07 May, 2009

Dreams of a tortured soul

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Luke Fowler’s films – about a psychiatric patient, an avant garde composer and a captured cicada – make for uncomfortable viewing. Adrian Searle is hooked

Cries of anguish, screams and sneezes punctuate a long, long audience with David Bell – mathematician, psychiatric patient and resident of Kingsley Hall, the east London therapeutic community set up by RD Laing in the 1960s. Listening to a recording of Bell’s funny voices, word games and sudden ejaculations is a painful business, though not so gruelling as it was for Bell himself.

I sit and listen on a comfortable old 1960s corduroy sofa. The pooled light from the Anglepoise in the dim room is soporific. The spools go round on the old reel-to-reel tape recorder. On a monitor, various actors, including the artist Luke Fowler, act out some of Bell’s dreams. But it is the voice that captivates and horrifies. We are at the Serpentine Gallery, not in some shrink’s parlour. In the later part of the tape, recorded in the mid 1970s, Bell is medicated, his voice flat and affectless, lucid but lifeless.

The Nine Monads of David Bell (2006-7) is developed from Fowler’s earlier study of Laing and Kingsley Hall. Laing, a charismatic Glaswegian, became both a cult figure and an object of derision. Fowler’s film about Laing, What You See is Where You’re At, like much of the artist’s earlier work, is a portrait of a figure as much damaged by his own inner conflicts as by society itself. Other films focus on Cornelius Cardew, the avant garde composer turned bourgeois-bating Maoist (and founder of the Scratch Orchestra), and on the life and times of post-punk musician Xentos “Fray Bentos” Jones.

Fowler’s interest in these sometimes alarming figures has been harder to explain. He wasn’t born till 1978. He grew up at a time when far-left politics, and the contingent debates about madness and society, seemed on the wane. A Glaswegian like Laing, Fowler’s own father suffered depression, and was given drugs that made him psychotic; later, he developed Parkinson’s disease. All this influenced the artist’s direction. When Fowler was at art college in Dundee in the late 1990s, the example of Bill Viola was held up as the way to go. Fowler went in the opposite direction, and he was right to run. His work owes as much to structuralist film-making of the 60s and 70s as it does to more recent kinds of documentary work by artists. His films have verve and originality, and a necessary difficulty.

His 2006 film about Cardew, and the way his politics distorted the aims of the Fluxus-influenced Scratch Orchestra – and, more broadly, the way naive idealism was swept away by fanatical politics and petty little witch-hunts – is salutary. Even music was seen as a tool of capitalism. The film ends with a miserable rendition of The Red Flag. Somehow Cardew couldn’t keep his politics and his soul in the same place. Fowler deals with all this, and with his archive footage, deftly.

He is an impressive artist, although this show tends to drown us. Maybe that’s intentional. The photographs that line the walls lag behind his film work. A series of short “3 Minute Wonder” films recently shown on Channel 4 approach their living subjects more circuitously, fleetingly, in tenement rooms in uncertain light. These are oddly beautiful. While he owes something to Malcolm Le Grice or Stan Brakhage, the influence of Adam Curtis, the most original TV documentarist working today, is also apparent.

The most disturbing work in the gallery plunges us into an installation that is as much about the mechanics of recording and projection as it is about images or narratives. The projector clatters. Images come and go on a diaphanous hanging curtain, rippling and billowing in the wind from a fan. Strong light from a lamp rakes across the screen. The light goes on and off. A hand holds a cicada, its wings twitching. There are headlights on a wet street; a glass, filled to the brim; a model mountain range set before a window. Then there is the noise: a breathy sizzle, intermittent whines, buzzes and hums. Shadows cross the screen. What am I looking at? All this could be a mess, but somehow it is exciting. Fowler plays on our hunger for images, and on the fact that we, too, project what we see. When I leave, the noise, by the Japanese sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda, stays with me. It plays something rhythmic and almost tuneful in my head. Fowler’s works, I suddenly realise, are reality tests, each of them an essay on subjectivity. Must be time for my pills.

Luke Fowler‘s exhibition is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, until 14 June. Details: serpentinegallery.org

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