Susan Hiller: “Channels” at Matt’s Gallery

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Susan Hiller’s Channels at Matt’s Gallery is an audio-visual conglomeration of near death experience (NDE) narrations told through a full-scale installation of television monitors. Whether these monitors simply house these personal stories or act as a portal through which they emerge isn’t clear. It doesn’t need to be. Bathed in the glowing light of these numerous screens, numerous voices come forth with one eventually becoming the clearest. Hours of recantations are housed here, in these screens, in this room. It’s the near-ghost in the machine.

Channels is a mixture of static, noise, and voices. Sometimes you wait a while for the static to clear and the stories to begin as if we’re all there using the televisions are our conductor to those who have experienced death. Told are tales of sensations of leaving the body, the past flashing before them, feelings of humor and regret, and, naturally, the tunnel of shining light. We also learn that there are qualifiers of what makes an NDE. They seem elastic. Significantly, these people are not dead. They are not the ghosts using white noise as a communication tool with the living. These voices are alive and they have conquered death.

Not dissimilar to Mike Nelson’s installation More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) next door, Channels deals with the unknown. Not strictly in the sense of questioning the ultimate unknowable (what happens when we die?) but in the very fundamental aspects of being: how do we hear? how do we recognize? how do we experience things? And like the film Poltergeist, these provocations occur through the mediation we are all familiar with – television (or if we want to think more broadly, media). Technology controls are interactions with each other and, as new technologies emerge, our relationships with one another evolve according to these new networks. Channels explores such a network of people with shared experiences, traumatic or peaceful, and uses the object of the television to shared these stories with us.

Hiller has made reference to dreams in previous works and the question of dreams and the way in which our mind constructs dreams while unconscious and how we process them while awake is significant here. In her book The Dream and the World Hiller writes, “If you start to think about dreaming, you may well find yourself in a vortex of philosophical paradoxes, enigmas and conundrums that liquefy any fixed notion of ‘self’ and ‘reality’.” And isn’t that what Channels produces? Is it possible that Near Death Experiences are simply an individual mind coping with the inevitability of death; a unique experience for each person with enough generalities of the human mind? Or is it more frightening to suggest that there’s something external producing these similar sensations?

The voices heard, whether alive or dead or even the real people who had a NDE, produce a series of hauntings within the space of the gallery. Here, these moments of the unknown are continuously re-lived and re-counted, processed and questions by those who hear them. Us.

Image by Peter White courtesy the artist, Timothy Taylor Gallery and Matt’s Gallery, London.

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Mike Nelson: “More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac)”

The following is what I hope will be the first of many writings about the work of Mike Nelson. This particular essay stems from his recent exhibition More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac) at Matt’s Gallery in London and our conversation about architecture, horror films, and narrative implications.

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In Richard Lester’s 1969 post-apocalyptic comedy film The Bed Sitting Room, a select few find themselves living in the strange aftermath of nuclear war in London. Their natural attachment to objects (the city is littered with shoes, suitcases, millions of discarded things) and the old order of life shifts again when, suddenly, a new post-war effect takes place…they begin to turn into things themselves. A bed sitting room, an armoire, and even a bird (all with the power of human consciousness and speech) are the mutated forms of life. Although designed for the audience to laugh at the absurdity of this new existence, the film reveals there is a real horror in acknowledging the possibilities of what might happen when the world changes.

Mike Nelson’s latest installation at Matt’s Gallery, More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac), produces a similar provocation. Inversing the architectural structures he has become known for, Nelson has laid out a series of objects that are a series of suggestions or, as he put it, a “semblance of atmospheres.” The absence of an established “place” in which to house these things, aside from the gallery room itself, creates a sequence of open-ended narratives, connections to be made as one wanders through the room, stepping over objects, encountering mysterious forms like glancing giant skulls, trash cans grounded in cement, and long-form boards that are too low to be benches but high enough to become intrusive.

