19 May, 2009

Don’t Turner your nose up at video art

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Film may not feature in the Turner prize shortlist, but it’s far from a has-been medium if new works by young UK film-makers are anything to judge by

It’s been a sad month for artists of film and video. At least that’s what the broadsheets would have you believe. Responding to a Turner prize lineup that favours old-school mediums such as painting, drawing and sculpture, arts correspondents whooped for tradition and beauty. Crafts and draughtsmanship have been touted as if they are innately different to the skills involved in creating moving images. Such coverage portrays a warped picture of the contemporary art world.

But in museums and public galleries, film and video work is as alive as ever, spreading into sculpture and installation, and exploring the poetic potential of its own form. Following the recent declamations of video art, two riveting shows by young UK film-makers have just opened. They demonstrate how film is far from being an impenetrable, has-been medium.

Luke Fowler’s show at the Serpentine gallery in London, which comes after he was awarded the Derek Jarman award for experimentation in film, is interesting in this respect.. Fowler is a documentary-maker and frequently uses old, and largely redundant, film footage. His whirring, scratchy-looking 16mm feels perfect for the notions of time, loss and failure that haunt his subjects. Though he has previously focused on vibrant, complex personalities from the 60s and 70s, like the radical psychologist RD Laing or the maverick Maoist composer Cornelius Cardew, his latest series of three-minute portraits looks at the uncelebrated residents of Glaswegian tenements, who are represented through their possessions. The camera peers closely at the intense red of an ornamental knick-knack, and the accumulation of dust on old cassettes and VHS tapes of yesteryear. Like other artists of his generation, what Fowler suggests in his elusive, compelling work full of contradictory voices and random ephemera, is that there is no simple version of who and when.

Over in east London, at the Chisenhale gallery, Anja Kirschner and David Panos have made a film that also explores the past. But theirs is a bold, grandiose costume drama that could not be further from Fowler’s scuffed film-making. The Last Days of Jack Sheppard imagines the relationship between the eponymous 18th-century thief and his supposed biographer Daniel Defoe. The piece is set against the civic unease of the South Sea Bubble, a banking crisis comparable to the one raging in Britain now; but you don’t have to unpick the historical references to be caught up by Kirschner and Panos’s vivid take on class oppression, media exploitation and social misrule.

The artists have put together their material with attention to excellence in acting, music score, comic timing and wardrobe. It’s highly reminiscent of the period pieces by directors such as Jarman and Peter Greenaway, that were shown in cinemas back in the 80s. The feature-length films of Kirschner and Panos, and those of Fowler, could easily draw movie audiences, but they were conceived to be shown in an art gallery, a space that, unlike the mainstream film industry, is supposed to be free to experiment. Beyond the one-off media fanfare that surrounds the Turner prize, that is.

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