Site Gallery

‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ at the Site Gallery features film and video works by artists John Smith, Hollis Frampton, Wilhelm Sasnal, Stuart Croft and Ryan Gander. The works span the early 1970’s to present date offering a glimpse at the legacy of artist’s film and video. They have been exhibited on the collective premise that they ‘self-consciously play with the power of narration’ in relaying a story. The exhibition portrays the field of filmmaking as one which ‘intertwines formalist with the unboundedly discursive’. The works use segments of narration to infer a relation between them. I take particular interest in discursive formations of narratives in these films and how they have successfully benefited from exhibition spaces unusual to the conventional situation of the cinema screen.

Five of the 6 works were presented inside an enclosed viewing environment designed by Mathew Harrison. The visible film projectors arranged on the exterior of the structure demystified the illusion of the films as reality. The sound of voices from within the structure persuaded me into the space. The structure’s shape was irregular and made from mixed-wooden materials. The especially built-in seats reinforced the speaker-listener relationship the works imminently imposed.

The large polyhedral walk-in structure was sidelined to the far end of the gallery aptly representing the works peripheral content as the voiceovers would often digress from the point. However its marginalization left a large amount of empty space in the gallery. As an object it self-consciously exposed its fabrication in order to draw attention to itself as a construction. A structure and a house for films; this installation was most appropriate for works such as Smith’s ‘Girl Chewing Gum’ (1976) which are iconic of structural cinema. It was also particularly fitting for Stuart Croft’s ‘Drive In’, (2008) which is a circular narrative told within the claustrophobic setting of a car. As the story unfolds it reveals its complicated narrative structure and edited sequence. However it may not demystify the viewer of the works construction but instead reinforce the cinematic connotations of the image, jarring the presentation with the content. This space was beneficial for multiple works played on a show reel, but would be impractical for screening a work that physically fragments sound and video like Gander’s ‘The Last Work’ which was appropriately displayed in its own room.

'For a while now I have been collecting obituaries’ was the opening line of Ryan Gander’s ‘Writing my life’ (2007) which stole my attention. This was the first work I saw when visiting the exhibition which I found immediately compelling. The voiceover for ‘Writing my life’ is a narrative about obituaries. It was spoken in English through the voice of a man with a French accent.

Perhaps this intended to undermine the intellectual authority of the voiceover as in Frampton’s ‘Nostalgia’ (1971) in which we see a photograph being burned, but hear a voiceover about a photograph that was previously burnt. (There is never a direct connection between the voiceover and the film image; it is always to one remove shifting our understanding of past, present and future in the film). Similarly Gander’s voiceover accompanies a static shot of the artist’s studio which is indebted to Structural/Materialist film traits and visually references a place where creative thought processes occur. The voiceover presents a dark irony in that to write his own obituary, he must first write the rest of his own life, so he then knows how he will die; he must also then be dead in order to write the obituary.

Gander has assembled disparate streams of thoughts to create an intricately complex narrative. In doing so the work references Foucault’s ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ which studies how a pattern of regularity and order can be found within such statements. A viewer who does not appreciate dark humour may find the monologue about death uncomfortable and the work tedious. Despite these tangents the voiceover takes, my attention was always brought back to the screen which positioned me as a subject and listener in relation to the work. Perhaps this still could have been achieved without the use of the wooden structure. This kind of presentation contrasts with ‘The last work’ (2007), the 6th piece of work which is installed in another room in the gallery.

‘The last work’ was an installation of surround sound and video screened within an entirely deep blue room. The video conveyed a journey between the artist’s studio and his home in London with only a view of the sky. I entered the space through a corridor and followed the sound of a voice around the walls. I presumed this was related to the small glowing area of blue which turned out to be a projection. This installation was a more violent example of fragmentation between voiceover and image than the previous works displayed. The room broke down the distinction between the viewer and the work itself submerging us into a zone where our imaginations could drift. But I couldn’t help but ask, why decorate the entire room, blue? The walls and carpet were chroma-key blue. This type of blue, the work divulges, is the same blue used to project weather reports. If the work is about thoughtful making and one that self-consciously explores its own making, this could also be seen as the ‘blue’ that ideas come out of.

The video was screened on the last wall in the blue room which Gander himself worries has too many ‘Lynch-like’ connotations perhaps of the Red room in Twin Peaks. I watched visitors walk into the space, search for the screen and shortly, after a minute or so, walk out again. I stayed for the duration. Perhaps the immersive conditions of the space which starkly defied conventions of both a cinematic environment and the white cube did not appeal to them.

The absence of seats meant the screen was awkward to watch for a long time challenging the speaker-listener relationship. The viewer is unconsciously induced into the space and thus the work. It is possible that some viewers might find the blurring of subject and object uncomfortable, intimidating or alienating. Gander’s installation of ‘The Last Work’ transforms the passive audience into an active examiner of the work. It encourages the act of looking, searching and following trains of thought rather than confronting the viewer on a large scale in a literal sense. To make the work more intimate, the speakers might be positioned closer to screen but the spacious and disjointed installment of the sound and image encourages movement and a drifting mentality that echoed the flaneur-like course portrayed in the work.

Just as the shape of the image causes demystification inherent to the structural film legacy, the fragmentation of sound and video destabilises how the meaning is decoded by the viewer. As an installation of separate components this could not exist on a cinematic screen in the same way Croft’s ‘Drive in’ might on one screen. Neither would it be given justice if put on a DVD compilation like Smith’s ‘Girl Chewing Gum’ is on Cinema 16. Even with surround sound or blue-ray specifications the immersive blueness of the room could not be emulated as successfully in the realm of home-entertainment. The positioning of the video on the last wall, with the speakers situated separately but close, is paramount to the audiences experience of the room as an installation, self-consciously reminding them of the space around the projection.