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What’s most compelling about Mike Nelson’s work is that it gives permission for this kind of immediate interaction. The passivity associated with art or film viewership cannot occur in his installations and, unless you only stand in the doorway at Matt’s Gallery, certainly can’t happen here. There is an active engagement of looking in More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) by walking over, through, and around these inexplicable objects that navigate and determine our bodily movements in this framed space. Whereas Nelson’s architectural environments provide an obvious context of our experience, the items usually contained in those places is now dispersed and fragments our associations with them. We become the last people in London who traverse the new landscape.

mikenelson-02This goes back to Nelson’s idea of a “semblance of atmospheres”, an uncontained atmosphere that suggests a narrative rather than providing a linear and literal reading. Much like in The Bed Sitting Room, there is a confusion of forms and their readings, a conflation of organic and inorganic that conveys a strange new world or, at the very least, the remnants of an old strange world. The absence of figures in the installation is outlined in pieces that imply human form; a deflated work suit complete with a hat hanging from a metal backbone and a shoe with spikes underneath (the other “foot” is a stick) lays in the corner while a similarly deflated sleeping bag holds court in the middle of the room, dirty and barren. Animal skulls dangle from re-structured chairs suggesting that, such as in the film, living creatures are now components of material form. Scalped masks lay frozen on the floor. More ominous are the wooden sticks (charred and jagged) formed into something between a grave marker and crucifix or the scarecrow-like figures with animal skin draped as a body and a tambourine.

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Though lacking an overriding or oppressive narrative, Nelson does subtly drop hints that could mark the cause of this barren landscape. As in his title reference to Balzac, there is no escaping politics and society here. Specifically, there is one sculptural object housed in the back corner that consists of a broken crate from Jaffa, Israel alongside a near-destroyed caution sign (enter at out risk) and hanging plaque with Arabic writing. There is the suggestion of a former architectural structure that seems to have been blown apart. A reference to the volatile and ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the dispute of land territory and agricultural ownership, this near obliterated object could contain the meaning to the end we are witnessing. That there are giant skulls framing the room doesn’t dissuade this argument. This is what could remain.

Both The Bed Sitting Room and More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) connote a very powerful presence through absence and explore what exists at the liminal boundary between the two. By acknowledging the unknown and a non-reality, they depict a possible reality of a new world born from and within the destruction of the old. And isn’t this what science-fiction, horror, and art do best? Show us possibilities of an existence that we cannot begin to fathom or visualize or formulate by ourselves? Providing a visual reference to the unthinkable, the unrepresentable, my reading of Mike Nelson’s installation is just that: disparate forms coming together to imagine what remains and what is possible in an unimaginable plane of existence. More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) doesn’t require an architectural guide to convey the abject terror of disassociation from the familiar; the sculpture entities are alone a frightening implication that we humans are not a part of this new other world.

Images by Caryn Coleman, courtesy of Mike Nelson and Matt’s Gallery.

Mike Nelson – 500 Words in Artforum

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Mike Nelson’s 500 words in Artforum (read the whole thing here):

LINEAR NARRATIVE HAS NOT always been important to me, but illustrating the sense of meaning and space beyond what is actually presented in a show is. As a child I was taught that if we want to see a figure moving in the distance as darkness falls, we should look to the side of him to see the movement more clearly. This idea resonates with the way I work: I try to draw the viewer in to focus on one thing in order to understand another. I hope that this way of working is becoming more pertinent in relation to our media-saturated lives. The constant mediation through technology that we face everyday leaves very little time or space for the unknown––no time to imagine or wonder what might be or have been. So few people have the desire or the patience any more to engage with work in this way.

Image: Coral Reef (2000)

Ben Rivers: filmic montage and final girls in “Terror” and “Alice”

Following up my recent posting on Peter Doig and Friday the 13th are thoughts on the artist films Terror (2006) and Alice (2010) by UK artist Ben Rivers.

In addition to focusing on Alice from Friday the 13th and her status as the ultimate final girl (which I will get to later on), Ben Rivers uses the archive of horror cinema as a modifiable object. While the basis for his films is usually self-shot and original, Terror and Alice are his “love letters’ to horror. Sourced entirely from the “giallo” and “slasher” sub-genre (1970-80s) they include Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, John Carpenter’s Halloween, Dario Argento’s Susperia, and dozens more. By establishing a dialogical relationship between his own work and these movies through montage, Rivers carefully negotiates this particular portion of horror history and by fluently speaking the language of horror cinema he conflates the past with the present to create a new process of looking. This makes for future genre possibilities in what Sergei Einsenstein termed an “intellectual montage” (proposing that a new idea can emerge from a sequence of shots unintended by the original footage). For Rivers this new emergent idea directly involves the audience.

The chosen scenes in Terror build upon a structural frame of familiarity through a progressive sequence that increases in intensity and absorbs the viewer in its rhythm. Rivers’ filmic montage (and homage) to the influential “giallo” and “slasher” movies inverses storylines and audience participation and exemplifies Steven Shaviro’s ‘zombie time’ terminology in his essay Contagious Allegories: George Romero:

‘the slow meanders of zombie time emerge out of the paralysis of the conventional time of progressive narrative. This strangely empty temporality also corresponds to a new way of looking, a vertiginously passive fascination. The usual relation of audience to protagonist is inverted’ (1993, 99).

Rivers establishes linearity by editing similar scenes together: houses in the fog, people calling out for each other, the mysterious opening of doors, shots of keys, and even bits of comedy. Each sequence builds incrementally, simultaneously acknowledging that the audience knows these are “only movies” but still provoking some serious unease. For those who recognize the sources, the suspense becomes palpable and the alternating tension between this conglomeration of references continues just until the moment when the one questions whether or not the violent resolution will ever come. Then Rivers provides a brilliant release with the most fantastic eruption of surplus gore; a bloody violent collage that is completely satisfying and totally thrilling.

Relying on the audience’s knowledge and/or non-knowledge of horror films, Rivers acknowledges that the viewer’s familiarity with the movies determines meaning for Terror and Alice. This is most evident in his new film Alice, a heavily edited piece focusing solely on the main character and “Final Girl” from Friday the 13th.

As with Peter Doig’s Canoe Lake (1997-98), Echo Lake (1999), and Friday the 13th (1998), Rivers has completely omitted any visual expression of the life-threatening encounters Alice endures. What we see is Alice making coffee, putting on her coat, lounging in a canoe on the lake; a rhythmic succession of the benign moments that surround the unseen moments when she is fighting for her life. Those unaware of Friday the 13th could find this a little bit boring but understanding the filmic source makes the friction between what we see and what we know explode brilliantly onscreen. Still, it’s significant that the exclusion of the scary stuff has not pacified the situation – the audience is aware of the narrative tension and feels it when viewing the works.

Rivers’ films purposefully identify with an audience’s relationship to watching a horror movie. A fan himself, Rivers incorporates this passion for the genre into other works containing his own footage, House (2007) and Origin of the Species (2008). He extends his interest onscreen, acknowledging the audience and their expectations of what a “good” horror film should be.

As mentioned in Peter Doig – Friday the 13th, Alice plays into critical debates surrounding feminism in horror movies specifically addressing slasher films where the lone survivor is usually a female who is, generally, victorious over her male counterparts (monster and fellow victims). Carol J. Clover dubbed her the “Final Girl” and while her definition is tenuous at best (I think that the unique differences in each film make such solidified terms near impossible), this “Final Girl” has an enduring legacy in horror that can provide us a framework in which to consider gender roles in society throughout the decades. Friday the 13th is a particularly interesting example because not only is the lone survivor female but the killer is as well (it isn’t until the sequels that Jason becomes the monster). It’s a battle between motherly devotion and the perceived loose morals of teenagers.

Rivers views Alice as the ultimate “Final Girl” and utilizes this process of identification as a structure to creates a contemporary version of the same story. His editing might suggest we question whether women are now safer in society. Have women become more integrated and better shielded from unknown horrors? Or is the perception of equality and safety an illusion – is the past still there, lurking in the background, waiting to grab hold?

Ben Rivers recently exhibited his new film Slow Action at Matt’s Gallery in London and Picture This in Bristol. I have previously written about Rivers for LUX and his film Terror was screened last fall during The Real Horror Symposium.