Category Archives: film art

Dinh Q Lê, The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006)

War is a game for boys of all ages. So if that’s your violent gender you might especially enjoy this montage of vintage film in which helicopter gunships rain deafening misery on the Vietnamese.

Dinh Q Lê’s film begins gently with innocuous footage of dragonflies and some peasant wisdom about determining the weather from their flight patterns. So far, so bucolic.

But then come the invasion force, in footage we have seen all too often, along with the reports from the ground, from the Vietnamese from whom we have heard all too rarely.

As said by one of the farmers in the film, young at the time, you could watch these helicopters for hours. To some degree he found their ominous presence a pleasant spectacle. Strange indeed.

Or is it? JG Ballard can be relied upon to explain a paradox like this. His landmark book The Atrocity Exhibition, which first appeared toward the end of the Vietnam war, is full of helicopters

“The Vietnam war,” he writes, “has offered a focus for a wide range of polymorphic sexual impulses”. In other words, the first televised war arrived in our living rooms bearing an erotic charge.

It was, he adds, “also a means by which the United States has re-established a positive psychosexual relationship with the rest of the world.” That has a ring of mad truth, doesn’t it?

Certainly anything that defies gravity carries, if a male partner is involved, some sexual promise. And asymmetric warfare can in this way be seen as a sado-masochistic hook up between whole nations.

Sadly, at its climax, this film offers a terrible thrill as, midway through, we undergo a fusillade of bombs, rockets and bullets on all three channels. It’s a troubling, visceral pleasure.

You would think that Vietnam had seen enough of these mechanical dragonflies to last a lifetime. But in a coda to this film, we discover that the rural helicopter fan is now an amateur engineer.

His grown up passion is for building the very vehicles which waged war on his people is something an analyst could probably explain. They pale, of course, compared with industrial US models.

And we never see them fly. They may as well be sculpture. The may as well be pieces of kinetic art about making or keeping peace, no matter how anti-climatic that grown-up impulse might be.

This film can be found in The Sensory War 1914-2014 at Manchester Art Galery until 22 Februrary 2015. The Ballard quote can be found in Chapter 11: Love and Napalm: Export USA.

Emma Critchley, Aria (2013)

Aria, film still (2013), (c) Emma Critchley

Viewed through the baking darkness of a shipping container on a South coast beach, Critchley’s sub aquatic film floods the space with a certain amniotic calm.

What you see is a cross section of a small indoor pool. With the ease of a water baby, a bikini clad free diver spins and flips back and forth with no apparent need to breathe.

Meanwhile another respiratory athlete, this time a soprano singer, provides a soaring and swooping soundtrack. Having removed all consonants, it would read like the cry of a newborn.

Breath is the key to this film. No matter how long its subjects hold that for, they both need to come up for air. But it surely wasn’t ever this way in the womb.

Critchley cannot really take us back to our intrauterine beginnings, but she can offer the next best thing. She inverts the picture so the diver appears to be flying.

This sets up a parallel between the need to draw breath and the law of gravity. Both requirements are hard to get away from, as inevitable as the “breathe, breathe, breathe” rule of labour itself.

We may be reminded that in its prehistoric beginnings, art was made in dark places. In chambers rich with carbon dioxide, suffocating cave artists are thought to have experienced visions.

At the same time, of course, artworks of great beauty can leave the viewer breathless. In a case of Stendhal Syndrome you might succumb to gravity and collapse.

Critchley’s film peaks with the sudden appearance of her diver in the near ground. She is tucked into a foetal ball and spins just above the waterline. It makes you gasp.

This is the moment she is almost, but not quite born. She reappears in the background and we can breathe again. For just a while longer we can maintain this state of pre-natal oneness with art.

Aria can be seen in Brighton as part of HOUSE Festival 2013. See for more details.

Jeremy Deller, The Bruce Lacey Experience (2012)

This in-depth documentary about a great living artist premiered at Brighton Festival not so long after network TV screened an in-depth doc about its maker Jeremy Deller.

The results were two quite different films. But the subjects have more in common than both having worked together on The Bruce Lacey Experience.

Like Deller, Lacey has fingers in many pies. As this documentary shows he is a musician, a builder of robots, an unrepentant stager of happenings and a former star of the Goon Show.

But this is not the first time Lacey has captured the imagination of another creative spirit. A look at his Wikipedia page will tell you he is widely celebrated in music and film.

So the slightly contentious question is this: which of these two artists has incorporated the other into their own body of work…

Does Lacey join former miners, brass bands and wrestler Adrian Street in the parthenon of subjects pertaining to Jeremy Deller?

Or has Deller become yet another footnote in the life of octagenarian Bruce Lacey, who by 1962 was already the star of a celebratory Ken Russell film?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The Bruce Lacey Experience will surely bring the elder artist to a wider audience than Lacey can find in one of his regular appearances in the depths of Norfolk.

