8th October 2009 — 15th October 2009
Gunvor Nelson, Lisa Jeannin, Anita Wernstrom. October 8, 2009.
Annika Strom, Petra Lindholm, Malin Stahl. October 15, 2009.
'And now for something...completely different' deadpans the Swedish Ambassador, welcoming us to his mildly palatial and decidedly Rococo dwelling and drolly introducing the first of two evenings of modern Swedish women's Video Art.
Boldly set up in conjunction with the Swedish Counsellor of Cultural Affairs (posh, innit?) Female Fragrance, the fortuitous brainchild of Anita Wernstrom and Malin Stahl, is primarily a celebration of that country's new, young, female video artists, many with an enduring U.K. connection. Tonight's visual opening salvo is, however, fired off by the 38 minute short True To Life of the 78 year young Gunvor Nelson. Pleasingly this 'grande dame' of the art form is present for the occasion, happily taking post screening audience questions and looking as evergreen as her art. You might suppose that film of a septuagenarian Swedish woman's garden might prove a touch twee, a tad gentile. Think again! Utilising mobile, ground level, extreme close up camera work (demonstrating a technician at the height of her powers) Nelson succeeds in inverting and subverting the entire genre of Flower Painting. A consistent sense of pressure and frequent disquiet is created as the camera lens slowly and repeatedly bullies its way into and forces itself upon the gardens vibrant flora, only to be constantly smothered or repelled by the almost vibrantly sinister seeming foliage. 'Huge' petals droop and threaten to envelope, demonstrating an improbable sense of weight; colours blare and alarm and in combination with disturbingly fleshy textures serve both to thrill and intimidate the viewer. At one point drops of water rain down from above, resembling nothing so much as white hot metal sparks. With considerable cunning Nelson occasionally lets us 'off the hook' by cutting to palette-cleansing shots of the blue skies above her garden, before plunging us mercilessly back into the thick of it ('some of those plants never did recover' she later reflects, sadly). All of this combined with a superlative soundtrack, collating loud, highly 'tweaked' audio noise from the film source and a miscellany of neatly woven extraneous sounds (traffic jam, airport, brass band, even a nearby firing range) creates an experience of uniquely observed, hyper real, astonishingly hardcore activity.
A bizarrely comedic and quasi balletic feel is next introduced by Lisa Jeannin's 'Black master red master blue master', wherein a small sunny landscape containing three amateur martial arts types, effervescently leaping and (err..) chopping, is interrupted by a motley collection of 'fancy dressed' zombies pushing through the soil into broad daylight. As these living dead proceed to crawl forwards the trio of 'masters' look distressed and crestfallen. Perhaps all will not be well? And yet, as a bright tune begins, an amusing harmony prevails. The 'masters' forsake their previous over-exertions, the zombies abandon their mindless crawl, attain vertical status and all parties commence a sweetly captivating Tai Chi dance. Occasionally, through these gentle exercises, a zombie will lose a 'limb' and the film's most charming moment occurs as a young girl doubtfully eyes one poor zombie's detached and fallen 'arm' then picks it up, helpfully returning it to its owner who blissfully incorporates it into the dance as a pseudo baton. There's a nice conceit here on the balance of energy between the living and the dead but, mostly, it's simply great humour and none the worse for that!
The most enigmatic part of the evening (not counting the sheer number of Swedes who, during the sumptuous buffet, asked me if I'd 'tried the cheese?') is the concluding, brooding 'Oh, Vagaries Of Human Life..!' by Anita Wernstrom, the meaning of which is as elusive as the classic unscratched itch. That is to say, it's undoubtedly 'there', it's just hard to reach. Nevertheless this is, arguably, the most visually compelling of all the pieces on offer in the entire F.F. programme. The evening's first trip to monochrome is based upon the photograph Self Portrait As A Drowned Man by Hippolyte Bayard. Wernstrom uses her own model to re-enact the photographer searching for the correct pose for his nineteenth century camera and splices it with a childhood memory of a drifting boat. It's this kind of sleepy, almost narcotic, 'just there' juxtaposition that Wernstrom is particularly adept at. The clarion sound of (Swedish classical composer) Gustave Nordqvist's bravura Till Havs calls and draws us into the piece, this (seemingly) being blared out from an antique gramophone sat proudly in the stern of the boat (like an internalised version of the, extrovert, Amazon riverboat scene in Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo). Under the tutelage of this soundtrack the little craft seems to drift heroically, the somewhat sleepy model to sit heroically. But Wernstrom gracefully allows entropy to seep in as, piece concluded, music is replaced by the repetitive hiss and click of the un-removed record needle. Visually the model increasingly fails to win his battle with fatigue as his eyes begin to droop and the ever darkening lake upon which the boat floats becomes vaguer, the surface ripples seemingly locking into the rhythm of the soundtrack, both slowly losing their tempo into a beautifully managed and quite hypnotic staged disappearance.
