George Grosz and the Necessity of Offence

This article was first published online by Prospect magazine on 23 Sept 2013

Berlin during the 1920s is often seen as an oasis for libertines, glittering between two authoritarian periods: the Wilhelmine Reich, with its bloody culmination in the First World War, and the rise of the Nazis. The era is kept alive by enduring images of political assassinations and barricades, the banknote-littered streets of hyperinflation, transvestism and open displays of homosexuality. Brecht was at the theatre, Dietrich in the cinema, Dada in the galleries, and WH Auden chasing rough trade in the bars. Nowhere did the Twenties roar so dementedly as in Berlin, the city struggling to find both a stable identity and enough food to eat. Continue reading George Grosz and the Necessity of Offence

Carol Bove: Between Art and Design

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on 23 Apr 2015

Carol Bove’s work is curious in that it seems to inhabit two worlds at once. Her careful arrangements of sculptures and found objects cry out to be interpreted as conceptual art. Yet, aesthetically speaking, the objects themselves have much in common with contemporary design.

Bove uses the same components again and again – small structures of brass cubes and concrete, driftwood bolted to I-beams, peacock feathers, hanging metal nets, giant ‘noodles’ of curling steel with a polished white finish. These, along with some original additions, are all involved in her latest exhibition, ‘The Plastic Unit’, which occupies five rooms at David Zwirner in London. Each of these objects has its own minimalist, tactile charm, but displaying them together in a gallery also poses the question of how they relate to one another.

At the show’s opening, Bove herself suggested there are two ways to approach her work: a ‘gestalt’ (or formal) approach, and a ‘psychedelic’ one. The latter she describes as ‘bridging the membrane into the subjective experience’ – or put more simply, ‘you can get lost in it’.

Carol Bove, I, quartz pyx, who fling muck beds (2015), Concrete and brass. © the artist, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London

The gallery space is crafted to suggest the interaction of objects. You’re invited to look through them at other objects, or past them into another room. Bove is a ventriloquist, using her components to assume different voices from visual culture – the ornamental, the industrial, bric-a-brac, the artefact – and contrasting them with each other. Her detached, almost scientific placement of the objects rather cleverly gives them the aura of a museum display, or a show room for cars or antiques.

Bove’s work implies that it is meaningful, and moreover can be imbued with all manner of meaning, but it never goes so far as to confirm or deny anything in particular. I suspect this relaxed ambiguity is a reason why Bove’s short career has been packed with impressive solo exhibitions. While her work acts as a lightning rod for the aggressive interpretations of an art world audience, it also makes no demand of the viewer who would rather read nothing between the lines, and merely enjoy the strange buzz of these objects-turned-artefacts or commodities. In other words, the conceptual part of Bove’s work is optional.

Carol Bove, detail from Mussel Shell (2014), Peacock feather, seashell, found steel object, concrete, and brass. © the artist, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London

This can be seen as part of Bove’s ongoing interest in context, for the obvious conclusion must be that conceptual depth stems purely from her work’s gallery setting. If Marcel Duchamp’s famous breakthrough was to show that anything placed in a gallery is art, Bove’s response is to show that contemporary art now depends on the gallery for its very existence.

What makes the dualism of Bove’s work all the more apparent is that her objects so easily slide into the category of interior design. That this is little commented on is perhaps a reflection of how deftly Bove uses the implications of the gallery space. Yet, her angular brass frames and knotted dark wood sculptures would look entirely at home in the window of Andrew Martin or the Conran Shop. This connection is made explicit by another exhibition currently taking place at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, which puts Bove alongside legendary architect and designer Carlo Scarpa. The aesthetic similarities are uncanny (though according to Bove, coincidental).

The traditional boundary between art and design is functionality. Designers like Carlo Scarpa, who shared Bove’s interest in the psychic life of objects and space, test that boundary. Bove does the same from the other side: with her knack for exposing the mechanics of interpretation and display, it is not unreasonable to think of her as a designer whose function is to provide contemporary art exhibitions.

Installation view from the 2015 solo exhibition ‘Carol Bove: The Plastic Unit’ at David Zwirner, London. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
Carol Bove, Self Talk (2015), installation view from the 2015 solo exhibition ‘Carol Bove: The Plastic Unit’ at David Zwirner, London. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Tom Wesselmann: Collages

This article was first published online by Apollo magazine on Feb 3 2016

To think of American Pop Art, for most, is to think of Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Their catchy and, for some, bland idioms have made them an irresistible crutch for documentary makers and art teachers. But in the shadow of these looming figures can be found a rich undergrowth of art which deserves attention.

