Saturday, 26 March 2011

Nothing Much Happens

I am rather fond of films in which nothing much happens. Police, Adjective, by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu is such a film. In it the main protagonist, a policeman by the name of Cristi, spends most of his days alone, outside in the cold, desolate urban Romanian landscape, following suspects and attempting to be inconspicuous. The case he is on concerns a teenager suspected of supplying hashish to his school friends, a petty crime, but one which carries a potential prison sentence of seven years. Cristi is troubled by his conscience. He sees his target as just a kid who smokes a bit of pot, who poses no harm to society, but Cristi's superiors want the teenager arrested.

The majority of the film shows Cristi in silence pursuing his victim along city streets a discreet distance behind, hands in pockets, head hunched, long grey shots where nothing much happens. When he is not walking Cristi is standing outside buildings, smoking cigarettes, waiting for his target to emerge. We discover his character through his movement and body language. Other scenes show the drudgery of the Police offices, meetings Cristi tries to avoid, paperwork and bureaucracy he can't avoid. It would be tempting to describe Police, Adjective as Kafkaesque, because it deals with bureaucracy, but that would be too easy. This is not as sinister as Kafka, merely bored people going about their daily routines, keeping busy with meaningless tasks because that is what they have to do to earn a living.

Our hero attempts to delay the inevitable sting operation by trying to prove the kid is not the supplier, it’s his older brother, who is out of the country at the moment, and they should await the brother’s return before acting, but in a crucial and brilliant penultimate scene where Cristi faces his Captain and his conscience we learn through a Romanian dictionary the meanings of the words ‘conscience’, ‘law’, ‘moral’ and ‘police’, and Cristi is finally convinced he has no choice but to carry out the sting. Police, Adjective is a beautifully shot, superbly paced study of absurdity and bureaucracy and the traps in which we all allow ourselves to be placed within our ordinary everyday existence.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011


On the 7th August 1974 Phillipe Petit walked a wire stretched 450m, 1340ft, or 1/4 mile above the ground between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, an illicit act which had taken many months of careful planning and the help of several accomplices to achieve. After 45 minutes and 8 crossings of the wire suspended high above Manhatten Petit stepped back onto the roof of one of the Towers to be immediately arrested. One of the arresting officers, interviewed straight after the event, was noticably moved by what he had witnessed and admits on camera that although illegally carried out he thinks it to have been an astonishing and wondrous act.

A film, directed by James Marsh, Man on Wire, uses interviews with the protagonists, contemporary photographs and film footage, and reconstructions to tell the tale of the heist like build up to Petit's incredible wire walk. I recently watched Man on Wire a second time, the first being last year at the cinema when it was initially released. It is a beautiful film of a beautiful act.

In the film Petit, a street performer from Paris, refers to himself as "a poet conquering beautiful stages." The word 'death' occurs frequently throughout, Petit says the act was "framed by death". As does the word 'passion'. "If I die," he states, "what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion." There is a fire in his eyes and a seemingly limitless energy to the man as he tells his story. Those close to him are visibly touched by the experience, a number of them weeping at the recollection. His girlfriend of the time, Annie, says "everyday was a work of art to him", and his American accomplice, Albert, says of when he saw Petit practising on a wire "he had an ageless mask of concentration...he became a sphinx." A childlike joy and a childlike seriousness pervades the group of collaborators.

The images of the wire walk itself (there is no surviving film footage, only photographs) are so intensely poetic, the fragility of this tiny human being surrounded by the vast expanse of air and the enormity of the steel and glass of the Towers themselves, that the first time I saw the film I thought to myself 'no matter what I produce in this life as an artist I will never create anything so profoundly beautiful as this act.' One of the most common questions Petit has been asked regarding his wire walks is 'why?' Why does he do it? Why does he risk his life for something so apparently pointless? His answer to this question is an answer only a true poet or artist would offer or maybe even understand. His answer is simple: "There is no why."

Monday, 14 March 2011

Someone Needs To Tell the Upper Echelons of the Art World That There's a Recession On

I found this essay in a notebook the other day, written back in December. Although publishing it here highlights my inability to keep up with the 'now' of electronic media, the issues it discusses are still pertinent and will remain pertinent for some time to come.

Someone needs to tell the upper echelons of the art world that there's a recession on (America's gallery giants open British front in the modern art 'arms race', the Observer, 12th December 2010). As in all walks of life this seems to be a recession only for the poor and already underprivileged. While the rich keep on getting richer the gap between the celebrity artist and your average artist keeps on getting wider and wider. An increasing number of millionaire artists hang out with billionaire gallery owners as the majority can't afford to focus solely on their practice, second jobs taking up more of their energy and time.

I thought all this big art market stuff had disappeared along with the fading memory of the over-rated and overblown YBA's to be replaced by a new generation of quieter, more serious, introspective and interesting internationalist artists (see Chris Townsend, New Art from London, Thames and Hudson 2006). But no, it seems commercial galleries such as Gagosian and Pace, and owner/dealers such as Jay Jopling and Dasha Zhukova, continue to increase their revenue from and control over the art market, snapping up more 'name' artists for their 'brands'.

Although this can be said to be good for those few living artists who benefit (the Martin Creeds, Zhang Xiaogangs and the Keith Tysons. It is worth noting that many of the artists these dealers are dealing with are dead (Bourgeois, Rauschenburg, deKooning, Rothko) and many of the living ones aren't short of exposure (Koons, Hirst, Emin, Gilbert and George)), the question is: is it good for art? Is it even about the art? For although some of these galleries do put on some good shows (one of the most moving exhibitions I have seen in the last couple of years was Richard Serra at the Gagosian in Kings Cross, London) I do wonder about the motives of those involved.

Too much of the contemporary art world is about being seen and being seen to be seen in the right circles. There is too much emphasis on the opening night and not enough on the art. I am sure the galleries I am discussing won't be suffering from the impending cuts to the arts budget, whereas said cuts may prove to be the end of the line for many grass roots and artist led initiatives. The question I wish to pose with regard to these circumstances is: how should we artists respond to the challenge of this inevitable crisis?

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Into Eternity - Communicating with the Future

The film Into Eternity, a documentary by Scandinavian film maker Michael Madsen, explores the Finnish nuclear authority's efforts to deal with their rapidly accumulating nuclear waste. Their plan has been to bury it deep within Finlands ancient bedrock. The facility, lying 500 metres underground at the end of 5kms of tunnels, is set to be completed early in the 22nd century. It is designed to safely contain the radioactive waste for the 100,000 years that it will remain hazardous. The film maker addresses the viewer as a voice from the past, our present, with a message for an imagined civilisation far in our future, a warning to stay away from this place, to leave the ground and its invisible dangers undisturbed.

The first challenge of the facility is to design something which will last more than ten times the length of anything human beings have previously built. The second and more difficult challenge is how to communicate the danger of the place to an unknown and unknowable future civilisation. In the last 100,000 years many civilisations have risen and fallen, many languages have been developed and lost. How do we communicate with a society of which we can predict nothing? That our own will still be existing 100 millenia from now is unikely. Any warning we leave, if the people then are anything like us, is likely to be ignored, dismissed as superstitious nonsense. They will dig regardless. How can we convince them to leave well alone?

The film states there is probably only 100-150 years worth of uranium supplies. Nuclear energy is a finite resource. Something which can provide energy for such a short span will have consequences far further into the future than we can project. Why mess with something we cannot possibly control? Into Eternity with its long slow panning shots of endless tunnels and stark blank laboratories is a beautiful, poetic, terrifying and very real warning to us here and now.