ICA: Institute of Contemporary Arts

Sarah Turner “Perestroika” / Rosalind Nashashibi solo show

The juncture of a screening of Sarah Turner’s new feature film Perestroika, and the tail end of Rosalind Nashashibi’s exhibition of film based art, came together briefly at the ICA.
Turner’s film was showing as part of the LFF, and this was Nashashibi’s solo show in the ICA galleries. A fantastic chance to get a real feast of current artists film and video by two key practitioners. Both film-makers coming from fine art backgrounds, Turner has been a figure in contemporary British artists film, as film maker, writer and curator, for over a decade, while Nashashibi first came to attention when she won the 2003 Beck’s Futures prize – her career has taken off since then.

I had seen Nashashibi’s Beck’s prize show, and hadn’t thought much of it, frankly. Her slow moving evocations of domestic or otherwise ordinary life, homages to the banal, to tedium, concentrating on minutiae – interesting in theory but for me, agony to watch. Not only agony for me, but for a lot of the audience as well, who stayed about 30 seconds.

The work in this show is a bit same, and quite a bit different. Nashashibi is still concerned with the banal, but with this newer work is more concerned with exploring the overtly cinematic gaze. The works allude to historical structuralist formalist school of alternative film-making.

There is photography in the show: her black and white stills of theatre rehearsals. Having done much of this kind of work in the past myself, for filthy lucre, there is noting remarkable or exhibitable about them. They are nothing like the theatre photography taken by Agnes Varda for the Théâtre National Populaire in the 1950s (and which can be seen in The Beaches of Agnes).

I didn’t know what to make of Jack Straw’s Castle, except that nobody in the room stayed to watch all of it. I wanted to ask them why, but I was trying to watch it so I didn’t. The film explores the woods around the Jack Straw’s Castle pub in Hampstead Heath – apparently a gay cruising spot. Nashashibi weaves around the trees, glimpsing men hurrying to and fro – to assignations perhaps? Is she going to show us something salacious? Surely not. The trees are beautiful at night. It’s boring. Then it’s all revealed as film set – not that old trick again!

Eyeballing purports to be a “portrait” of New York, using a split screen to that juxtaposes NYPD policemen, against a series of “faces” that Nashashibi has discovered embedded in the architectural structure of the city. It might have worked, but for the utter awfulness of the cinematography, which is awkward and largely out of focus. Presumably there is a reason for that, it’s obscure to me.

The Prisoner was my favourite of the works exhibited. A short dual screen piece, it plays with the idea of surveillance: the camera follows a smartly dressed woman walking through the South Bank Centre, looking like any one from the army of smartly dressed women who work in various admin jobs there. The camera follows her like the many (hundreds of?) surveillance cameras that – seen and unseen – dot the SBC landscape (not to mention the rest of Britain). However, unlike the CCTV camera, Nashashibi’s camera uses al the cinematic tricks of the suspense drama: the noirish off-kilter angle, the extreme close up, the point of view shot. While you watch, you are expecting something to happen. At the same time, as the location is blatantly the SBC (a sign proclaims Welcome to the BFI) you’re aware that it’s a film about “film”, about the experience of film. And certainly nothing does”happen.” Not the most interesting or original idea, but it’s a promise of good things to come.

My fear is that the ecstatic adulation that has greeted Nashashibi’s work since she won the Beck’s prize has potential to restrict her artistic development. There really are things wrong with this work: things she can reconsider, and move on from – but will she do it, if the art world is overjoyed with what they see now?

The awareness of the limits of narrative is much more accomplished in Turner’s Perestroika, because Turner really understands narrative, understands our human need for it. Narrative is how we understand the world for ourselves, and how we explain it to others. We don’t understand or explain in tedious or disjunctured images. We always try to seek to knit together, to make meaning (out of whatever we can find), That’s narrative. Turner’s wonderful film knits together two train journeys across Russia – Moscow to Irkutsk, Siberia, taken twenty years apart.

Turner not only knits together the two journeys, but also the twin identities of the main character the narrator, of whom we see only glimpses, hints reflected in a train window. She is strong, forcefully vocal, observant and opinionated, but always remains ambiguous. She is both autobiographical and a constructed character The character is “Sarah” a woman physically and emotionally injured and seeking to be healed by recreating a journey she took in 1987 with two now-dead friends. But she is also Sarah, who really did take that journey in 1987 and whose close friends on that journey really have died. We see footage and hear sound from that originally journey – recorded on a high-8 camera – embedded within the HD video / 35mm still recording of the 2007 excursion. We are invited into a real memory, constructed within a fictional timespace, in a real place – Russia). The relationship between past and present, the meditative repetition of the real images – which are repetitive because the journey is so long – the evocation of strangeness in finding oneself -again! – in this weird landscape, makes for a riveting watching experience.

It is an emotional story about an emotional journey, but it never offers its emotional aspect manipulatively, a la Hollywood, or social drama. The craftsmanship in this film is built on the apparent simplicity of the structure: most of the film is what one sees from the window of the train. But isn’t his boring? Never. The film is about the essence of the sublime: it continually offers up images that are simultaneously beautiful and horrible. Beauty of the light on snow, pink dawns and fiery sunsets, massive industrial plants looming like giant preying mantises or other metal insects; the horror of the emptiness, the terrible monumentality of the lake landscape. We know that, if cast even briefly from the train, we’d die within hours. Yet, as “Sarah” tells us, the train is its own hell: stiflingly hot, roaring with stoves and samovars.

It would be a cliche to link Perestroika to Tarkovsky, so I won’t push it. But it seems to me that many filmmakers (including myself) are fascinated by Tarkovsky but there have been many noble failures in actually emulating the great Russian. The beauty of Turner’s work is that in making no such claims, and seeking no such pretensions, she skirts so close to Tarkovsky’s notion of film as “sculpting in time” and to the spiritual quest of seeking redemption that is a hallmark of his work. However – dare I say it? Turner offers us a more emotionally deep, let me say “feminine”, voice in this quest, humanising it.

The film is never didactic but embedded within its visual poetry it flags up the sadly “real world” issue of climate change and environmental degradation, as we see the Siberian landscape in December 1987 covered thickly in snow; the same landscape in 2007 is not only often snowless, but wheat is still being harvested. The fragility of Baikal is also shown – both overtly mentioned and also visually described in a stunning sequence of images.

Perestroika is the best artists’ film I have seen coming out of the UK in a long time. It is satisfying on both the artistic front and on the narrative front. Turner has managed to craft a film that is moving and profound, subtly linking the tragedy of personal experience to the human tragedies of social collapse, and environmental damage and our collective future.