The Parameters of Love Laws and Revolt in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)

It could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago…. That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”   Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

From situations of political uncertainty there can emerge the possibility to imagine and realise new forms of social relations, between individuals and in relation to governing power structures. Such changes can be liberating but fraught with emotional, legal and practical complications, as the dominant, previously unquestioned relationships resist their upheaval and the lines of definition become dissolved.

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was Hanif Kureishi‘s second screenplay to be directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Tim Bevan. It is lesser known than their first collaboration, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and it was criticized upon its release in 1987 for its lack of focus, with a storyline that was at once strangely both ‘fragmented and didactic.’ The film’s backdrop is a borough of London in revolt, catalysed by the shooting of a 50-year-old mother during a raid of her house by police looking for her son. The narrative foreground is comprised around a young couple’s relationship of “freedom and commitment” that, despite their own happiness, seems to be perpetually unsettled. Rosie believes that “Jealousy is worse than adultery,” Sammy explains to his photographer lover, and maintaining an open honesty over and about her desires takes precedence over the exclusivity of marital consignment. Rosie, it turns out, has come to dedicate her life’s work to a sort of practice-based research into the social and political dimensions of kissing. A kiss between married couples, she explains, is reasonably simple and unmistakable. Kisses with a family member can be more ambiguous in terms of their acceptability while others, with others, are based on irrational, unreadable desire or emotions that are therefore less determinable. Rather than staking a preference of one over the other, Rosie embraces them all in every dimension, as do her associates to varying degrees.The life and politics of a previous generation is represented by Sammy’s father, Rafi, who is visiting from India where his life is threatened as a result of his role in the corrupt and violent governmental regime. In defence over his situation, he claims his actions were aimed at bringing order to the chaotic postcolonial state, a kind of modern ‘order’ of governance that he had learned enough about when he was educated in England as a young man. However, he has returned to find his memory of a beloved British society in tatters, from his son’s neighbourhood at least. When he visits his old flame Alice at her large house in a quiet leafy suburb of North London, where from inside the darkness of her basement she keeps the dusty containers of her unfulfilled dreams, Rafi feels reassured that England has not changed all that much after all. Meanwhile Alice’s wilful patience and self- effacement in her personal life, as well as her ideas of reaffirming traditional concepts of value and nationhood in the face of social change demonstrates her belief that what restrains you as an individual should be considered preferable as it is of benefit to social order.

The violent clashes on the streets seem to mostly happen in a bubble from which the film’s key characters reside while undertaking their own social experiments with each other’s bodies, slipping undercover and evading any scrutiny over their actions amidst the chaos outside. However the image of a parallel existence is not strictly accurate. For example, Danny (Victoria) confesses to Rosie whilst they lie together in bed that he come to the South London area in the first place to visit the woman who brought him up as a boy, only to discover that she is the one the police have shot. The apparent collusion of fate seems to excite Rosie, but the disinterest of Victoria, Rosie, Sammy and their friends for the details of the crisis situation around them, along with their demonstrable over emphasis on individual expression above and beyond the consequences, is problematic on a number of levels, not least if we consider that politics is not just about what we choose to do with our own bodies, nor is it only about atrocities that happen overseas, but also involves the much messier and complex problems relating to our immediate entanglements with others. For example, it is not so easy for Sammy to dismiss his father for his wrong doings precisely because he is his father, which inevitably blurs the definitions between political affiliation and familial responsibility. Traditionally, in order to accept or refuse something it must first be compartmentalised and verified, but what if we cannot grasp the required critical distance in order for this to function, or a person or situation possesses numerous categories at once? How else can we make decisions and take principled action if, as one character observes, ‘liberalism has gone mad?’ Furthermore, can adultery actually exist without any consequence like jealousy, as Rosie seems to believe? Is the expulsion of all jealousy desirable let alone even possible? Jealousy can be suffocating as we know, but it is also a very powerful moderator of our feelings and actions towards other people and things. Rather than declaring a law against jealously and its tethers in favour of an idea of freedom and multiplicity, is it perhaps best to consider why it is we do get jealous, despite what we think we know about our self and others, in order to understand it better?

