AXIS WebElen Bonner, Nim-Jo Chung, Marcus Coates, Erica Eyres, Rabab Ghazoul and Gillian McIver
I watched all the moving image material on Axis, I really did. I sifted between artists I know well; those new to me, some artists whose main focus was video, and others for whom it is part of a wider practice.
The Axis resource offers a fascinating starting point from which to immerse oneself in the myriad of ideas and formal practices currently taking place in the sphere of artists’ moving image: from works of landscape, found footage, performance and gallery documentation, documentary, narrative fiction, abstraction, animation and beyond.
Below is just a small selection, difficult to make.
Rabab Ghazoul Mao-Hope March Revisited, 2009
‘What’s wrong with Brucie? We all want to know what’s wrong with Brucie?’
This question is posed by a perturbed citizen of Cardiff in response to the television entertainer Bruce Forsyth’s image, which is being paraded through the town, emblazoned on a placard alongside that of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. No slogans are apparent, just their two photographs, blankly smiling.
Off screen, an interviewer answers her question with another, ‘what do you think is going on?’ ‘No idea, no idea at all…something political.’ The citizen’s bewilderment at this unintelligible activity in her city’s streets brings to mind the current potency of civil protest, where actions such as marches, strikes and sit-ins function as an accepted, yet often ineffective, performance of collective political disagreement.
Rabab Ghazoul’s video also echoes artist interventions of an earlier decade, indeed, Mao-Hope March Revisited (2009) is a re-enactment of Oyvind Fahlstrom’s 1966 film and performance, Mao Hope March, but forty-three years later, Bob Hope and Mao Tse Tung have been replaced by a more current entertainer and communist dictator.
Ghazoul’s video is also indebted to the documentarist Jean Rouch and ethnographer Edgar Morin’s influential film Chronicle of a Summer (1961), where the simple question ‘are you happy’ was posed to passers-by on the streets of Paris. Like their Parisian predecessors, the answers that Ghazoul’s interviewer in Cardiff receives are compelling and poignant, binding the thoughts and beliefs of the individual into a collective voice, although unlike Rouch’s film the speakers are never pictured, their off-screen voices accompanying Ghazoul’s images of the Cardiff procession.
By the interplay of these different strategies of public address – from documentary film and artist intervention to televisual reportage – Ghazoul’s thoughtful video work explores the ways in which opinion and protest are mediated in current culture, and at the same time draws attention to the continuing power of images unmediated by words, to evoke and suggest meaning (as the Cardiff questioner’s concern for ‘Brucie’ so aptly demonstrates).
Nim-Jo Chung Hoornography#2 (collaboration with Juanan Eguiguren), 2008
Browsing the diverse collection of moving image material on Axis I found myself drawn to works such as Ghazoul’s, where unexpected modes of intervention, performance and language explore, and sometimes scramble, channels of communication between the artist and the public sphere.
In ‘Hoornography#2’ (collaboration with Juanan Eguiguren)(2008), for example, the artist Nim-Jo Chung asks a puzzled resident of the small Dutch town of Hoorn where a visitor might meet ‘funny people’. By documenting her efforts to direct him, filtered through the slippages and mistranslations of language, Chung presents not just an example of everyday miscommunications, but also unfolds a more nuanced portrait of the role and reception of the stranger or outsider in different cultural settings.
Marcus Coates Radio Shaman, 2006
Marcus Coates takes his outsider status further in 'Radio Shaman' (2006), actively seeking to solve local issues by assuming the role of shaman for the people of the Norwegian town of Stavanger. Like Chung, Coates’s intent is not to poke fun at incredulous townsfolk, nor receive their ridicule in return.
Dressed in a deerskin mantle and holding the talisman of a stuffed hare, his incongruous attire and performances (in a church, a street corner and a council office) are a serious attempt to return to more ancient and ritualised experiences of community problem solving rooted in nature, where communication is projected outside verbal channels of communication.
However, Coates’s exchange with the people of Stavanger is conducted in a number of different vocal registers: their questions are mediated through the deadpan translation of a local radio DJ, and communication takes place through the modern day public discussion forum made possible by live radio chat shows, where the speaker is disembodied, their opinions voiced from elsewhere.
In the video ‘The Attack Caused Immense Harm to Wales I Presume? Treachery of the Blue Books RJ Derfel 1854’ (2010), Elen Bonner also explores the public address of live performance, utilising the mode of amateur dramatics. But here the video viewer is placed at a further remove.
Watching in another time-frame from the original performance, we are witness to both the laughing audience and the performances on stage yet cannot be part of their collective experience. Furthermore, for the non-Welsh speaker subtitles are provided, and the short humorous narratives have a distinctive national character, drawing attention to national stereotyping at the same time that the jokes consciously position the viewer outside the fun.
These witty games of exclusion and inclusion, accentuated by the self-consciously amateur acting skills of the cast, ask ambiguous questions about how identity is translated through language and culture.
Elen Bonner The attack caused immense harm to Wales, I presume? Treachery of the Blue Books R.J.Derfel 1854, 2010
Erica Eyres Destiny Green (video still), 2006
Erica Eyres also chooses a self-conscious amateur acting style, taking on the gestures of reality TV’s confessional address to the viewer. Acting many of the parts herself, she adopts the personas and psycho-dramas familiar from American television’s more extreme reality television programmes, but pushes their narratives into the realms of the fantastic and the grotesque.
Conducted in the style of low grade documentary reportage, the to-camera confessionals of Eyres’ cast of demented mothers and tragic teens explore how reality television transforms female anxiety about body image into a modern day freak-show.
The child beauty star in ‘Destiny Green’ (2006), for example, is revealed in interviews with her competitive friend and pushy mother (both unnerving caricatures by Eyres) to have had a complete face removal by plastic surgery.
Gillian McIver Pictures (not) at an exhibition, 2009
Finally, Gillian McIver’s ‘Field Recordings 2000 - 2010' do not address an imaginary prime-time television audience, but offer private, spontaneous musings on the objects, situations, landscapes and architecture that she encounters whilst travelling.
In 'Pictures (not) at an Exhibition' (2009), her camera pans across the now discarded paintings which cover the walls and stack the floors of a thrift store, as McIver asks: ‘what possessed them to want to do it? Why did they think they were actually good at it?’ Her video poignantly draws attention to the conflict and doubt experienced by most artists, from the professionals represented on the Axis website, to the amateur unknown.
And yet, as this short and diverse selection of video works show, the artist’s need to engage with and understand our proliferating culture of modernity, from thrift store detritus to radio chat shows, public protest and amateur dramatics, remains a compelling one.
Lucy Reynolds, September 2010
Lucy Reynolds is a lecturer, artist and film curator. Her area of research focuses on expanded cinema and British avant-garde film of the 1970s.
She teaches the history and theory of cinema and artists’ moving image at the University of Westminster, Goldsmiths College, LUX and the Arnolfini. She presents talks on artists’ film and video at arts venues across the UK, including the CCA, Glasgow and the Serpentine Gallery, London and her recent articles appear in Afterall and Millenium Film Journal.