The Whitworth, Manchester
North West England

To enter the space inhabited by Ben Rivers’ The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – a joint commission by Artangel and The Whitworth – is to walk into a set of a set. The exhibition toys with ideas of narrative, observation and storytelling as an art form; always with an eye on film and to use Rivers’ own words “films about film”.

Composed of five films, a sound work and costume the show has an engaging quality, present in much of Rivers’ work. It invites the viewer in with nervous looks to camera and exposure of the mechanics of film making. Tropes maybe, but tropes that give a certain home movie meets professional cinema quality. The films centre on the artist’s interpretation of American writer, Paul Bowles’ A Distant Episode; a story set in the Moroccan desert about a Western academic captured and humiliated by North African bandits. Rivers ties this to the context of film by swapping out the academic for director – played by friend and real life director Oliver Laxe in Bandits’ Camp LAB ROLL, the first of the videos the viewer is directed to.

Filmed with non-professional local actors the piece, and in fact, the show as a whole is full of a looseness which makes it strangely endearing. Rivers captures the essence of storytelling in this work, and notably also in Mrabet, allowing the improvisational nature and tonal changes present in retellings through revealing multiple takes and allowing those apprehensive looks to camera and slightly posed movements to play out. In many ways the work blurs the distinction between documentary and fiction to a point where the viewer becomes happily submerged in a visual tapestry in which the stitching at the back is as present, and pertinent, as the front.

Mrabet focuses on renowned Moroccan storyteller and artist Mohammed Mrabet, a muse to Bowles during his time in Morocco. The work has a button which the viewer presses to start the video, wonderfully mirroring the behind camera narrative of the director, Rivers, asking Mrabet to tell him a story. There is an openness in the telling that belies the feeling, particularly on second viewing, that there is some embellishment of the truth. Mrabet himself has a humour and warmth that compliments this wonderfully and really gives a sense of the strange relationship every storyteller and, by proxy, narrative has with truth and fiction.

The other videos in the exhibition focus more on the camera behind the camera/film about a film aspect of Rivers’ ideas. Working on the sets of both Oliver Laxe and Shezad Dawood’s films, Las Mimosas and Towards the Possible Film respectively, Rivers captures elements that could so easily be a part of the narrative of A Distant Episode.

Taxi, a GIF like work using one of the actors from Las Mimosa, who mysteriously disappeared from set shortly after the filming of Rivers’ piece, is located away from the main body of the exhibition. It has all the suspicion one may expect from a cloistered Western academic in unfamiliar surroundings; about to be captured.

There is an uncertain aspect combined with a kind of bravado which portrays masculine attitudes and pressures as well as the post-colonial and hierarchical attitudes associated with Westernism and academia. It demonstrates tensions felt across these platforms and, in many ways, forms the questioning summary to the show as a whole. These themes echo those in the Bowles’ short story A Distant Episode. The Professor, a linguist and arrogant man, treats locals with contempt/ignorance and is karmically reprimanded/taken advantage of in turn. There are pertinent issues wrapped up in Rivers’ exhibition – most relevantly perhaps, the West’s attitudes to the East and vice versa. There is something that pleasingly mirrors this in the parabolic nature and presentation of Mrabet’s narratives also. They have the tone of a fable in many ways but with a rye sense of humour and currentness that belies their age.

Back in the main space A Distant Episode and Las Mimosas LAB ROLL are both more typically “behind the camera” documentary pieces. They have a certain openness and humour reminiscent of Orson Wells’ “F” is for Fake. Exposing the workings of a film set and again noting and questioning the boundaries between fact and fiction, truth and lies; these works provide almost a contextual reference for the other video works. They share the same awkward glances as Bandits’ Camp LAB ROLL whilst at the same time having those acutely knowing elements of Mrabet.

The exhibition continues until 22nd May 2016 with a screening of Ben Rivers’ feature film, The Earth Trembles And The Sky Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers and accompanying Q&A at HOME, 11th May.

Exhibition Guide – Ben Rivers: The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Whitworth Gallery, 2016
The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers [Book], Ben Rivers, Artangel, 2016