Winner of BREESE LITTLE Prize for Art Criticism Volume II Announced:
We are delighted to announce that Kamila Kocialkowska is the winner of the second BREESE LITTLE Prize for Art Criticism for her review of Social Documents: The Ethics of Encounter at the Stills Gallery in Edinburgh. James Smith, editor of this is tomorrow was this edition's judge.
Comments from James Smith, Editor of This is Tomorrow and judge of the BREESE LITTLE Prize for Art Criticism Volume II:
Many thanks to Josie and Henry for inviting me to judge their second writing prize. Supporting art writers at such a early stage of their career is essential to a vibrant arts ecology and I commend them for their activities. The standard of the entries was encouragingly high, with writers displaying a deep knowledge and passion for their chosen art form. The final choice was tricky indeed but in the end I chose Kamila's review for its lucid description of the work and its discussion of the very immediate concerns that the artists were dealing with. The text also manages to balance the need to linguistically 'transport' the viewer to the show and to add original thought to the issues that the work foregrounds.
Social Documents: The Ethics of Encounter
Stills Gallery, Edinburgh
11th December 2010 – Sunday 13th March 2011
Review by Kamila Kocialkowska
An oppressive atmosphere pervades the room where a frail, ninety-two year old man appears, pleading, on screen. He is evidently distressed and attempting, with an air of resigned hopelessness, to reason with the other man in the room. Yet, this other character exerts a too brazenly dominant psychological pressure to be resisted. Eventually, the nonagenarian concedes to the senseless and seemingly cruel task asked of him. Extending his arm, which still bears witness to his time in Auschwitz through the faded remains of an identification number tattoo, he allows it to be renewed afresh. The camera zooms in as the devastatingly permanent black ink seeps into his reluctant, decrepit skin.
This, then, is 80064, the unrepentantly controversial work by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski. Exploring, exploiting and infringing upon conventional ethical boundaries has been the artistic strategy which has propelled him to international acclaim over the past decade. But nonetheless, his deeply disturbing films still leave many questioning what, actually, is the point in art works which strive to ignite ones moral indignation and outrage?
The Gordian knot which interlaces art and ethics is the subject of this new exhibition at the Stills Gallery. Social Documents: The Ethics of Encounter is dedicated to artworks which, like Zmijewski’s, are concerned not so much with dissolving comfort zones, but with forcefully rattling you out of your last semblance of serenity.
The exhibition is particularly focused on the role of documentary in contemporary art. In conventional understanding, documentary film is a putatively righteous, quasi-journalistic venture into extracting and reconfiguring truth into its most unbiased format. Yet, once it enters the self-reflexively cynical sphere of contemporary art, the role of documentary is modified into a wholly new guise. By the unique logic of the art world and its relaxed rules on cultural convention, the tropes of documentary are rendered defunct. The discussion and articulation of truth are no longer necessarily assumed to be possible, thus, rather than recreating a fragment of authenticated reality on screen, the artists on show here, are instead, attempting to pull at the very threads holding together the artifice of objectivity.
It is this very discussion on the troubling nature of ‘truth’ and the credibility of narrative which is at stake in Hostage: The Bachar Tapes by the Atlas Group. This short film is putatively a self-made autobiographical account of Souheil Bachar, an Arab man taken as hostage in Beirut in the eighties, alongside five other Americans. He appears on screen in the grainy, unstable texture of a home-made video, which is constantly spliced with clips from alternate video footage. Authoritative-sounding news coverage is interspersed with more abstract scenes where the monitor is momentarily flooded with swathes of pure colour, or the blurred, scratchy ‘white noise’ of disrupted electronics. Rather than a coherent story, what we are proffered here is a patchwork of fragmented video snippets, which, through their own, unique poetics, allow Bachar’s story to slowly unfold.