While making the film, Kureishi wrote in his published diary, “My love and fascination for inner London endures. Here there is fluidity and possibilities unlimited.” However, this quite uncritical love affair with the city’s cosmopolitanism combined with the film’s quite incessant and excitable sexual content, clouds the sort of aforementioned subtle commentary that is present in the story. The subsequent sensationalism in the film’s content that the writer intended to use as a declaration of war on the British establishment caused a reactionary sort of criticism that proved ultimately to be a detriment to its success and despite the pertinence of the social and political landscape today (this morning the news reports on the final eviction of the St Pauls occupation), the film remains something of a cellulose time capsule for a situation of ‘freedom without commitment’ told from the partial perspective of a political imperative at a particular moment in British history.

Lenin’s familiar words, “Revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution,” are pertinent here. A revolutionary situation based upon a pursuit of freedom for freedom’s sake is tragically flawed when it overlooks and undermines the restraints of its own very difficult and real social contexts and backgrounds. This film, framed by the unmistakable tones of Margaret Thatcher, illustrates how what came to catalyse the disruption to British politics, along with the ensuing reactionary violence and social experimentation that followed is also what has come in to shut it down. The bulldozers move into the camp under the motorway bridge with the promise of cleaning up and bringing order. It is a dismal echo of Rafi’s excuses for his own violent actions in postcolonial India. Amidst this ‘clean-up,’ Victoria almost shrugs as he tells Rosie he must be moving on and she can only barely withhold her disappointment. When one thing is deemed no longer viable, any number of new things could take its place, but the question that ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’ is unable to address is what should happen now, and how. And how much.


Beautiful Knowledge/ Useful Ignorance- Thoreau’s Polemic

My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before, a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun….

(The title of Gabriel Orozco’s photograph tells us it is a “Ball on Water,”)

“… It is an unfortunate discovery certainly, that of a law which binds us where we did not know before that we were bound. Live free, child of the mist,- and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist… that is knowledge which is for our liberation.”                             – from Walking by Henry David Thoreau

Lies that reveal the truth, or getting inside pictures

The filmmaker Michael Haneke once remarked in an interview that film, when it is art, is not truth so much as, “a lie that can reveal the truth.”[1] However, ‘the truth,’ as it turns out, can be pretty difficult to live with, nor does it necessarily make you a very popular person:

The American writer Henry David Thoreau was aware that there are a number of different expressions of truth available to us: ‘some are reminiscent, others merely sensible—as the phrase is—others prophetic.’ The kind referred to by Haneke in his interview is also alluded to in his films. Rather than holding up a looking glass, pointing towards an ultimate ‘Truth,’ (with a capital “T”), the elusiveness and occasional relentlessness of Haneke’s films, particularly from Hidden and Code Unknown, leads us towards a kind of truth that reveals how a conviction of ultimate ‘Truth’ can be deeply problematic and even dangerous. His films illustrate how our ideas of ‘truth’ (along with our ideas of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘important’ or ‘insignificant’) are dependent upon the various conventions and stories that we tell ourselves and each other in a world full of messages without a code. This it seems is quite a predicament for spectators.

Haneke’s films can subsequently be appreciated for revealing certain underlying social truths from within fictions. Martin Heidegger believed that ‘Truth,’ (a “true face” for example) only revealed itself to humans in death, a place from where no living soul can return. However, as Haneke’s concept of truth differs from that of Heidegger’s, so does Michel De Certeau’s idea of death. De Certeau insisted that death is actually something fundamentally present in all living beings[2], especially in writers, whose writing is an expression of a, “desire that expects from the other the marvelous and ephemeral excess of surviving through an attention that it alters.”[3] The “ephemeral excess” to which he refers is what writers hope will exceed themselves in the mind of their reader. It is quite possible to extend this same desire to that of any artist, a filmmaker or a photographer, when considering their spectators. For De Certeau it is an awareness of absence, of death, of time passing, that writers seek to absolve themselves of in the the act of writing. Subsequently it seems possible to suggest that readers or spectators, in order to comprehend something of the world, do not merely anticipate absence but in fact require it. Readers of books, like the attentive spectators of films, play witness to something that is no longer wholly retrievable in-itself. However, although the subject of a film is no longer fully in the world neither is it totally withdrawn from it, as long as it manages to survive and somehow alter the attention of the viewers that exceed it.

