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The Moving Image

A Weapon in the Artist’s Arsenal

It is a disconcerting experience, thinking about the past. With the uneasy clarity that hindsight brings, the emotional dissonance we feel when dwelling on our shared history is far removed from easy nostalgia – indeed, the same problems that our forebears faced seem to be all too present with us today, woven insidiously within the fabric of human nature.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled 2017, single-channel video, Turner Prize 2018, exhibition installation view, Tate Britain, 26.09.2018 until 09.01.19

The images we are presented with through the mass media seem more content to dwell within a perverse simulacrum of the past or, indeed, to stake a claim for a past that never was. One need only think of the digitally ‘reimagined’ environments within so much franchise-based movie-making, reconstructing images from digital scratch or ‘de-aging’ actors to resurrect past roles, even going so far as to bring them back from the dead wholesale. One might also think of the nationalistic evocations of a ‘better’ past that have been repeatedly weaponised through the rhetoric of the campaign trail, appealing to a popular longing for a simpler time, far removed from the complex problems inbuilt into our globalised present.

The moving image also holds a unique potential in helping us relate to historical events. By recording the present, it allows us to analyse the past – different kinds of pasts, from different perspectives – with a meticulousness and acumen often missing in other forms of visual communication. Where it trades on accessibility for ambiguity and complexity, the moving image in contemporary art practice has become a vital tool for the deconstruction of set conventions about identity in an increasingly interconnected and depersonalised world. 

Video is a temporal medium. It relies on the passage of time to convey its message. It can encompass various feelings, including boredom and impenetrability. Indeed, such emotions or, rather, the sense of stillness inherent in the long-takes and single camera format of a lot of the works on show at this year’s iteration of the Turner Prize, can become a powerful weapon in the artist’s arsenal. Such strategies force the viewer to contemplate even the most insignificant minutiae of the projected image, scanning the screen for any detail to latch unto, anything at all to come together into meaning.

Now in its 33rd consecutive year, it is remarkable how far the Turner Prize has shifted, gravitating away from its spectacle-heavy roots in the 1990’s ‘Young British Artist’ art boom to a far more sober, probing overview of current concerns and new methodologies evident in contemporary art practice.

Primarily, video seems to have become the natural medium of choice for a wide array of emerging creative voices keen to construct some sort of response to an increasingly bewildering digital world, one that is simultaneously so divided and evermore homogenised. The four practitioners selected for this year’s prize all demonstrate the ways in which digital technology and accessible video recording devices have had a profound impact on the way we see and understand the world around us.

Subverting conventional filmic expectations and skewing the narrative form is at the heart of Charlotte Prodger’s practice. Working with ripped YouTube videos, 16mm film, spoken-word narratives and text, the Glasgow-based artist formulates densely layered ruminations on place in relation to personal identity. More specifically, she examines the way language informs both our notion of space and gendered constructs of identity from a non-binary perspective. In her 2016 film Bridgit, which was shot on an iPhone, Prodger built a complex narrative out of emotionally-charged snapshots of her everyday life. These take the form of recorded moments charting the landscape in relation to personal and social histories, compositing both language and image through a nuanced approach to a truly contemporary narrative.

Another work comprises an entire investigation carried out by Forensic Architecture into the 2017 killing of a Bedouin man, Yaqub Musa Abu Al Qi’an, by Israeli police officers (The Long Duration of a Split Second (2018)). While the state has declared that Al Qi’an was killed while carrying out an act of terrorism, Forensic Architecture – the Goldsmiths College-based research agency founded by Eyal Weizman, comprising architects, journalists, lawyers and scientists – posits an alternative stance for the state’s culpability, using a range of cutting-edge digital technologies and research-based approaches to build a multi-layered case from a variety of perspectives.

The choice of Forensic Architecture is an intriguing one as they comprise a collective of practitioners from various disciplines – not all of them art-related. Considering that a similar group of architects (Assemble) was awarded the prize in 2015, we can begin to understand how far the boundaries of what constitutes contemporary art, and those who make it, have changed. As our perception of contemporary art continues to broaden, so too does art’s ability to speak truth to power and address past injustices. There is a deep poignancy to the Forensic Architecture installation at the Tate Britain exhibition as, just as the group were shortlisted for the Prize, Israel closed the case on the officers involved in the killing of Al Qi’an for good.

Naeem Mohaiemen presents two more conventionally narrative films at the Tate. In Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017) the artist uses the historical narrative of the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s and 70s which aspired to form a socialist, secular utopia centred around countries from the Global South in response to the domineering strategies enacted by the Cold War superpowers.

By using sourced archival footage filmed at early conferences of the Non-Aligned countries, Mohaiemen, who had previously been nominated for his participation in documenta 14, conjures up the ghostly presence of a host of past political powerheads, including figures such as Che Guevara and Yasser Arafat, interspersed with interviews with the historian Vijay Prashad. This footage gives the film a quasi-documentary feel that creates an intriguing sense of mediated dissonance between the events of the past and their continuing reverberations today.

In Mohaiemen’s second film, Tripoli Cancelled (2017), a lone figure stalks through the seemingly post-apocalyptic remains of Athens’s Ellinikon Airport, designed by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in the 1960s but abandoned since 2001. Recalling the lonely figures who haunt the wastelands of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the elderly protagonist is intended to act as a stand-in for the artist’s father who, as a surgeon travelling from Bangladesh to Libya sometime in the mid-1970s, misplaced his passport and became stranded at this very airport. Once again, we have a strange merging of the personal and the societal, the past and the present, fact and fiction, all coalescing through an emotional and meditative journey.

Finally, Willis Thompson presents an intriguing update of Warhol’s screen -tests through a series of engaging 35mm black-and-white filmed portraits. Also included is Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), filmed portraits of the descendants of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, shot by police in Brixton in 1985, and Joy Gardner, killed by police during a deportation raid in Crouch End in 1993, and Human (2018), a photographic study of an intriguing piece by British artist Donald Rodney, who suffered from sickle cell anaemia and pinned together scraps of his own shed skin to form a small house.

Thompson’s most affecting piece, however, is autoportrait (2017), in which the artist collaborated with Diamond Reynolds, the young black woman who live-streamed the shooting of her partner Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota in 2016. This killing, which has become emblematic of a much wider spate of racialised police violence in America, is extremely contentious territory for any artist to tackle and, indeed, Thompson’s identity as a New Zealander of mixed white and Fijian origin proved problematic to many people who felt that the artist was exploiting issues of race to generate spectacle, profit or simply raise his own profile, and indeed activists from the BBZ group protested on the opening night of the Turner Prize.

The work, which simply portrays a head-on, filmic portrait of Reynolds standing in contemplation, or a state of wordless mourning, is as moving as it is direct. Her expression is almost inscrutable and blown-up to larger-than-life proportions she seems to engage with the viewer in an intensely personal silent dialogue from across geopolitical and temporal boundaries. For this reason alone, autoportrait manages to create a succinct summation of the many profound and important ideas presented within this year’s very worthy and thought-provoking offering from four extremely intriguing artists.

Turner Prize 2018 is at Tate Britain in London until 6 January 2019. The winner will be announced on 4 December.

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