Matthew Darbyshire @Tramway

This review appeared in The Skinny on 27 February 2012.

In what is Darbyshire’s largest public exhibition to date, he has sought to fill the massive space of Tramway 1 with an installation that simulates a building site: a huge vinyl banner stretched from pillar to pillar, printed with a trompe l’oeil architectural render of the impending development.

Continuing Darbyshire’s exploration of the non-specificity of today’s design language, the sketched buildings take inspiration from the Mackintosh style but reduce it – in a typically homogenised developers’ vernacular – to bland and generic motifs.

According to the exhibition literature, the space is supposed to be eerily silent and present us with a hypothetical scenario where Tramway has been bought up by developers. But it isn’t eerie – only empty, which is often the case if you visit Tramway midweek, and the installation is simply unconvincing.

Not helping our suspension of disbelief is the sight of more artworks lurking around the edges of the ‘virtual village’, produced collaboratively with other artists. One of these, a series of wall-mounted photograms, features lurid lime and sunset-hued photos of vegetables. They appear to reference a style of advertising design that we would now think of as ‘bad taste’, but have no discernible connection to ‘Mockintosh’ architecture.

The exception to these confusing collaborative projects is a video which pans over housing exteriors while architectural critic Owen Hatherley narrates in ‘developer talk’ about housing as a barometer of social trends. The video crystallizes many interesting ideas behind what would otherwise have been an even blander installation. But this aside – if Darbyshire wants to open our eyes to the standardising effects of design, the installation would be more effective as an offsite project, masquerading out among the real architecture of Glasgow’s Southside.

Moments of Being

This article appeared in The CineSkinny on 22 February 2012.

The Glasgow Film Festival hosts the world premiere and only screening of Anne-Marie Copestake’s specially commissioned film. We meet with the director to discuss her inspirations

And Under That, the new film from 2011’s Margaret Tait Award winner Anne-Marie Copestake, presents a portrait of two women created through acts of looking and listening, and a live soundtrack performance. We grab a few moments with her ahead of its premiere at Glasgow Film Festival 2012.

So tell us where And Under That came from?
The starting point was of a collection of words and ideas: hidden social rebellion, futile revolt, authority, grace, averted and directed gazes, and textual experience. It also came from bits of writing: a sentence – “I am not finished yet”, a phrase – “And under that”, and a scene set in heavy soaking rain with horses and people exploring three positions of movement and stillness. I was also interested to develop a scenario wherein words questioning histories and potential come from an older woman, and she is not seen as fixed and finished but there are possibilities connected to her.

Your installations often have an intimate feel, inviting close inspection. Did the large cinema screen influence your making process?
I approached this piece of work in quite a different way. This short film involved a long process of writing, meeting people, asking questions, listening, writing further, re-writing, recording and listening again. I wanted to make a piece of work that could travel to other locations and that would not rely on the particular space in the cinema in Glasgow.

Last year’s Margaret Tait commission saw Torsten Lauschmann up a ladder and measuring the ceiling of the GFT so he could project his film onto it. Disrupting the image is a strategy you often use in your film works. Was the installation process important for this film?
There isn’t really an installation for And Under That. The cinema space involves a set of conditions and scale of projected image that I have never worked with before. My approach was to work towards a live event in presenting the film in the cinema, it will be the first time I have worked with a particular sound environment.

You’ve recently returned from touring the States with your band Muscles of Joy. Juggling your parallel practices must be a challenge?
I had never been to the States before and so all of it was interesting to me. I visited the Anthology Film Archive and ended up being given an off-the-cuff personal guided tour, which was very special. But no, the timing was not really ideal! This particular timing clash was a fairly extreme one that I would not like to repeat, ever. I did bring my work with me though, and had an incredible view from where I sat in a thirteenth floor glass walled flat looking over layers and lights of New York.

You have a great track record of collaboration. Are you ‘going it alone’ this time?
The screening will incorporate a live part too, a soundtrack performance that involves live music and voices. This will be performed by Stevie Jones, members of Muscles of Joy and possibly a special guest. It is great to be working with Stevie, who wrote and recorded music for the film. Several years ago a track by Rude Pravo (Luke Fowler, Stevie Jones and Cara Tolmie) was the first piece of music I used in a short film. A few years afterwards I asked Stevie if he would like to compose and perform some music on double bass for a new film. He was too busy at the time but stated he would love to do something for a future piece of work. I’m delighted that the time is now.

And Under That screened on 22 February 2012 at GFT, Glasgow Film Festival 2012.

The Jewel (Il Gioiellino)

This review appeared in the Cineskinny on 22 February 2012.
The Jewel may be based on the true story of Italian dairy giant Parmalat’s 2003 death by fraud, but its yellowy arthouse look and plodding pace not only thwart it as a timely exposé but also render parts of it implausible. Distinguished gent Rastelli (Remo Girone) has built up a small family deli into a global corporation and is unwilling to lose it when it bankruptcy looms. Botta (Toni Servillo), his po-faced Chief of Finance, fiddles the books in a last, desperate attempt to retain a bygone era. Aiding him is Rastelli’s young niece Laura, with whom he has a secret affair in a grossly ridiculous subplot that’s cringeworthy to watch and casts doubt on the film’s intentions as a serious drama. Meanwhile, a colleague’s suicide and burial are over within five minutes, as is typical of the ill-judged emphasis. Despite numerous flaws, The Jewel is diverting enough and portrays a country that’s corrupt to its core, but due to disorganisation rather than malicious intent.

Director: Andrea Molaioli
Starring: Toni Servillo, Remo Girone, Sarah Felberbaum
* *

Screened on 22 and 23 February at CCA and GFT, Glasgow Film Festival 2012.

Breathing (Atmen)

This review first appeared in the CineSkinny on 21 February 2012.

Non-professional actor Thomas Schubert excels as Roman Kogler, a sullen youth in a juvenile detention centre who needs to succeed in his new day-release job as an undertaker in order to win parole. Having spent his life in care, Kogler is unused to the outside world and finds the experience intense, not least when hauling bodies to the city morgue. It’s hard to say who exercises greater restraint in the movie – Schubert, whose performance is all the more engrossing for its economy, or actor-turned director Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters), whose observational direction makes a little go a very long way.

A story that could have been bleak or full of clichéd philosophising on the meaning of life is, in Markovics’ hands, a captivating and tender human drama. What really elevates it beyond mere beauty, though, is a scene where Kogler unexpectedly has to assist with the washing and dressing of the deceased: perhaps one of the last taboos in both film and life, death can still be shocking.

Director: Karl Markovics
Starring: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Gerhard Liebmann
* * * * *

Screening 20 and 21 Feb at Cineworld, Glasgow Film Festival 2012.

Gerhard Richter Painting

This review first appeared in The CineSkinny on 17 February 2012.

With a career spanning five decades and the accolade “one of the greatest living painters”, Gerhard Richter has – as might be expected – surpassed the soul-searching whys of painting, and is now focused on the how. In the first documentary he’s agreed to in fifteen years, Corinna Belz eschews voiceover narration in favour of a low-key, fly-on-the-wall look at the man in his studio, painting. We see how he begins with an abstract composition of queasy rainbow colours then transforms it, dragging a “big squeegee” across the surface to achieve his trademark photographic flatness. Just when we think it’s finished, Richter decides it isn’t working at all and needs to be scrapped. Famously media-shy, he seems relatively at ease here and shares the whims, ironies and perplexities of his practice. Mainly, we learn that the working life of even a big artist involves less drama than you might think – unless you’re an avid Richter fan, the film is quite interesting, but that’s all.

Director: Corinna Belz
Starring: Gerhard Richter
Released: TBC
Certificate: TBC
* * *

Shown 17 and 18 Feb at Cineworld, Glasgow Film Festival

Artists Without Borders

Twins Jane and Louise Wilson began collaborating in 1989, gaining recognition in the 90s as Young British Artists, with video and photographic works often documenting hostile, uninhabited spaces. We talk to them about their show at DCA

Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)

You might not recall what you were doing when co-founder of Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was found murdered in a Dubai hotel room on 19 January 2010. Why would you? The Middle East is far away. But the chances are, you watched video footage of it soon afterwards. Having pieced together images from hundreds of CCTV and face recognition cameras to trace the assassins, Dubai state police then posted the footage on YouTube.

This sounds unremarkable until you consider Dubai’s major preoccupation with security, and the state’s control of public space. YouTube is the home of the amateur photographer. But had you been bumming around Dubai with your iPhone (perhaps on a Gap Yah), you would not have been able to capture the footage yourself.

“To go into Dubai as a filmmaker and point a camera at one of their buildings… My God!” says Louise Wilson. “They’ve got technology everywhere. There are images being grabbed all the time. But if you take a camera and shoot anything, you get arrested. There’s a sensibility of, ‘It’s ok for us! We’re everywhere. We’re Image Gathering.’ So even to just try and get in there to film is half the battle.”

And she should know. Jane and Louise Wilson are seasoned professionals at gaining access to forbidden areas. Producing multi-screen video installations and large-scale photographs, they have examined deserted institutions such as the former Stasi HQ in Berlin and roamed the Houses of Parliament during summer recess. Gamma, which earned them their Turner Prize nomination in 1999, explored the former US military base Greenham Common, used to house cruise missiles during the Cold War.

The two bodies of recent work they will be showing in their first solo show at DCA haven’t seen them taking a break, either. In Face Scripting – What Did the Building See? (2011), they retraced the last steps of al-Mabhouh and filmed inside his hotel room, an intimate inspection of interiors which they contrast with the actual CCTV footage. In DCA’s other gallery, they will show Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) (2010) – a suite of photographs that document the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, twenty-five years on.

The sisters are busy installing the photographs as I arrive, and let me into the gallery for a quick peek.

Inside the Exclusion Zone

Propped against the wall are eight large-scale photographic prints in tones of blue and grey. They show what were once the social amenities of a city – theatre, kindergarten, gymnasium – in an incredible level of detail. As is typical of the Wilsons’ architectural studies, they are poetic. But there is something disturbing about their stillness. In one, a view of a drained, dilapidated swimming pool, luscious green vegetation can be seen growing through the windows into the dead shell of the structure. The vegetation is, of course, radioactive.

The city of Pripyat, where the photos were taken, lies inside a 30km Exclusion Zone and is now totally uninhabited. Built to house the workers at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, it was the ninth atomograd – literally, “atom city” – in the former Soviet Union. When the worst Nuclear Power Plant accident in history released large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere in April 1986, the city was evacuated in three days. Believing the evacuation to be temporary, inhabitants took few belongings and left their homes in a hurry.

“It was chilling,” says Louise. “We chose to shoot in public spaces, so there weren’t children’s toys or clothes lying about, but even so, it was chilling.”

They had intended to make a film rather than photographs, but when they arrived at Pripyat, they found it impossible to impose their own narrative on the scene – the presence of the disaster itself was too intense. They also found that the still images better captured the extreme detail they wanted than a moving shot.

“Because they’re public buildings they’re large and open with quite large windows and you could do a very long exposure,” Louise explains. “There’s no movement in the scene – that’s staying put. So we could just leave it for a while. But the 10×8 lens is what gives it that quality of detail, that level of information.”

Hiding in plain sight

The sisters talk a lot of gathering information and intelligence, and describe their way of looking as ‘forensic’. Perhaps crime scene investigators in another life, their project in Dubai took them closer than usual to the field of forensics.

“What we were interested in trying to do is to think what you don’t get from the CCTV footage and to actually try and film inside the hotel room where the murder took place,” says Jane. “The CCTV couldn’t cross that threshold, and so we were trying to take something away from the power of that remote technology. Bringing the footage into the space with the film we made, it becomes very personal, very intimate.

“I think it’s important to show the two together because that’s where you begin to understand about observation. You could look at the CCTV and not think about how they gathered that information, and also just the reality that a murder took place. It was quite brutal. Of course the victim also had blood on his hands. They’re at war, basically. But this played out in such a public way.”

Prohibited by state law from filming in the corridors of the hotel, the artists instead shot some of the exteriors in neighbouring Sharjah. They also feature in the film themselves, seeking to confuse the face recognition cameras by wearing Dazzle camouflage, used by the military on ships during World War I.

While still seeming slightly Sci Fi over here, face recognition cameras are all the rage in Dubai. “They brought in these cameras which can record with infra-red,” says Jane. “It’s the most accurate way to represent a face and doesn’t rely on shadow line or any distortion of the features. You can measure exactly the distances between the eyes and the nose, and record a face.”

Going viral

The sisters’ own bizarre portraits in black and white camouflage will feature in the show, in the form of silkscreen on Perspex, with grabs of the CCTV footage in white to knock back the sheen of the Perspex. They will also show a very early video from 1993, called 8:30. Shot in the artists’ then shared London flat, it tries to ape the look of surveillance and CCTV.