All this suggests that our understanding of the world is governed by some necessary limit that would allow us enough space to withdraw from something in order to see it clearly. The Chinese writer Lu Hsun recalled an experience he had when he was almost fatally ill in bed one night,

“A street-lamp outside the window shed a glimmer of light in the room, and I had a quick look at the familiar walls and the angles between them, the familiar pile of books and the unbound pictures beside them, while outside night took its course, and all that infinite space, those innumerable people, were linked in some way with me. I breathed, I lived, I should live on. I began to feel more substantial and experienced an urge to action- but presently I fell asleep again.” [4]

From the edge of consciousness, in his exile from illness and in the dark, a beam of light peering into the room through his window transformed Hsun’s attitude towards his surroundings and all that lay beyond them to the point of inspiring him towards some form of action. Until, that is, he fell asleep. John Berger, in The Shape of a Pocket, writes of a dream he once had in which he “discovered a secret,” quite independently, “without help or advice” from any one else. He continues excitedly,

The secret was to get inside whatever I was looking at — a bucket of water, a cow, a city (like Toledo) seen from above, an oak tree; and once inside, to arrange its appearances for the better. Better did not mean making the thing seem more beautiful or more harmonious; nor did it mean making it more typical, so that the oak tree might represent all oak trees; it simply meant that the cow or the city or the bucket of water became more evidently unique!…

 “The doing of this gave me pleasure and I had the impression that the small changes I made from the inside, gave pleasure to others. The secret of how to get inside the object so as to rearrange how it looked was as simple as opening the door of a wardrobe. Perhaps it was merely a question of being there when the door swung open on its own. Yet when I woke up, I couldn’t remember how it was done and I no longer knew how to get inside things.”

These cases illustrate how it is indeed possible for us to have an intimate experience with the world outside ourselves from a position of distance from it. What it also suggests, however, is that there is a problem of sustaining such feelings beyond these experiences. The desire to “get inside things” is what Berger refers to as an artistic impulse. We could also add to this a parallel desire of the artist—one that De Certeau associates with the writer—to offer the pleasure derived from such insight to others. The problem for Lu Hsun and Berger is that their discoveries, restricted to sleep and dreams, are inescapably ephemeral and lack possibility for recall. Such experiences require some document to exceed them in order to have chance of a positive effect. At the same time, however, once an experience becomes a document it is inevitably altered. So here lies a predicament for any artist who attempts to express an encounter in the world by producing something that shall inevitably be outside it; meanwhile the artist is caught somewhere between inside and outside.

Spectators of films are equally neither fully in the world nor totally out of it. Alain Bergala, writing on Jean Luc Godard’s short film La Paresse, remarked on how, ‘Godard speaks to us of this very special way of being in the world, on the edge of sleep.’[5] This comment encouraged Victor Burgin to later consider how ‘a somnolently receptive attitude might be the basic condition of all cinematic spectatorship.’[6] Such spectatorship is constituted by an encounter not with truth itself but with film, as a lie that can reveal truth, even if it is merely the ‘lighting up of the mist by the sun’ as Thoreau called it. Burgin evokes a kind of cinematic spectatorship that suggests warmth and sensuality rather than cold, critical distance; something more like the ‘amorous distance’ in Barthes’ essay, On Leaving the Theatre.[7]

As a spectator attempting to account for the images I receive in films, I prefer to resist resorting to a dichotomy of a ‘dream world’ versus ‘the real world’ (for what truly is the ‘real world’ in any case?). What is at stake here is not a world of dreams but a state of cinematic spectatorship. Somnolence has in fact two distinct meanings; one that refers to a state of near sleep and another to a state of being that is independent of a conventional circadian rhythm.[8] In other words, a somnolent cinematic spectatorship is more accurately understood not in terms of sleep or dreams but as an experience operative outside of our normative human physiological or behavioural processes. It is an experience of time and space beyond our everyday experiences of them. As simple as opening the shutter of a camera, the light that shines from a projector into a cinema, like the glimmer of light that shot through Lu Hsun’s window, can communicate a certain feeling of being near with the world, evoking the sort of nearness that Martin Heidegger believed was possible only in poetry, without actually being imminent with it. When it does do this, it can subsequently furnish us with the ability of totally independent thoughts and revelations, which are indeed pleasurable, as John Berger experienced.

