Saturday, 16 May 2009

Luke Fowler at Serpentine Gallery, London - The Independent

Luke Fowler is a young, experimental (for want of a better word) film maker who won the first  Jarman Award in 2008. This show at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is a kind of mini-retrospective of his major projects of recent years, and in part a documentation of those projects. This is what artists so often do these days. They make something, and then they scrupulously record the various stages they went through on the long and serendipitous journey towards its conclusion. They are both the creators and the archivists of what they have created, opening up their own inner workings, letting us see art as the process that it must inevitably be. Is this always interesting? Not at all.

   In Fowler’s case, it is quite interesting because he has opened up the discussion to take in our assumptions of what exactly a film is, and what makes up its constituent parts. So much is up in the air for film makers these days. Film. Video. DVD.  Isn’t it a bit pass√© to use film at all in a digital age? Not at all, say certain purists such as Tacita Dean. Fowler bring lots of different things together to create a kind of multi-layered filmic experience, which is part art film and part a kind of free-flowing and free-ranging approach to documentary making. Two films in particular in this show help us to see the direction in which he is heading. Pride of place – it occupies the entire central gallery - is given to Composition for Flutter Screen, the strangest  and most recent piece of all.

   Here is what you experience. Total Darkness. Then, a second or two later, a huge, white, fluttery taffeta screen is lit up by two lamps, trained to left and right of it. It’s a brilliant white, five-metre square spectacle, and the screen itself is overlaid by an additional strip of white light, curved like a scimitar wound. There’s a tremendous amount of agitation, and there’s noise too, not only the whirr of the projector, but also a sound track, which comes and goes, and the sound of the agitation of the screen itself which, unusually, is in a state of perpetual motion.

   Why? Those two fans which stand on the ground, to left and right of it, are blowing air at it, causing wave-like ripple effects to flow back and forth, combing it, seaming it like a ploughed field. Is this then what we have come to see, the fluttering spectacle of a giant, ghostly taffeta screen? No. That’s just the beginning. The fact that the screen never stops moving disrupts our ability to see the image – when it comes…

   Darkness again, and then a rectangle of the screen is filled with an image – a vessel brimming with water, meniscus bulging, or, later, a candle, doubled, with a strangely smokey bud of flame. The images are both vivid and partially unreadable, and when that projection faders, as it soon does, they leave a ghostly after-image of themselves…

   From agitated painterly abstraction, to A Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, a film which is equally tricksy in certain technical respects, but this time you understand very well why it’s happening. Fowler has a fascination with various counter-cultural figures – elsewhere in the show there’s a film about R.D. Laing, that rebellious anti-psychiatrist.

   Pilgrimage examines the life and slow death of the Scratch Orchestra, a phenomenon of the 1970s. Various musicians came together to make  music, and to encourage others that music could be made by anyone. It didn’t have to be the prerogative of some elite. Cornelius Cardew was perhaps its most celebrated spokesman. And it was Cardew who helped to bring about the death of the experiment because of the degree of hatred he felt for the bourgeoisie. Regrettably, certain group members felt that they belonged to the bourgeoisie and, no matter how hard they searched their souls, they couldn’t find it within themselves to call themselves truly bad people.

   Now all this fractiousness, and this musical experimentation, is caught in the way the film is made - rapid cuts and quick fades; odd blurrings; off-beat angles; interviews from then and now. The fact that it is so spasmodic and jumpily collage-like seems to mirror its subject matter perfectly. This is experimental film making at an unusually intelligent and focused level.


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