Rather than detailing a fact-based and temporally coherent account of his time in captivity, Bachar is concerned with pummelling further than the superficial surface story, and attempts to detail the subversive, psychological charge which took hold of each of the men in captivity. He describes an environment which is densely claustrophobic, wherein the characters are fraught with irrational, unstoppable fear.
The highly personalised narrative structure of the film suggests authenticity and a fidelity to the reality of events, and as such, it makes for an intriguing, indeed, compelling video. Yet, whilst watching this film, fissures begin to appear in the surface of the narrative, forcing the viewer to question the veracity of what they’re witnessing. Although not overt, there are subtle tensions here which force the viewer to question the legitimacy of the material which they are presented with. The notion of an additional, Arab hostage amongst five Americans rings false, for instance, as does the multi-layered, abstract complexity of the film.
As a result, the video provides a deeply unsettling experience, wherein the viewer is caught in irresolvable tension. Unsure how to react to this documental ambiguity, they remain caught in the interstitial space between fact and fiction.
The Atlas Group, is, in fact, the collaborative, partially-fictive initiative of the artist Walid Raad. His practice is concerned with creating fabricating ‘documental archives’ of Lebanese history, whilst presenting them with ostensible authenticity. In this case, the downcast, white-vested figure who gazes at us through the bleary surface of the unfocused monitor is not the ‘sixth Arab captive’, but in fact a famous Lebanese actor. His story is not an authentic account of the claustrophobic psychological tension of captivity, but a wholly fictitious story intended to pummel and question the under-emphasised side of the Western Hostage crisis – the credibility and reliability of narrative.
By interweaving a real event with make-believe characters, and melding genuine News coverage with fictionalised autobiography, Raad is concerned with critically exploring the dynamics of documentary. His film is encumbered with the weight of cultural convention, ideological investment, psychological battles of power and resistance, and thoroughly entwined with the indefinable intricacy of human morality. Yet, in his self-reflexively critical hands, the complexity of this social fabric fails to hang together, and instead begins, tentatively to unravel, leaving the viewer reeling in nervous disarray.
Both Zmijewski and The Atlas Group use their artistic strategy in a manner which resembles investigative journalism, tugging at the strands of social relations. Dani Marti, the third artist on show here, adopts a similar approach – eschewing social convention to excavate a deeper story – but steers away from the Nietzschean overtones of conflict and antagonism to explore the opposite end of the social spectrum, physical intimacy.
Marti’s particular slant on exploring the foundational basis of social relationships involves the strategic deployment of sexual intimacy as a tool to position a real body in a social space of heightened emotional intensity. In the work on show here, Time is the Fire in Which we Burn, we witness Marti’s particular slant on video portraiture, Here, we see over an hour of video recording of the artist in post-coital conversation with his subject, John. Recorded from a bedroom in Glasgow, John is depicted undressed and talking candidly and fluidly about his life into the camera, as the intrusive lens documents his figure in close-up, capturing the minutiae of his expressions and gestural actions as well as an oppressively close physical scrutiny.
As the viewer is forcefully propelled into this myopically close encounter with visceral emotion, one cannot help but cynically note the distinct tinge of narcissistic self-indulgence with which this video unfolds. It is clear that John is self-aware of his performance in front of the camera, and adjusts his comments accordingly. Once again, the reliability of personal narrative in the documentary mode is called into question as our attention is drawn to the underlying vanity which motivates so much of self-presentation.
The works here, though often troubling, often uncomfortable, undeniably offer a profound artistic experience. Melding social realism with fabricated fantasy in a reflectively nihilistic atmosphere, the exhibition succeeds in exposing the ideological and personal pressures which affect the creation and reception of any documentary film. The moral discomfiture often experienced in the presence of these works, is far from gratuitously shocking, but a deliberate tactic to force the viewer into a maelstrom of earnest self-questioning. Like it or not, you leave this exhibition with your conventional worldview disrupted, disturbed and, even, derailed. In other words, this is exactly what art should aim to achieve.