Of course plenty of people have been known to fall asleep in the cinema, but the fact that there remains a recording means that there is always the opportunity for repeating certain discoveries, presenting innumerable possibilities for our perceptions from outside of our normative experiences of time and space. Furthermore, as Judith Butler has observed, our perception does indeed carry ‘an ethics lodged within it’ when it leads onto conscious thought and calculated actions.[9]

John Berger’s analogy for describing the often unconscious relationship between our perception and our actions is of riding a bike, a motorbike in his own case. A bicycle is just one medium that moderates the transition from perceptions to decisions and their consequences. This modulation can be so seamless that we might barely notice it happening. When our own gaze directs us independently, we experience a sense of freedom from external constraints. Having experienced such a freedom via his motorbike, when the time comes to stop, get off the bike and walk around, Berger feels differently about his surrounding environment. His perception is altered, as if everything were, ‘so indisputably there… so incontestably local and yet so foreign.’[10] In relaying his experiences as a motorcyclist, Berger attempts to understand how we might experience the world through photography, as a conscious reciprocal process between movement and stillness. William Eggleston’s enigmatic photographs demonstrate this well: the things that we might spend all day seeing but barely registering consciously undergo a kind of transformation under Eggleston’s lens.

                 William Eggleston, from the series For Now, published in 2010.

While on his sickbed Lu Hsun asks his wife Guangping to put the light on so he can have a look around. When she asks why, he replies, ‘Because I want to live. Understand that? This too, is life. I want to take a look round.’ When she refuses to do as he requests it is the ambient light from the streetlamp outside, the one that glimmers through the curtains, that serves to appease his yearning to see his environment. It is in that moment that the familiar books and pictures arouse in him a different sensation. It takes a certain kind of light to make this happen, as he discovers the next morning when the sunlight fills the room and causes his ordinary surroundings to appear just as they are. Ordinarily, ‘We tend to despise these things though they are one part of life,’ he reflects, “ranking them lower than drinking tea or scratching ourselves, or even counting them as nothing. We notice rare blossoms but not the branches and leaves … The man who strips off the branches and leaves will never get blossoms and fruit.”

The commonplace lays the foundation for fantasies and imagination. The ordinary everyday things in life are so inescapably bound to the extraordinary that one might say that a city like Los Angeles has at once its images and its reality. Some films are lies that reveal truths, while others are just malignant lies that can cheapen and damage places, things or people. What we ‘see’ or ‘show’ of something is therefore subject to what sort of light we throw upon it. The question of how to ‘show’ is an open one. Virginia Woolf believed that, ‘Any method is right, every method is right that expresses what we wish to express.’ When considering a work of art at least, the mechanics of the method should be considered but only secondary to the imperative, the desire that motivates someone to know something and to share it with others. The owner of such a desire, such an impulse, is inevitably closer to professing an ability to know something (even if that something is merely what Bauman claims and what Haneke’s films demonstrate: that all we know is that we cannot really ever know) and to then communicate when she or he occupies a space between their experience inside and what exists outside; in a space perhaps like a cinema, between stillness and movement.

[1] Brunette 2010: 116

[2] This ever present death is more precisely a fear of death according to De Certeau

[3] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life: 327

[4]  ibid:198

[5] Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film 2004: 29

[6] Ibid.

[7] in The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, Lopate, P (Ed), Doubleday, New York, 1994, pp. 418- 422.

[8] According to our circadian rhythm, for instance, darkness is an indicator of sleep.

