“We have a valuable resource here. But it’s messy, it’s outside it, we have to watch our archives and our criticism,” so says Jane Goldman during her workshop Signs Meanings Riddles on 28 May, 2020, one of the extra-curricular activities that is part of the Cooper Gallery’s latest show – A space in-between #1: A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero.
A space in-between #1: A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero is indeed messy, as a result of its presentation and in the sheer amount of content and the way you navigate it. Do you watch each video in turn, listen to the audio clips, and then read the supporting material? What about when you’re halfway through ‘Frida Kahlo and Tina Modetti’ and you wonder if this is merely a documentary about these two artists and not the avant-garde art film you think you’re supposed to be looking for? This is the Cooper Gallery’s first contribution to our new normal of online exhibitions and virtual events, related to their currently postponed exhibition A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero: Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen. It is inspiring. It is incredibly overwhelming.
IRL you enter an exhibition through a door or archway, pick up an exhibition guide, and wander slowly from piece to piece. You may sit and watch a film for a few seconds or multiple times. You are usually alone. In the dark. The walls are white, most of the time, and you can concentrate on the art. Normally I’d block out a few hours, take my notebook and my camera, and let the whole show wash over me.
Reviewing an online exhibition of the scale and complexity of A space in-between #1: A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero is something else entirely. I have no white-walled, silent space to isolate myself in. Being online means constant distractions – the ping of social media messages, emails, devices running out of charge, the low-level anxiety about the deadly virus outside. Watching Marie Menken’s ‘Go! Go! Go!’ I’m struck by all the people and the way their bodies are so close to one another. I have friends who haven’t touched another human being in more than two months. I make a comment in the Zoom chatbox of Jane Goldman’s workshop at the wrong moment and end up in a poem. I always seem to be half paying attention now. At home I attempt to edit my notes, but there are ambulance sirens outside my window.
I learn a new term; ‘city symphony films’, finally giving a name to a style I’ve always mildly disliked. They never seem to capture the cities right. Somehow Google Maps is more satisfying. I open the app and drop down in front of the New York Public Library. I drop down again in front of the Rockerfeller Centre, which I have been to. I feel a flash of recognition. My father and I eating ice-cream outside the shops there. But then get lost again.
Red/orange writing on a window or a mirror, Go!’, the bridge into a city, street views too fast (how fast are they driving?), snapshots of a city (it looks like New York, but it could be anywhere really). High rise buildings, some nice some not. So many men walking. So many cars. Men standing around. Driving across bridges. Water and sky and boats. Water and boats. Is that the Statue of Liberty? Water and boats and sky. Moving fast. Almost like stop-motion animation. Looking down on the street from a building. Old fashioned cars and old fashioned people. A graduation ceremony. Lots of old white men. Trees. Lots of men getting degrees. A few women. A soldier. Women identifiable by their black high heels (like you wear to funerals – it could almost be a funeral, the way they are moving). The camera is so jerky. You don’t feel a connection with any of them, they’re just a mass of people. More women in this shot, going into a building. So many men in black suits. Where are the women? It’s like they’re… colourful birds next to all the white men in black suits. A building site. The people working look like ants. Now it’s a strong man illuminated on a stage. He poses. Is it the same man or different men? Oh different men. Women in dresses. They look so pretty (and old fashioned) like brides or something. They hold flowers, wear pastels. Are they dancing? People going into a building. An art installation? An older white man at a typewriter. He is frustrated with what he is writing. Is he in a play? Now we’re on a train, looking at the tracks. Stations. A couple sit at a café. It looks like she’s interviewing him. A rollercoaster, a black couple, a white couple on a beach. It’s like a fairground. A teenage boy takes photos with a camera. A woman in a blue bathing suit, and another in a turquoise one. People. A man eats a hot dog. Some young white men make a human pyramid on the beach. A police officer on a horse. Is this Coney Island? Men in suits. Old fashioned cars. It’s so strange to think when she was filming it, it really was in the 1960s. Nuns. Another building site. It seems to show New York as a place of industry and money, but like weirdly run down… A sunset. Another sunset. The word ‘end’ in red on a window or mirror. I pause it at the start again and notice she is smoking. Concentrating just on that image. She waves her hand. I love how you can see her cigarette. The curve of the ‘m’ in Marie, the way the dot of the ‘I’ in Marie looks like a full stop after the word ‘by’. The visceral nostalgic response I have to watching a woman smoking a cigarette in private, waving her hand lazily back and forth. The bright, almost luminescent colour of the text.
Other people’s responses are beautiful. I do not record them, I feel uncomfortable enough. What is on and off the record in a Zoom workshop? No-one can see me taking notes. I turn off my camera. We are asked to spin round in a circle. I am in my art studio and I raise my hands to the ceiling. The ceiling is white, but my studio space is full of paintings. I seem to be spending my lockdown at online events. I want to paint. I don’t know what to paint.
I was supposed to go to a workshop today on writing for the web, organised by the Union of Journalists. I am writing for the web instead. I will add a large number of hyper-links to this… response piece and as the years pass they will link to nowhere. I wish there was more literature on how tenuous the links that make up the world wide web really are. One day Hyperlink Maintainer might be a full-time job.
I am distracted again.
After the workshop I head back to the homepage for A space in-between #1: A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero and watch the first video by Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen – ‘Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti’ from 1983. The conversion from analogue film to digital has left it crackly. It seems much older than the 1980s. It is half an hour long. I need a shower. I go home. Could I play the video while I have a shower? Maybe on my phone… I have been doing this a lot lately. Leaving Zoom events on mute, audio streaming quietly, being present but not. I am so exhausted. It’s text-based. I delay my shower.
I feel the weight of history on my shoulders. The presence of the unread Frida Kahlo biography on my bookshelf. The knowledge that she lay in bed and painted masterpieces. My screentime tells me I lie in bed and scroll social media for at least two hours a day, more during this lockdown. I should be painting. If I was painting I wouldn’t feel so guilty about all the online events I’m missing. I should be learning how to write for the web. Places are limited. If you can’t make it please let us know. I catch a fragment of what’s being said. Frida Kahlo painted on tin? How do you paint on tin? The way the narrator is talking it makes it sound like Frida Kahlo wasn’t Mexican herself.
I learn that Tina Modotti died stateless, but at least she was almost an international constructivist – with their emphasis on industry and the role of the engineer. Her black and white photography is ‘politically charged’. Her father was a socialist. She worked in a textile factory. Her partner was shot dead next to her. A political assassination. She abandoned art to be a communist, but returned to it before she died suddenly at the age of…
I skip ahead to the next video. I am tired of Tina Modotti’s life.
I watch Laura Mulvey’s ‘GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (remix remixed)’ and wonder at the way Marilyn Monroe looks at the other actress… her expression is so much more open than it usually is. No coy flirting, just… a look. Like two colleagues taking cues from each other. I stop to Google. Did Monroe have any female friends? It’s unclear. The other actress is Jane Russell. There’s a quote from Monroe, “Jane tried to convert me (to religion), and I tried to introduce her to Freud.” I put two books on curating as an artistic medium in an online shopping basket before I remember what I’m doing. This has been happening a lot. I have twelve tabs open, seven of which are directly related to A space in-between #1: A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero.
I have been at this for hours and only feel like I’m skimming the surface. In a physical exhibition it would be clear what the main ‘piece’ is, but I fear it might be Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s ‘Riddles of the Sphinx’ from 1977.
Gertrude Stein wrote about ‘Riddles of the Sphinx’ that it is a “narrative of what wishes what it wishes to be”, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Gertrude Stein has always gone slightly over my head, and the way the quote repeats itself looks like an error of copy and pasting.
I know Laura Mulvey as the person who coined the phrase ‘the male gaze’, an invaluable concept. We are all taught her 1979 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in art school. It is seminal; it asks you to consider the man behind the camera or film lens, and what he chose to look at. It asks you to consider how men look at women. It’s almost always followed by the John Berger quote from ‘Ways of Seeing’:
“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.”
I watched an episode of ‘Ways of Seeing’ – originally a BBC TV show – on my iPhone while washing up the other day. I haven’t gone back to it, even though I want to. I think I found it on YouTube. I feel like I exist between screens. When you can watch anything, how do you choose what to watch anymore?
I think I have already seen ‘Riddles of the Sphinx’. There was a film screening and a discussion the other day, but I had it on in the background and didn’t take much in. It was password protected, only available for 24 or 48 hours and I couldn’t get it together in time. How on earth are we supposed to know what to prioritise? The worst thing about the internet is never knowing what to focus on at any given time. I am drowning.
It seems I could subscribe to the British Film Institute on a 14-day free trial and watch it.
If I do that will all of this make sense?
I will take a shower. I will go to my studio. I will watch the film while I tidy and paint backgrounds, the unthinking tasks.
Maybe I can take screenshots as I go.
This may not be the review I wanted to write, but it is the review I have written.
A space in-between #1: A is for Avant-Garde, Z is for Zero took place online here from 3 April – 31 May 2020. Jane Goldman’s workshop Signs Meanings Riddles took place on Zoom from 5-7pm on Thursday 28 May, 2020.
By Ana Hine
Image: Screenshot of Marie Menken’s ‘Go! Go! Go!’
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