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Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Norwich
5 May - 29 July 2012
Reviewed by: Lawrence Bradby »
The usual gallery arrangement is that the art stays still and the visitor circulates. The visitor moves slowly about the gallery space, sizing things up, approaching, retreating, finding the vantage point that allows them into the art. Films, however, are linear not sculptural. They require the viewer to sit down and stay still. They ask to be seen from the start, for their material to be experienced in the order it was placed by the director (who may also be an artist). A gallery visitor encountering an artist’s film has to change their mode of viewing, from a mobile exploration of the space to a static experience of time.
Like the majority of Viola’s work, Quintet of the Unseen is a moving image piece, yet the work doesn’t ask to be seen from the start. It presents itself like a painting, continually available, continually inviting you to work with it, to look for a way in. Quintet of the Unseen inhabits two simultaneous temporalities: the time it creates by its own duration, and the time of the gallery.
I didn’t see Quintet of the Unseen in a gallery. As part of Norfolk and Norwich Festival, it is being shown in a temporary venue, an undercroft beneath the War Memorial at the western end of Norwich market. The undercroft contains no other art, but it does have the presentational style typical of contemporary visual art in the UK: solidly-built temporary walls evenly covered with paint, wall texts in vinyl lettering, a conscious neutrality of decor.
I visited the undercroft at 10.15 am, shortly after it had opened for the day. Apart from the two invigilators sitting close to the doorway in a wedge of daylight, I was alone. Quintet of the Unseen presents five actors grouped closely together. The work shows their expressions changing in response to some unseen, possibly invisible, stimulus. The footage is slowed down. Watching it alone, this simple device of slowing down the film has a powerful effect. I began to feel claustrophic, submerged, as if I was drowning in the slowness.
The five actors in Quintet of the Unseen are carefully composed. They are grouped closely together, visible from the waist up. Throughout the sixteen minutes of the film they gaze outwards, out of the rectangle of the projection, each of them staring in a slightly different direction.
Viola’s intention is to load the work with an emotional power. We are presented with five characters experiencing something transcendent. The five actors have been carefully rehearsed in their roles. They have been given precise parameters in which to work: no movement of the feet, no eye contact with each other, no speech. Their task is to exercise precise control, to choose exactly the right range of facial expressions and hand gestures, to maintain a degree of intensity without the source of that intensity being resolvable. The viewer is supposed to remain unsure whether the characters are experiencing horror or amazement or awe, or some combination.
It is better to remove the notion of acting and emotional experience altogether and to think of this as a film that documents a slow precise choreography of gestures. One actor clasps her hands in a stylised gesture recalling the tropes of Shakespearan tragedy. Another, in the front row uses a more restricted palette, doing all the work with the muscles round his eyes, his expression shading from tense to disbelieving to dazed.
In Relational Aesthetics Nicolas Bourriaud argues that art offers a certain sociability which no other cultural form can offer. ‘TV and literature … refer each person to his or her space of private consumption.’ He concedes that theatre and cinema bring small groups together, but ‘there is no live comment made about what is seen (the discussion time is put off until after the show).’ Only art is able to ‘tighten the space of relations’. ‘I see, I perceive, I comment … Art is the place that produces a specific sociability.’ (Bourriaud, trans Pleasance and Woods, 2002, p15-16).
Bourriaud is wrong. Galleries encourage visitors to experience work alone, by looking and by thinking. Galleries, and the wider culture of visual art in the UK, directs viewers away from any active or discursive response to artwork. Galleries are only very rarely gathering points for new forms of social interaction. They’re not even places for expression of existing social forms. In fact, the contemporary British gallery isolates the visitor, requiring them, as far as possible to experience the work alone. Like the characters in Quintet of the Unseen, who touch each other’s shoulders, but never make eye contact nor speak to each other, gallery visitors are atomised by their experience. They are made separate.
What are the characters in Quintet of the Unseen seeing? Though their feet stay still, through the film they slowly shift their heads and upper bodies. The part that animates each character is their gaze. Their sight line is rigid and as this rigid line moves, it draws the rest of the body with it.
You could imagine that the focus of their attention is a numinous cloud, a gaseous toroidal shape which is out of shot, invisible to a viewer of the film, but clear to every one of the characters. Each of them latches their attention to a different spot on this gaseous cloud which is slowly rotating, flaring, and folding into itself. And since each character’s gaze is locked to the cloud, this complex movement (invisible to the viewer since it is out of shot and furthermore entirely imaginary) produces an equally complex on-screen movement of each character. The lines of sight of the characters slowly cross and re-cross, like a civic laser light show at New Year. And we watch this play of light without knowing how far the light beams are destined to travel.
Lawrence Bradby is an artist and writer. He works as half of the collaborative artist duo Townley and Bradby making interventions, performance walks and artists' books.
Norfolk and Norwich Festival
Below the War Memorial, City Hall, St. Peters Street, Norwich
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