[9] See, Judith Butler; “Making an Account of Oneself,” in Chambers, A and Charver, T; Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics, Routledge, London and New York, 2008

[10] See John Berger’s, Keeping a Rendezvous, 2001: 197

A Sense of Ambivalence

(The following is a moderated version of the essay that provides the epilogue to Community Without Propinquity, a publication edited and produced by Inheritance Projects with support from MK Gallery. For more information click here.)

A short cycle ride away from the festival of concrete and glass that is Central Milton Keynes is an inconspicuous street sign leading to a small development of brick houses: Sakura Street. Sakura means, ‘cherry blossom’ in Japanese. Springtime invites the festival of ‘Hanami’ in Japan, a time when cherry flavoured liqueur flows from under an almost infinite canopy of pink blossoms. This celebration, constructed around the seasonal calendar, with all its joint revelry, is revered all the more for its brevity.

(It was then that I remembered how, years ago now, we spent days together under those dense yet delicate flowers. Now we are scattered across different corners of the world, except for that one week in New York when, lacking any cherry trees, we rediscovered our friendship with cupcakes on a friend’s couch. We wondered why we had ever chosen to leave Japan, although we both knew the reasons.)

In Milton Keynes this street sign marks the place where there once stood a school for Japanese expat children. There had been a large Japanese community in Milton Keynes, brought here by a lucrative business deal. A TV advertisement made for Milton Keynes in the 1980s, entitled “The Deal,” features a formidable-looking Japanese businessman. We see him get into a car and then power through the steel and glass structures of Central Milton Keynes, to the soundtrack worthy of a Hitchcock film. He heads up Midsummer Boulevard, then Silbury Boulevard, finally stopping outside a group of offices on Upper Fifth Street, (though his destination is actually the headquarters for Argos located on Avebury Boulevard)[i]. Presumably satisfied with what he sees in the town, the Japanese businessman makes the faintest of smiles before he places his hanko stamp on a contract, presented by a nervous English businessman: ‘Deal!’

With the contract now expired, a better deal sought elsewhere, the Japanese school has been pulled down and in its place now stands an old people’s home. The Buddhist temple and Pagoda that stands just nearby remains an explicit reminder of this community. Upon my visit one day, a coach filled with children was just leaving the temple. They each bowed deeply before getting back on the coach as one monk saw them off from the temple steps with the lowly beat of a small drum, until they were gone.

Some will go and some will stay, but community is not merely a word that designates a thing. As Zygmunt Bauman has remarked, it is also a feeling. It is not simply an item on a business plan with a view to constructing a ‘happy ending.’ A plan, after all, must have a predetermined idea or ideal of what, or who, it plans for. Community, however, is an impulse, largely intangible and not necessarily something to be managed by administrative decisions from a planning office. Communities can form spontaneously, quite accidentally, as a result of a variety of shared experiences and events, planned for or not.

A common interest, a mutual destination, a cup of coffee, a delayed train, a news bulletin, a celebration, a broken computer, listening to a song on the radio, reading a book: communities arise as a result of a variety of such lived experiences, good or bad, although ‘community’ itself is invariably felt to be a good thing. Yet the desire to make roots often jostles with another individual’s impulse to wander. The security that can come from a community can compromise personal freedoms to choose and to live your own life. The feeling of ‘community’ does not tarry with the material constraints of its lived experiences, but how could it? What does a community without propinquity look like? How does it ‘feel?’ How can something otherwise intangible become tangible?

Wherever there are people there is the potential for community, but it is perhaps more accurate that circumstances and events dictate community rather than proximity alone. A novel by the British author Jon McGregor tells the various stories of the individuals that come and go on an anonymous city street in northern England. In a story of propinquity without community, the activities of the nameless characters in If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things drift by seemingly disconnected, until an event that provides an unexpected twist in the story, recalled in later years by an old woman who was there, brings a new significance to the otherwise unintentional collection of beings.