Looking back on their work from this time, it seems that the Wilsons’ career has become more global as it has progressed, almost as if they’re collecting passes to forbidden lands like illicit stamps in their passports.

“I think the point is that when we first did Stasi City, we were unlocking doors that had been closed for ten years,” says Jane. “And there wasn’t anywhere near the level of Flickr, Facebook, all those technologies. Going to somewhere like Pripyat now, we’re aware how much the space has already been documented. And I think there is a nod to that in the work… There’s not the same neutrality as there was when we produced that work in 1997. So there is a sense that times have changed.”

Face Scripting - What Did the Buildings See?

Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)


New Work Scotland: Group Effort

This interview appeared in The Skinny on 27 September 2011.

Firmly established as a development programme for emerging artists, NEW WORK SCOTLAND now wants its participants to talk to each other. The Skinny chats to RHIANNA TURNBULL and GORDON SCHMIDT about how the new cooperative focus went down

Rhianna Turnbull: Early '90s, West End at Night (2011)

Begun by the Collective gallery in 1999, New Work Scotland evolves year upon year but is as steady a feature of the Scottish art scene as shows in a tenement flat and rancid opening night wine.

This year Collective signalled a change to the programme with the introduction of a theme – Mining the Horizon – and the promise of more group dialogue and critical discourse. To find out what this new approach means for the artists, we spoke to Gordon Schmidt and Rhianna Turnbull, who are first to show this October.

“From what I can tell, the exhibition end game will be similar to previous NWSP years in that the same space is being used for solo shows with a single publication about all the participants,” says Schmidt. “Business as usual.” Indeed. The residency at Studio Voltaire in London is once again part of the support offered, but while in the past just one artist was given an eight-week residency, this year the opportunity was extended to all of the participants, each spending a fortnight there with their exhibition partner.

Schmidt and Turnbull have just returned from their slot, where they took turns to use the studio a day at a time. “Just being in London with someone who’s doing the same things as you are is quite a nice buffer,” says Turnbull, who used the residency to shoot footage for a video work. “In the past I think people have found it difficult because Studio Voltaire is essentially a studio space, and you can try to contact people and things, but essentially you were there on your own.”

There was also a group weekend retreat to Hospitalfield House in Arbroath, which was attended by the NWSP panel and mentors. But, says Turnbull, the group focus hasn’t been forced on them. “It’s fallen more to us now to organise meeting up. Collective are trying this new thing out and they’ve changed the programme slightly, but we’re all still having solo shows so we’re not working together as such. The best part is that you get to understand better what everyone else does.”

What exactly the artists will be showing, however, is something even Collective’s director Kate Gray will have to wait to see. Schmidt is working on a three-projection synced video and sound installation, to show alongside prints based on research from The Mitchell Library’s microfilm archive. Taking as his starting point a Stone Roses gig held on Glasgow Green in 1990 – the year Glasgow was named European City of Culture – he is making a series of interviews to camera to create an oral history of the event.

“This approach fits will with the epoch of this particular event as in 1990 video cameras and phone cameras weren’t accessible to most people, therefore personal footage does not exist for this event in the way that it has done from the mid 90s onwards,” he explains in his NWSP statement.

Meanwhile, Turnbull will be showing a collection of collages that originate from memory and are assembled from magazine cuttings, moving between the generic and the very specific. They often feature banal situations that are nevertheless infused with glamour – a perceived attitude on behalf of the imagined protagonists that everything is “cool”. One is titled Rich Arabs have got the builders in; another is Early 90s, West End at Night.

“In the beginning, I was making collages of ideal situations,” she explains. “Then they became less generic and I wanted to make them more like real life, which is often less than amazing.” She also plans to show a video work which muses on the sensibility of certain women when they drive – a casual attitude and confidence of being in their own domain. Despite life’s palpable lack of glamour for emerging artists, both Schmidt and Turnbull seem to occupy this attitude: clearly NWSP is very much their domain.

Gordon Schmidt: Fail, 2009 (Video still from Stone Roses Powercut on The Late Show, BBC 1989)

Gordon Schmidt | Rhianna Turnbull | Amelia Bywater and Christian Newby

8 October – 6 November 2011 at Collective, Edinburgh.