In the basement of Alchemy Experiment there’s a film of a man crying. Over the course of 15 painfully slow minutes we watch him, the steady camera focused on the emotions in his eyes and the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallows.
The film, ‘Unfeeling’, is directed by Babar Suleman and stars Omer Abdullah Khan. It’s part of the Love & Chaos exhibition, one of several films screened in the basement room near the toilets. The description tells us it was shot in a military-backed institution in Pakistan, leaving us with the uncertainty of what is meant by an “institution” in this context and who Khan might be or might be portraying.
But alongside this contextual ambiguity is the rawness, the shock, of watching a grown man cry. How can we stand to watch this suffering for its full 15 minutes? What context would alleviate our discomfort, or emphasise its tragedy? What will its significance be – this particular actor in this particular place directed by this particular person – in a year’s time, or ten, or a century? Or is the power in its almost stark anonymity? The way it moves us despite us having no idea why he’s crying? Would we feel differently if this was someone we loved? Or someone we hated?
Whether or not Suleman was aware, the work – both in terms of subject and style – mimics Bas Jan Ader’s ‘I’m too sad to tell you’ from the seventies, though in that Ader wore a shirt while Khan is bare shouldered. The tight head and shoulders framing against a stark white background, being a black and white silent film, the lack of a satisfying explanation for the man’s pain…
But is it even fair to claim every black and white silent film of a man crying as part of Ader’s artistic lineage? Or is it the shadow of Ader’s story that Suleman’s piece finds itself struggling to escape? For after making his film, Ader sent postcards bearing still images from it to his friends and acquaintances with the words “I’m too sad to tell you” scrawled on them. He never explained why he was crying, and a few years later he was lost at sea trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean as part of a conceptual art project.
Whether is it an intentional or an accidental recreation, Ader’s work informs us as we watch. We wonder, what is the man in this film too sad to tell us? Why is he crying? What will he do with his sadness? What is he asking, of us as an audience but also of a society that tells men not to cry? To begin with he appears to be containing his emotion, but slowly the tears come – single tracks running down each cheek and dripping from his chin. Towards the end of the film he gasps for air and attempts to wipe the tears away, but if he hopes to draw some strength from the gesture it fails to appear. The despair in his eyes keeps us frozen, watching. Witnessing his feeling.
Love & Chaos will be at The Alchemy Experiment at 157 Byres Road, Glasgow until November 7, 2021. Open every day 10-6pm. It also features strong work from Jess Wishart, Zoe Gibson, Ruby Lord, Yeon Ju, Molly Hankinson, Josh Croll, Danielle Metcalfe-Shaw, Becky Brewis, Rosalind Shrivinas and Rachel Smith amongst others.
By Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne