consciousness, Dadaist cherry-picking of song lyrics and advertising slogans that were sometimes misremembered such as “Noah’s archive”. This was hardly new and provoked little in the way of musings. It merely reminded me that Underworld’s music, Beckett’s theatre and my talentless undergraduate efforts were all doing this stuff decades ago. Aesthetically it was more promising; reminiscent of Chris Marker’s ‘Sans Soleil’ or Reggio’s ‘Koyanisqaatsi’ (this is the second time in a week that I have seen films bearing the influence of both directors), the illuminations are somewhat hypnotic and sinister, albeit spoiled by some heavy-handed use of white noise to presumably suggest memory or a depleted past. I was drawn in and found the illuminations worthy of attention, but sadly the artistic devices drew me away from the film’s point, rather than towards it.

Next was ‘Screengrab’ (Dir: Nixon, D. 2018), a film produced by resident artist Nixon, whilst HOME’s gallery space was closed. He transformed his exhibited art into a film, which HOME promised would explore “how time folds into various practices, looking at ideas of stillness and movement within painting and animation, performance and film, wall and screen.” Do you remember Art Attack, Vision On or Take Hart? Do you remember how, in those children’s art programmes, there were often short interludes of stop-motion in which shapes would move around to jarring sounds in order to create new shapes and colours? Sometimes there would even be stop-motions of people moving about studio spaces and wearing funny things. You remember them don’t you? So does Darren Nixon apparently.

‘Spines’ (Dir: Alvarez, M and Morais, E. 2018) is an animation about “doubt. Constructed as a dream, it follows a reluctant hedgehog in a quest to solve an impossible puzzle. Mixing real details of dreams with fictional scenarios the film follows a deceptively linear narrative that barely manages to contain the threats to branch out.”. The animation was reassuringly sloppy and the voices bore the clichéd dispassionate tone of arty animation that elicited an incredulous splutter from me when they began. As far as this night was going, this was my tipping point. I had checked out.

‘Soð – Mushroom Trip’ (Dir: Tym, C. 2018) purports to be an art film based upon a failed attempt to film an episode of a cookery programme. Considering that the last two films made my will to live pack its bags and stand by the front door waiting for its taxi to arrive, I haven’t the energy to look up whether there really is a cookery show or if the whole thing is a construct. It is passable, with some aesthetic quality to the shooting, but mired in self-indulgence. A Skype call about how to edit the programme serves as a voiceover to footage of, for want of a better word, ‘antics’ to apparently form “a bizarre self-reflexive film about friendship, cooking and film-making.” It is warm-hearted pointlessness, and hardly offensive.

Finally, ‘The Photo Album’ (Dir; Usher, K. 2019) is a more coherent musing about the “foggy romanticism attached to images we so often deem as the glory days”, which uses old photographs to provoke discussion about the tactile nature of photographs and the loss of nostalgia we face in the disposability of digital photographs. It was enjoyable, aesthetically stimulating and well explained in voiceover. Again, the voiceover is so disaffected and lacking energy, that one imagines that the film is rolling its eyes, bored senseless by the need to explain itself to us; but such is the way of art films. However, I enjoyed it and found it thought provoking.

HOME’s introduction to tonight’s screening promised that art films are “often incredibly inventive, ripping up the film-making rule book.” On the contrary, contemporary art very much has a rule book and instead of inventively ripping it up, these films, blindfolded by their own clichés have stumbled about so clumsily that they’ve tripped over their copy of the rule book which they had so cleverly strewn across the floor.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 24/1/19

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