Anthony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles, 1991, one of McGregor’s inspirations for his   novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

A neighbourhood may simply be a space of potential community and little else. Today it is highly possible that people live within close proximity, as they do in McGregor’s novel, and yet know next to nothing about each other. If circumstances were to change in that same place, however, then a community of sorts could form (accidentally, voluntarily) from within that group of individuals. A major event, a crisis or a celebration can provoke an impulse towards collective action that is then established for the duration required. Sometimes this can engender future communitarian engagements, but there is not necessarily any guarantee of this. Each event that occurs within a group of people can subsequently be illustrative of a unique impulse for community that may, or may not, trigger unexpected connections and unforeseeable possibilities.

Perhaps a disparate audience reading a text in a publication is a community without propinquity; one in which various themes and examples, otherwise isolated, come together in a manner that might, or might not, conceive connections across an indefinite space that exists between all individuals. Here a community has a less obvious, rational identity, but is something much more indiscriminate; it is of and for the imagination. A publication may carry the intentions of its writers and editors, yet it’s community remains elusive. A community without propinquity in this sense is an imagined one that does not comply with the everyday obligations of a lived community. This is both the ambivalence and the potential of it.  

[i] With thanks to Mark Coster of Hidden MK:

Spectral Stories- Zarina Bhimji at The Whitechapel Gallery

And now we find ourselves                                                                                              gazing into overgrowth,                                                                                                  from a place where there                                                                                                     may be no remorse                                                                                                               for time’s passing,                                                                                                           where even the earth breathes                                                                                      sighs of relief with us                                                                                                         almost audible until                                                                                                             a path beaten through                                                                                                        this abandoned place                                                                                                      betrays the image of desolation.                                                                                          We are not alone.

Where monsters prevailed                                                                                                  we creatures now follow,                                                                                                   And the ghosts that                                                                                                       remain in the landscape,                                                                                                     are poised to speak of stories                                                                                      sketched with a spectral alphabet                                                                                     for us their audience,                                                                                                        the ancestors of the world                                                                                                 who seek to survive                                                                                                              in places made for ourselves.                                                                                             Yet are we hopeful enough                                                                                                to face this predicament?                                    – Spectral Stories (After Nicholas Mosely)


                                                                       Film stills from Yellow Patch (2011)

The current solo show of British artist Zarina Bhimji at The Whitechapel Gallery, London is a tribute to an artist that combines a keenly poetic and profoundly political consciousness. The show as a whole traces the development of such an aesthetic practice over 25 years, from She Loved to Breathe- Pure Silence (1987) to Yellow Patch (2011) that here takes centre stage.

                           Memories Were Trapped Inside the Asphalt (1998- 2007)

The deserted landscapes and decaying interiors in her photographs and films are haunted by dark shadows, both literal and metaphorical, that speak of events passed. Where stains smear walls, window frames lack panes and shoes hang without owners, there also remain questions without answers that creep in like the exposed electrical wires from out the walls of, Memories Were Trapped in the Asphalt (1998-2007), or the overgrowth that adorns the ruins in the films Yellow Patch (2011)and Out of Blue (2002): the past has not passed but is in fact forever passing. Nothing is finished. That such a phenomenon be perceptible in a  photograph is quite remarkable considering photography’s penchant, as a silent art, towards stopping everything from moving, but Bhimji has employed various techniques in which to unsettle the still surfaces of her pictures.  Two photographs from the 1998 installation, Cleaning the Garden, entitled “Abazar” and “Whereas the Black Servant Boy” have used long exposures to emphasize the co-presence of stillness and movement in the landscapes of traditional Spanish and British gardens. Another common feature throughout her photographs is a narrow depth of field, which upsets the focus of her images, leaving the impression that there is more to be seen than can in fact be pictured at once by the eye alone.

Elsewhere, in her earlier work, Bhimji has set her pictures in motion through the use of devices outside the photographs themselves. Her earliest work on show here, She Loved to Breathe- Pure Silence (1987) is a response to the forced virginity tests that women from South Asia were submitted to upon arrival in the UK during the 1970s. Images of old jewelery and dead birds are printed with text directly onto fabric, crumpled and distorted between plates of clear glass, the images hang over a scattering of blood red and orange spices. As I approached the work I experienced the scent of the spices becoming embroiled with the smell of my own hair and clothes. The last image in the series, a pair of blood red gloves, is accompanied by an anonymous testimony,

“Each morning at 5am they scrubbed the floor… sometimes these white people on the way to work laughed at the Indianness.”