One week later and a substantially different group of souls are gathered in the (unbelievably eggshell) 'Blue Room' awaiting Female Fragrance deux.
We enter an oddly domestic mode as Annika Strom's excellent two short films I Am In Love and All My Dreams Have Come True open proceedings. At heart, perhaps, affectionate momento to now ailing or departed relatives, these pieces combine wit and humour with a less obvious but equally important sense of emotional ambiguity. Strom's mother (Anna; packing no little screen presence) is the protagonist in both. In Love she dances around her domestic space and garden to the classic Abbey Lincoln tune of the title, whilst Strom Junior sings over the song in sombre voice creating an atmosphere both serious and dreamy, a strange and ambiguous approximation of the state of being in love. In Dreams she simply repeats and explores variations of the film's title, searching for the right words to make a correct translation into English. As this linguistic effort is a mere accompaniment to her ironing chores (causing a brief gust of laughter to emanate from every woman in the room) the title sentence acquires an enormous poignancy, Strom adeptly demonstrating how much feeling can be gleaned from so little.
If I am less struck with Petra Lindholm's Reported Missing the cause may lay partly in its soundtrack. Not only is up against some inspired choices made by others but, being primarily Nu Folk / Americana song in style (performed by the artist herself) it results in a big nudge towards (albeit arty) music video territory. Rather than compliment the quality of the visual narrative it simply over-informs it. The narrative itself, in its ten minute duration, is of a romantic or even sentimental nature and while many of its images (a stroked leg in a summertime field, a tightly embracing couple on an urban rooftop), all shot in many locations around the world, are undoubtedly beautiful and capture true moments of intimacy it seems, in its attempt to be 'universal', to lack a proper centre of its own.
As I watch (in Malin Stahl's concluding We Didn't Say No ) three strangely clad characters picking their way through woodland, exchanging cut-up dialogue sourced from three separate Shakespeare plays until they reach a huge, memorably iconic red theatre curtain hung amidst the trees , two things become obvious. One is the high nature / landscape ratio present in this whole collection of video art. The other is that this particular piece will prove to be an absolute 'pig' to describe. I hasten to add that it is an entirely captivating , dreamlike piece of work that elegantly fuses the filmic tempos of Derek Jarman (sans camp) with the tight, tableau creating, camera work of the excellent Walerian Borowczyk (sans soft porn); a particularly charming sequence featuring an 'antique paper instruments' performance by the weird trio being a prime example.
For the uninitiated, Stahl's work (both in performance and video) frequently concerns itself with the in-exactitude of sexuality, leading her to create a number of visually perplexing and challenging characters. In this instance three such meet; a figure representing Death, a white dressed but heavily moustached 'Canary Girl' and a young male figure designated 'X'. They are, effectively, her collective unconscious and what is most intriguingly played with here is the sliding scale of the characters' genders. That this is done almost entirely by simple, small movements or changes in attitude and expression is what renders description difficult. For example; the moustached Canary Girl is sometimes, very much, 'all moustache' but can also reveal herself to be, very much, all 'Girl'.
As the piece progresses and one begins to tune in to the strangeness of the dialogue a new set of character stresses' becomes evident and a sense of discomfort emerges. Not only are the characters genders mixed up but also their purposes. Admittedly much of this is buried deep and not so easily dug up, but it is this purposefully planted amount of grit that creates a compelling and necessary tension; taking this piece out of a mere field of charm into a much deeper, darker valley.
In this sense (and neatly 'bookending' Nelson's True To Life) Stahl's work comes closest to Female Fragrance's link concept; that while the immediate and first association of the phrase may approximate to the lightness of a flower's scent; the heavier, underlying scents from the soil beneath will prove more profound, more problematic and take us to places less obviously pleasing but, ultimately, far more worth a visit.