Be the First to See What you See as you See It
I've just returned from a venture overseas chock full of cinematic thrills, including seeing Anthony Mann's superb The Tall Target at the Cinematheque Francaise. But the most revelatory discovery were the works Runa Islam presented in Venice. OK, so not entirely revelatory, since I saw Be The First to See What You See As You See It this past summer in the Venice Biennial and loved it, but in person she gave a fascinating glimpse behind the gestation of the work. She also showed Scale, a work intended for two screens, but still impressive with its impeccable framing.
Be the First... is a simple film, highly structural. It consists of close-ups of various pieces of china displayed as if for auction on white pedestals in a white industrial space. The performer above inspects and handles them, and then slowly tips them off the pedestals, smashing all of them. The destruction occurs in super slo-mo, their descent sometimes inexplicably against a black background. And that's it.
So, it's simple. But it's simplicity lends it clarity - it intends to show the materiality of objects - materiality we overlook in our everyday life, these objects are white noise in our perceptual field until they have some use for us. Islam conveys this intense physicality of objects first through the performer, then through slow motion. The two inspirations for this work, Islam claimed, were Robert Bresson's Notes on Cinematography and an early slow motion test film she discovered at the Imperial War Library in London. The performer aims to be one Bresson's models, simply being, not acting but relating to the objects instinctually. She handles them delicately, inspecting their texture and shape, until she slowly pushes them off the pedestal. Touch is emphasized, play of fingers on porcelain. Here the film slows, into moments of intense anticipation, as the porcelain cups and saucers rivet our attention. These cheap antiques, restored in value by being displayed as if at auction, now become agents of suspense, their descent slowed to a deliciously tense 100 frames per second. Then, repeat. The suspension of time along with the ascetic, rigorous compositions, recall Resnais, as Martin Herbert writes in a recent Artforum article.
It's a formally beautiful work as well, lovingly photographed on 16mm with a flawless structure, cutting from long to mid to close up with Golden Era Hollywood grace. Video art in general is sloppily filmed and conceptually muddy, ignorant of film style and usually of the world outside their circumscribed art-world boundaries. But here we have something intensively sweated over and deeply concerned with how we interact with the world. It's refreshing. Bill Viola's Five Angels for the Millenium, which I saw at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, is another conceptually simple and brilliant work. This one being that nature is beautiful, and we should look at it more often. Five screens of unearthly beauty - four detailing a man falling into water, one of the sun reflecting off it. I could have stayed there for days. Transcendent, I say!
Her other work, Scale, recreates the bar from Mike Hodges' Get Carter in one frame, with invented action concerning two elderly patrons and the meticulous work of two waiters, while in the other a scale model of the building is photographed, and of course we don't know it's a model until a ways into it. Both frames swap images across the work. The way originally installed, these two frames were projected on a large screen, then, on a separate small screen a few feet in front, ran a clip from the original scene from the film. It was set up so it eclipsed the larger frame. You had to choose which one to watch, imitation or original.
I only saw the large-screen portion, but by itself it's an impressive work, again with a remarkable attention to detail concerning objects - the waiters cleaning and ordering glasses, setting up tables, vacuuming the floor. It's banal work made fascinating by the meticulous details. Then there are close up of elderly gents, Caine stand-ins, I suppose, ordering food and engaging in a silent argument of some sort. All the while the architecture is broken down in the other frame. I still haven't grasped the conceptual subtleties of this one, I only saw it once, and not in its intended fashion, but it displays her stylistic facility and brilliant self-reflexivity.
She's also quite pretty and ate a whole bowl of crisps. Oh, and she was born in Bangladesh and lives in London.