The combined materials in the installation possess an aesthetic violence that imminently evokes the physical violence and injustice that it bares witness to.

It is perhaps because of the medium’s ability to encompass an ‘extraordinary range of expressions’ , as Maya Deren once observed*, that Bhimji’s film works are the most evocative of this ever-present and unsettling movement, an eternal turn and return, of time across space. Out of Blue (2002) marks the artist’s own return to Uganda, the place where her family had once considered home until their expulsion after the change in the Country’s political regime. The theme of stillness-in-motion is here enhanced by the cameras steady and controlled movements around an old abandoned airfield. I am unsure whether to believe that these films possess a “non-narrative” form or that they are in fact, through their proliferation of images and sound, filled with a diffusion of narratives, albeit in potential and unfinished form. Like in the majority of her works, people are not physically present in the film, but the wailing vocals of Indian folk song permeate the still and barren landscape along with obscure noises and the piercing screeching of birds which, along with the flies, are all that remain airborne and swirling around in the sky above. The camera suddenly and abruptly speeds down the old runway, facing backwards, poetically recalling Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’ metaphor. We, the spectators, are moving ever forwards and yet we are bound to face up to the past that is piling up before us in the process. This gesture of the spectator’s responsibility is more literally advanced in the installation Cleaning the Garden (1998), where newspaper headlines that describe 18th Century servants and stories of runaways from stately homes have been etched onto mirrors mounted at eye level on the gallery walls. Bhimji’s earlier work may seem somewhat dated and less sophisticated in its material approach when shown like this alongside her later film works. Despite this, Bhimji’s whole oeuvre should be appreciated for the variety of means she uses to remind us that history is not something secure in the past, like some decorative toy or keepsake. The spectral traces of power remain deeply embedded, haunting our landscapes and our bodies. What this show illustrates is a gradual development, what I would consider maturation, of an artist’s aesthetic lexicon that inspires as much as it unnerves.

* in Cinematography: Creative Use of Reality (1960)

Lygia Pape’s Book of Creation

I recently attended an interesting presentation given by Dr Michael Asbury at The Serpentine Gallery as part of the Lygia Pape retrospective exhibition. A substantial part of the presentation was given up to a video recording of an interview given by Lygia Pape in which she discusses her experience with the short-lived Neo-Concrete movement and their belief in art as a necessary element in and of everyday life. In the film she energetically presents her Book of Creation to the viewer (pictured above). Each page is a visual poem and reflects, for Pape, an element of the story of creation and yet there is no specific code to define the message that each page reads. The meaning for her and the meaning for the ‘reader’ are interdependent even if they do not correspond exactly.

With the aim to revitalize the relationship between the artist, the work of art and the viewer, the Neo-Concrete artists retrieved tangibility as a base category of knowledge, something which had been undermined since Plato,* and affirmed the existence of tacit meaning in art, after Merleau Ponty, which could transcend the work’s mechanical means.

Dr Asbury followed up the film with come additional comments about the Neo-Concrete movement and the the principle platform for the dissemination of the Neoconcrete concepts between the late 1950s and the early 1960s: the Sunday supplement of the Jornal do Brasil newspaper. He made an interesting parallel with the history of the Neo-Concrete movement via the Sunday supplement and the inauguration of Brasilia, Brazil’s New Town development and administrative capital, which was followed by a backlash towards Modern utopias and rationalist architecture. Asbury showed an image from the Sunday supplement that featured a group of workers who, up until its completion, had lived and worked in Brasilia and had later found themselves ostracised to various satellite cities, leaving the Modern utopia similarly dispersed.

*GULLAR, Ferreira, in MORAIS, Frederico. Neoconcretismo/1959-1961. Exhibition Catalogue Banerj Gallery. Rio de Janeiro: n.p., 1984, n.pag.