21 Jul, 2009

Where there’s smoke …

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

A woman kissing a dog, a deserted car plant, a blow-out in a basement – this show is not quite what it seems

I am about to enter Laure Prouvost’s film installation, at East International in Norwich, when a powerful spotlight blasts me full in the face. I blunder, blinded, into the dark. There is a sudden, recorded crash. The light and noise have been triggered by my presence. I can’t see a thing and almost sit on someone’s head by mistake. Sorry, sorry, sorry. The film begins, with a warning that questions will be asked at the end. An American is talking, too fast, and his words are mis-transcribed in the subtitles, which flash by even faster. The guy is talking about Walter Benjamin and the language of cinema, but I am reading about someone’s husband who likes hard rock, or is that hard cock – and did he just say something about enemas? A sign flashes up: CAN YOU BE QUIET PLEASE. Everyone else seems to have left, so that must mean me. The film is over before I’ve found my notebook. Outside, the light blasts on again and the next hapless visitor stumbles into the blackness, to the same crash.

Prouvost is one of the two prize winners of this show, a biennial exhibition that forms part of the city-wide Contemporary Art Norwich. The other is British artist Stuart Whipps, whose photographs of the closed down Longbridge car plant in Birmingham show abandoned canteens with sad, drooping bunting, assembly lines with rusting car bodies and endless gantries, the whole mothballed plant left to decay. Whipps’s photographs are supplemented by archival material and analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches, early indicators of the grim state of current British industry.

East has been running since 1991, and has had financial crises of its own. But under the directorship of Lynda Morris, this biennial has always attempted to make Norwich aware of its historical, political and artistic links to Europe and beyond. It is always interesting. Chosen from an open submission, this year’s exhibition has been selected by the veteran British conceptual artists Art&Language, and by Raster Gallery, from Warsaw.

In a shadowy room, an elliptical conversation takes place between the surrealist Meret Oppenheim, the photographer and Picasso muse Dora Maar, and the singer Josephine Baker. Picasso’s Weeping Woman – a portrait of Maar – hangs on the wall; other bits of modernist and surrealist art litter the room. Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup must be there somewhere. The conversation is stilted and unbelievably pretentious, even by pre-war Paris standards. “Do we only perceive what is past?” one character asks. “You can trace everything back to memories,” says another, in clipped 1930s English. Sometimes they break into French, or swap one another’s lines. This film, Lunch in Fur by Ursula Mayer, is peculiar and arresting; watching it, I am uncertain if this is old footage or new, if the lines are quotes from a movie or a novel, if the whole thing is a joke or utterly serious. These sorts of doubts continue throughout the exhibition.

By the time I watch British artist David Jacques’s very instructive film about the north-west of England, anarcho-syndicalism and time travel, things have slipped a few gears. I’m even less sure of what I’m being told. Jacques’s film is a spoof documentary that describes numerous encounters across time and space, all occurring in Manchester, Liverpool and north Wales between 1910 and 1918, at a series of annual conferences begun in honour of the Catalan educationalist and anarchist Francisco Ferrer y Guàrdia. Ferrer was real; the rest is a fiction.

There is very little sculpture or painting here. A sooty, solid cloud of resin marks the spot of a spontaneous combustion in one of the basements of the art school, where Polish artist Olaf Brzeski also shows a grainy, black-and-white film of soldiers in the snow. The men are visited by a spooky bogeyman carrying a dead rabbit. The film looks old, again as if this were archive footage. Something terrible stirs in the woods, but we don’t know what.

In Andrew Cranston’s painted jokes about lonely painters going mad or suicidal in their grim, freezing studios, there are lots of knowing art gags about Courbet and the socially excluded painter, whose only company is a bucket of paint-hardened brushes and a giant, mouldering canvas. It reminds me why I gave up painting.

Polish artist Agnieszka Kurant’s work in Norwich is almost invisible. Her piece, Future Anterior, is just a couple of bleached newspaper pages presented under glass on an outside wall. Passers-by might easily miss the bad news: the Amazon rainforest has shrunk to almost nothing, Central America braces itself for an attack of ravaging moths, Los Angeles has been hit by an earthquake. On a positive note, scientists announce that the dark matter anti-gravity question has now been nailed. I stand outside in the Norwich drizzle, gasping.

These are headlines on the New York Times, dated 29 September 2020. Even the words are on the verge of disappearance. But there is more to Future Anterior than make-believe journalism: to make the work, Kurant asked a clairvoyant to provide forecasts of the future, an alarming number of which have come true. She then approached a number of New York Times journalists to write the stories up, and had the pages printed using a heat-sensitive ink that only appears at a certain range of temperatures. “The print is as fragile as information distorted by rumour,” she has explained, as if art and the world weren’t already complicated enough.

In the end, all of these scenarios are entirely plausible, and all the best art here is grounded in reality. Grace Schwindt’s films are largely based on her family’s recollections of Berlin during the second world war. The accounts are touching, miserable and horrifying.

There is an undeniable seriousness and sensitivity to Schwindt’s work. Licking Dogs, meanwhile, is a film of the British artist Angela Bartram snogging four dogs. “No dog was harmed in the making of Licking Dogs,” Bartram’s website informs us, “and none were forced to take part.” The German shepherd is very keen, and the St Bernard slobbers away dutifully in some very wet face-on-face contact. Another mutt just won’t play; the dog looks at Bartram and Bartram looks at the dog. This is the best moment in the whole farrago. None of this ever looked like it was going to go anywhere, except into the realms of the over-intellectual. There is a difference between the real and the really annoying.

East International is at the Norwich University College of the Arts until 22 August.

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