Besides, the results look as if Jem has fixed it for his subject to complete a boyhood dream and take a spin in an RAF jet, or at the very least given him an excuse.

Tracking shots of a model plane ‘flying’ around the Lacey home build to breathtaking footage from the cockpit of the real thing as it swoops over the English countryside.

Silver Machine by Hawkwind plays. You may not even like Hawkwind (I don’t (yet)), but I would defy anyone not to be uplifted by this trip through an illustrious career.

The Bruce Lacey Experience has its official premiere at the British Film Institute Southbank, London, on 5 July. Later in the month (from the 16th for three months) a show of Lacey’s work co-curated by Deller can be found at Camden Arts Centre, London.

Interview: Asheq Akhtar

Akhtar on location (c) Jo Irvine

When Asheq Akhtar answered a small ad calling for non-professionals to take part in a film, he could not have predicted the results. After three week’s training in method acting he was out on the streets before a full feature film crew. And no one who saw the movie Self Made will forget his barely scripted attack on a pregnant woman.

“It was a really hard day in Newcastle,” recalls Akhtar. “It was cold. It was bitter. It was in the same place I grew up in where my mum was abused by this ex boyfriend of hers. So I had all these memories, all this stuff to contend with.”

And for anyone who needs reminding, he adds “I’d never seen a film crew in action like that. It’s a very challenging environment to work in if you’ve never shot a film before.”

Plaudits and brickbats for this striking piece of reality cinema have since fallen the way of artist and director Gillian Wearing. And many said that her cast of novices, who all played out challenging psychodramas, were victims of an exploitation flick.

“When I watched it I thought people are going to read this the wrong way and it was a real worry for me,” says Akhtar, who sounds nothing like a psychopath when we talk on the phone. “I was thinking what have I done. What have I actually done? What are people going to take away from it?”

But as the DVD release approaches, he advises me the film “takes repeat viewing” to get a better sense of why he might want to play out such a brutal denouement. And a year and a half on from the premiere, he can laugh about the controversy it caused.

“It’s been a mixed reaction,” he says in a tone of understatement. “It’s very difficult for my family to watch and they were the people I was most concerned about. I had a lot of talks with them about it”.

Turner Prize-winning artists are just the latest thing his family has had to contend with. “[They] have been through so much: from the days of the partition in India, to the Bangladesh civil war, from migrating over to the UK and there’s been so much history.”

Some of this may explain the anger in Akhtar’s performance, yet the mild mannered Londoner explains that the final cut of Self Made makes his experience look harsher than it really was. “I found it very liberating,” he says cheerfully, “very enlightening and very interesting”.

If anything, the worst part were those accusations of cast exploitation. “It’s strange how people never gave us the credit to know what we were doing and know what we were getting ourselves involved in. And I think that’s been the most painful thing.”

“We just wanted to do something to express ourselves,” he continues. “So someone provided us with an option, with a choice…They asked do you wanna take part in it? Absolutely! We could have pulled out at any time.”

In fact, the closest art lover Akhtar came to dropping out was when he heard about the involvement of YBA Wearing. “And all of a sudden I was absolutely terrified,” he admits. “I thought why am I even going to go to this audition.”

But his controversial debut may be the making of a new career. For the next two years he continued classes with the film’s drama coach, Sam Rumbelow. He says now he is a “wannabe, struggling actor”, albeit one who has recently landed an agent.

“So that was my training,” he says of the chain of events kicked off by the film, “I’d definitely like to be an actor, but it’s not where I envisaged ever ending up at all.”

Along with his own astonishing performance, the coming DVD offers the chance to watch two of his group’s end scenes, which didn’t make the 90 minute edit, plus a workshop in which all the group reflect on their experience.

“I look back on those times so fondly,” says Akhtar who is still in close touch with the film’s other stars. “I think we were such different people back then, two or three years ago. It will be interesting to see that stuff now and say, ‘Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come?’”

Self Made is out on DVD on March 26. It is available from and from The Whitechapel Gallery shop to coincide with Gillian Wearing’s upcoming show.

Interview: Daria Martin

If you can taste these words or see them in colour, you already know about the condition known as synaesthesia which affects 1 in 20 people worldwide. If you can’t, chances are you might like the sound of that, especially if you are an artist.

“There are a lot of wannabe synaesthetes, including myself, out there,” says Daria Martin. But at the suggestion we may all be afflicted with the condition on an unconscious level, she points out, “you either are a synaesthete or you aren’t.”

So who can claim to be part of this exclusive neurological club? Martin tells me that Kandinsky, Eisenstein and Rimbaud were all synaesthetes. But then there are the living examples in hew new film Sensorium Tests, including a man who can indeed taste words.

“Synaesthesia has been described as a cross fertilisation of the senses,” says the American artist. “So historically synaesthesia has been a model of artistic media cross fertilising one another.” In other words, it’s a boon to painters and poets.

