Group exhibition, Site Gallery, 2008
An exhibition which explored the tension between language and image through a selection of film and video works including seminal work from the 1970s produced by John Smith and Hollis Frampton and more recent work by Stuart Croft, Ryan Gander, and Wilhelm Sasnal, presented in a viewing environment designed by artist Matthew Harrison.
The work included self-consciously played with the power of narration, the voiceover and the use of text to draw attention to language’s role in film form and its influence on authority, structure and memory. The works deal with the telling of a story — but with a playfulness in relation to the mechanisms of narration, which is particularly seen in film and video where the two registers of image and language can be manipulated separately.
Produced in the seventies, Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) draws attention to the primacy of language over image and the fragility of the photographic medium as a reliable document of time past. A narrator describes a photograph as it contorts and burns on a hot plate — but there is a dislocation as we gradually realise the image being talked about is the one which burned up previously, so there is never a direct connection between the visual image and the narrative — it is always at one remove, like a film with sound out of synch.
Also from this period is John Smith’s, The Girl Chewing Gum in which a post-production voiceover masquerades as a directorial voice, issuing off screen direction to the people documented going about their business on a London street. The work highlights the power of language over the visual and the shift of time present to time past implicit in film.
Ryan Gander’s piece The Last Work echoes John Smith’s use of documentary visuals of London streets as backdrop to narrative disclosures, but the view of the street is partial – an upwards shot of a perambulatory camera on the trip between artist’s studio and home. The film gradually exposes the mechanics of this shot – the full paraphernalia of the peripatetic film shoot – while at the same time, narrating a personal story, involving digressions which are let into the visuals like parentheses. Like Frampton’s film the narrative is at one remove, delivered by a female voice who seems to be receiving her words from an external source, ventriloquising the voiceover.
Ryan Gander’s other work Writing my Life is composed of a single static shot of artists studio (so formally presented with the voiceover privileged over the visual) accompanied by a voiceover narrative about obituaries – the formal journalist pre-prepared versions, subjective ones written quickly by friends of the unexpectedly deceased and the self-penned. About how one can effectively voiceover a life – overwrite the narrative of a life post-mortem and about how life (in the form of a voiceover interruption of a radio broadcast) can nevertheless intercede.
Wilhelm Sasnal’s work Europa takes the idea of the primacy of language & sound over image to its ultimate conclusion with a text only film. It creates a descriptive narration for a notional film shot on one reel of 16mm, so 2 min 30, complete with soundtrack, purely in text. The primacy of language is played out, demonstrating the potential of words (and music) to conjure images.
Stuart Croft’s Drive In presents, within the form of a visually arresting road movie-style, in-car scene, a narrative monologue which takes the form of a classic male wish fulfilment joke. A woman recounts a “desert island” joke to a middle-aged male driver, who remains unnervingly silent throughout, however the punchline of narrative resolution is never arrived at. They continue to drive and the narrative seamlessly starts again.
The works were presented in a purpose built viewing structure by artist Matthew Harrison.The structure follows through certain strategies from previous works and collaborations. It was intended as a peripheral but necessary object within the gallery space, providing a light tight and comfortable space.
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