Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
Peer Gallery, London
16 - 30 October 2010
Reviewed by: Jonathan Gilhooly »
This new, multi-screen work by Ergin Cavusoglu (commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella) is prefaced by a quotation from Italo Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’:
"Crystal and flame: two forms of perfect beauty that we cannot tear our eyes away from, two modes of growth in time, of expenditure of the matter surrounding them, two moral symbols, two absolutes, two categories for classifying facts and ideas, styles and feelings… A more complex symbol, which has given me greater possibilities of expressing the tension between geometric rationality and the entanglement of human lives, is that of the city."
Calvino’s words set out the material and metaphysical landscape from which Cavusoglu’s piece emerges: two screens—one a cool depiction of the cutting and polishing of a gemstone, the other a convivial restaurant scene—bracket and are counterpoised by a third, a group of actors rehearsing a stage play. Crystal & Flame demands the viewer’s attention, for although the screens can be seen simultaneously, each of the three narratives asks to be absorbed individually. In Peer Gallery the adjacent rooms for this interplay of narratives express the inability to encompass completely their significance: the three into two (il)logic is a fitting echo of the sublime awkwardness of Calvino’s own fictive meta-texts, but at the same time it prompts the viewer to traverse the two spaces in an attempt to tease out meaning. One question might be: how can the rehearsal of a stage play, in which the propulsive thrust of the narrative is constantly interrupted and deferred by the requisite instructions of the director, be seen to elide with the ‘naturally’ unfolding conversation in a Turkish grill, and the release-from-nature paradigm of the gem-cutter’s art? In each film the concept of boundaries, borders, and liminal spaces are played out: between fact and fiction (the restaurant conversation), acting and not-acting (the stage rehearsal), nature and artifice (the stone-cutting sequence).
In the first room the film begins with the restaurant chef lighting an open flame-grill, followed by the arrival of a group of six people who proceed to occupy one of the tables. The informal (and ostensibly unscripted) conversation gravitates towards the recounting, by the chief male character, of a film script outlining the smuggling of goods across the Turkish/Syrian border. This account becomes increasingly tense as the narrator reaches its shocking denouement, the apparently empty restaurant gradually taking on the emotional ambience of a stage set. Interestingly, Cavusoglu has here uncoupled the subtitles from their diegetic source by projecting the spoken text onto a separate, angled ‘letterbox’ surface below the main screen. This adds a further element to the already tripartite arrangement, and makes explicit the artist’s deployment of language as a structural, pliable component within the work.
In the second room the remaining two works are positioned adjacent to one another, the footage of the gem-cutter in his workshop projected onto an angled screen situated on the floor. The viewer is here invited into a different kind of relationship with the subject (the stone itself—we only ever see the cutter’s hands): this meditative film is seen as if under a microscope, or in a display case, its portrayal of material transformation providing an unwavering foil to the more emotive content of the other two pieces. The final screen depicts the rehearsal of a stage adaptation of Chekhov’s ‘An Artist’s Story’ (itself the depiction of a triangular relationship), in which the eponymous lead character becomes fixated with two sisters, one of whom has strong philanthropic principles that contrast with his own unworldly self-interest. The emotional trajectory of the story is constantly interrupted by the director, whose stop-start modulations and suggestions serve as a theatrical correlative to the gem-cutter’s own work-in-progress. Here artifice is foregrounded, but serves to accentuate the emotional impact of the plot—the final scene is affectingly played out three times, a final coda to the triadic structure of the whole. At the same time, this rehearsal itself rehearses the generic form of the first film and seems to question the authenticity of the restaurant scene: the occasional camera shots of empty theatre seats mirror that scene’s vacated dining tables. Similarly, references to jewellery abound in the Turkish grill piece, returning the viewer once again to the stable central image of cut crystal.
Calvino’s notion of rationality and entanglement gives Crystal & Flame its dialectical form, but Cavusoglu’s exposition provides no easy resolution: its themes seem not to have emerged fully formed, but instead to have been genuinely and awkwardly wrought out of the narrative material from which they came. Intractable and compelling, Crystal & Flame leaves the viewer mentally navigating its conceptual spaces long after departing the actual rooms of London’s Peer gallery.
Jonathan Gilhooly is an artist and lecturer based in Brighton, UK www.jonathangilhooly.com
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