Published on Culture 24
I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm – Johanna Billing, Camden Arts Centre, London, until September 13 2009.
Most conceptual art has a tendency to sharpen up the critical faculties. Johanna Billing’s video pieces, on the other hand, charm them into agreement. Be warned that this show could make you want to sing along or even dance.
Her latest film is called I’m Lost Without Your Rhythm. It has an infectious soundtrack by a Swedish band, which the artist has rerecorded with her own guest vocals. And it features a group of teenagers improvising dance routines. The footage is well-produced and some clips are played backwards to emphasize the beat.
This alone would make a perfectly watchable film, but then there’s the conceptual bit. The video was made with students in Romania and their school is on a grim East European housing estate. They begin their class by typing on obsolete machines from the GDR. It’s an unlikely milieu for contemporary dance, but the estate proves as expressive as any in the more MTV-friendly lands to the West.
An earlier film called Magical World explores similar themes. Here the setting is a run-down cultural centre in Zagreb and the activity is a music rehearsal for kids. A teacher plays piano. A girl plays the flute. Almost everyone plays maracas. And they struggle through a song in English. This melancholy number, which gives its name to the piece, was written about changing times in 1968. Here in Croatia in 2006 the times are changing again, but the young singers can’t quite seem to grasp the meaning of their song.
The most catchy work in this show is a collection of films called You Don’t Love Me Yet. Billing has chosen a little-known song by sixties psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson and staged a tour of cover performances by local bands at art fairs and galleries around the world. In Stockholm, for example, the camera lingers on the audience where expressions range from laughter, to sadness, to boredom. Our own reaction becomes just one of many possibilities.
The first film of the series takes place in a beautifully lit recording studio. The song is given an epic seven and a half minute treatment, complete with small choir. Erickson’s original track was full of anguish but this is a lush, anthemic version. Contextual play and historical comment have rarely sounded so good.