Monday, 22 October 2012


Tate Modern, 16-21 October 2012

Sicherheits, by William Easterley, shown in the Tanks
(more videos have been uploaded and available from YouTube)

An exciting failed attempt to find meaningful alternatives to narrative cinema.

When I think of a major contemporary art gallery, at least the municipal galleries used to celebrate the culture of some city or other, I think of cavernous rooms and large installations or video art. It’s as if the building, needing to be big to make the appropriate statement, requires these art forms in order to justify itself.

A parody, I’m sure. But Tate Modern, already dominated (oppressed?) by its Turbine Hall, now has further caverns to fill, in the Tanks.

Last week, the task of entertaining visitors to these spaces fell to Filmaktion, a group of British pioneers of ‘expanded cinema’.

One of these pioneers, Malcolm Le Grice, is also a theorist, and his essay in the Expanded Cinema book published by Tate, is fascinating, an attempt to define different aspects of his art that is both clear and though-provoking.

Le Grice develops ideas from two assertions – firstly that narrative cinema is a special case of the options open to filmmakers and audiences, and secondly that narrative cinema is oppressive.

Le Grice is extremely interesting on the different types of non-narrative cinema, both when writing and also in putting these ideas into practice. But it isn’t clear that these artworks truly go ‘beyond narrative’, for I find myself providing a narrative, something Le Grice admits is possible at the very end of his essay.

I have greater problems with the second assertion, that narrative cinema is intrinsically oppressive. This is also a fatalistic assertion if it turns out to be impossible to create non-narrative cinema. Yet I'm still thrilled to witness artists exploring a new approach in order to free us from oppression, whether or not this happens.

This sense of doing something liberating and important is present in the artworks, though humour and lightness are also present, so that I didn’t find anything portentous, though I did find some of the works pointless.

An example is 'Chase Film with Clocks' by William Raban, where an alarm clock is shown on a screen, and a further two are present in the gallery itself. The sound of ringing is on loudspeakers so appears to come from everywhere, but images on the screen and use of a flashlight in the actual gallery suggest that first one, then another of either the physical clocks or the filmed clocks are the culprits.

I explained that artwork in detail because that description is pretty much the whole of the effect of the work.

Being present as spectator seems unnecessary. It is extremely conceptual, and identifies several areas that might be interesting, such as the relationship between sound and vision in a cinema, and the links between ‘screen reality’ and ‘spectator reality’ and so on.

But like other conceptual art, it is like a skeleton awaiting flesh, or better yet, life. My experience is similar to that of watching someone solve a puzzle – I might admire the ingenuity, but I am uninvolved. I didn't see how it could be liberating, except in the facetious sense of 'liberating' myself from any meaningful aesthetic experience.

Is any of this non-narrative, or just a different type of narrative? For centuries visual art (paintings, frescoes, sculptures, etc) implied a narrative, even if that was just ‘I was here, I existed’. For the last hundred years, artists claiming to be modernist or something similar have tried to create non-narrative, abstract visual art. But it seems to me that something is still communicated, even if it isn’t a full story (and what is a full story anyway?)

Perhaps instead of seeing narrative cinema as a special case of all the options, we should see all art as communicating something, and then the special case would be a simple story conveying precisely what the storyteller wished.

Directly opposing that special case would be another special case, where the artist had no clear idea or ideas to communicate, and didn’t attempt to communicate anything. And the spectator subsequently filled in all the gaps. A close approximation to this second case would be the aphorism, a literary device for appearing clever while actually leaving all the hard work to the reader.

I suspect conceptual art is a better example, and sadly while Filmaktion artists are pioneers in creating different ways to tell a story, their apparent belief that a story is a bad thing means their work is conceptual in this exhausting way.

Maybe someone will pick up Le Grice’s first assertion, with its interesting technical implications for expanding narrative, and neglect the second assertion. Then these artworks will genuinely be pioneers of a new approach to cinema.

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