For the rest of us, Martin’s new show at Milton Keynes Gallery may be the most direct way to understand such enhanced perceptions. The centerpiece is the 10-minute film, Sensorium Tests, which also explores a newly discovered variant Mirror Touch Synaesthesia.

In 2005, scientists first realised that some synaesthetes have a tactile response to images – feeling pain, for example, when they see someone else bang their head. Martin is surely the first visual artist to explore this pertinent field.

“This new form mirror touch synaesthesia was particularly intriguing because it introduces a social aspect to synaesthesia. It’s dependent on not only one person’s subjective perceptions…but also on how those perceptions relate to social interactions happening in the world outside,” she says.

One theory of this phenomenon goes hand in hand with the recent discovery of mirror neurons, the nerves cells which may be responsible for empathy and learning. According to Martin, this does imply “how all of us can become social empathetic human beings”.

But in the newly discovered group of synaesthetes, such cells are “somehow on overdrive or excessive,” says Martin. So “the exhibition presents mirror touch synaesthesia as a starting point to explore the ways images can trigger – from a distance – physical responses” .

It does so by recreating a 2006 experiment into the condition and focusing on the interplay of look and gesture between the actors playing synaesthetes and scientists. But other films here may also touch the visitor to MK Gallery, featuring playing cards, robots and musical instruments.

“The ideas in Sensorium Tests are not only about the objectivity of one’s perceptions but also the converse: the idea that objects themselves might have a sort of subjectivity,” Martin has said. In other words, she hopes to suggest “objects can be sentient or animate”.

When images, sounds, tastes and sensations all bleed into one another, animism is  never far behind. Science may one day have the explanation for this, but until then we’ll always have visual/sonic/tactile/gustatory and olfactory art.

Daria Martin’s show Sensorium Tests can be seen at Milton Keynes Gallery until April 8 2012. See gallery website for more details. This piece was written for Culture24.

Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, File under Sacred Music, 2003

Since singer/songwriter Tom Verlaine cropped up in a recent post, it seems excusable to quote him with regards to the subject of this one: a re-staged gig by The Cramps.

Both emerged from a scene based around New York venue CBGB’s during the mid 70s, but the gig in question was played in 1978 to an audience of inmates at the Napa State Mental Institute in California.

The event was filmed by Target Video, leading archivists of the punk scene, and on the evidence of this YouTube clip it was a lot of fun. It features the kind of happy, harmless lunacy you get in feature films. And lead singer Lux Interior appears quite benevolent towards his audience – it is after all a free concert.

In 2003 Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard remade the cult film, drafting in contemporary musicians for a re-enactment at the ICA. Once again the punk community and the mad community, so to speak, were represented in the audience.

But there are a few striking differences between the two sets of footage. Picture quality is not great in either, but in the new film it appears to be worse. The degradation of the stock might stand in for the passing of time and the mythic haze surrounding the original event.

Secondly, Forsyth and Pollard have set in motion a much darker, scuzzier performance than the one I saw online. Again, I could be wrong, but this might reflect the myth of that gig and the projections of all concerned, in the same way as the damaged sound and picture.

And thirdly, the contemporary art duo have produced a backlit poster for their 22 minute movie, certainly an asset which the first film has done without. The earlier version has been distributed through networks of fans and record dealers. This new incarnation has an artworld gloss and seal.

Which brings me back somehow to Tom Verlaine, who once sang “I recall the actor’s advice/That nothing happens until it happens twice.” In other words, now that someone’s made a film about it, we can say for sure that an infamous gig really did take place.

As if to prove it, here is that official poster: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, File under Sacred Music (Lightbox), 2004

File under Sacred Music can be seen as part of Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard: Publicsfear at South London Gallery. It is a really great show and if you can make it there before March 18, do go.

Here is an early review of the show from Rebecca Norris at Culture24.

Phil Collins, marxism today (prologue) (2010)

marxism today (prologue) is unelaborate art. If it was on TV you would think it a more or less ordinary documentary, with just one or two creative flourishes.

Once, the voice of a presenter from East German TV is faded down and music is faded over the top. The track is a bittersweet instrumental in the mould of Stereolab.

Music is again used towards the end of the film, where library footage is speeded up in a time lapse sequence. Here the shots are of a sports ceremony in the former GDR.

Documentaries are not meant to bend the facts in this way. By adding these touches, artist Phil Collins offers strange feelings which go beyond the usual interest and empathy of the genre.

He puts a contemporary spin on the past. The presenter’s words are of less interest now than his ambience. The socialist training regime of the athletes could do with some fast forward.

Which brings us to the third arty flourish, a tangential title for the film. This is not about the past. The three former East Germans who are interviewed in it are still alive and well.

Collins keeps his 10-minute prologue short. As the maker of a documentary, he cannot film the future. But as an artist, he can exhibit part of history and make it seem new.

This film is showing as part of Phil Collins: marxism today at Cornerhouse, Manchester, until 28 November 2010.