To that end ‘Tom Wesselmann: Collages’, now on show at David Zwirner, is a good place to start. Wesselmann (1931–2004), together with James Rosenquist and Jim Dine, represents a side of Pop Art more sensual – and more thoughtful – than Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyns. This much is already evident in Wesselmann’s collages, intimate works made in the late 1950s and early 60s.

These have been neatly divided into three rooms at David Zwirner in London. First is a series he titled ‘Portrait Collages’ miniature interior scenes each occupied by a figure crudely drawn in pastel and surrounded by various scraps and cuttings: a square of wallpaper, a leaf signifying a tree behind the window. These works have the naivety and exuberance of a child’s scrapbook and if, like me, you have a soft spot for that sort of thing, these collages alone are worth the trip.

Next are the equally tiny collages known generically as nudes, although these were constructed around sketches of real models, some of who are mentioned in the titles. They are closely modelled on classical Renaissance compositions or, in some instances, such as the odalisque Blue Nude (1959), on Wesselmann’s lifelong inspiration Matisse.

The upper part of the gallery is devoted to a few bold, large-scale works that grew from the smaller studies. Little Great American Nude #1(1961) was the first of the long series that would make Wesselmann’s name. By this time, in the early 1960s, Wesselmann was contacting advertisers directly to get his hands on billboard posters. He combined parts of these, such as the shiny two-foot-high apple of Still Life #29, with painted elements and bright backgrounds in humorous but disarmingly complex arrangements.

With these collages Wesselmann was feeling his way past the Abstract Expressionism that had dominated the 1950s. Like the other nascent Pop artists (of whom he was still unaware), he sought inspiration from the rampant, giddy consumer-culture blooming around him. But what made Wesselmann more interesting many of his contemporaries was the way in which he reached back through art history, treating the imagery of pop culture as a continuation of, rather than a break with, the past.

Wesselmann’s work, especially concerning the female form, was uniquely warm and voluptuous compared to most Pop Art, as it sought out the element of desire that flowed from the Renaissance nude right through to the advertising billboard. His detached view of pop imagery meant he was able to analyse it coolly and expose it as just another system of signs.

Wesselmann was uneasy with the Pop label from the beginning, and these sensitive collages make the association seem more like a burden. At this stage it would be better to compare to the enigmatic and curious Jasper Johns, a bemused observer of American life.

Christian Rosa’s Rube Goldberg Machine

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on 2 Apr 2015

For a new generation of abstract painters, the process of making an artwork often becomes an indispensable part of showing the work as well. Within the gallery/art fair/website complex, paintings can be accompanied by interesting back-stories, or at least a series of words – such as ‘discovery’, ‘exploration’, or ‘deconstruction’ – which keep the figure of the bold and exciting artist close to the painting they’ve made.

In the case of Christian Rosa, however, it seems more than reasonable to draw attention to his process in this way, because it is vividly manifest in his work. In his latest show, ‘Put your Eye in your Mouth’ at White Cube Mason’s Yard, abstract pictorial characters interact freely within large canvases. The process they reveal is similar to jazz improvisation: composition is discarded and each new note (or element in the painting) is a response to what has come before it, and likewise must be accommodated by what follows it. There are no mistakes, only adjustments and problems to solve. Filling the canvas is not a means to an end but an end in itself.

Installation shot of Christian Rosa’s exhibition, Put Your Eye in Your Mouth, at White Cube Mason’s Yard, March 2015. © White Cube and the artist

The result is a sense of kinetic energy, and of things unfolding. Kathy Grayson has aptly compared Rosa’s work to a Rube Goldberg machine, and you are indeed invited to follow an imaginary ball as it twists through coiled pencil lines, bounces between dashes of electrical tape, and drops from boxes to be deposited in pools of impasto oil paint. When you come to a painting, there is an interesting moment when everything is in flux, and your eye can dance along a range of different sequences and relationships. The canvas is an imaginative space where the restrictions of logic and familiarity are briefly suspended.

The paintings can unfold in the way due to the suggestive nature of Rosa’s pictorial language, which, though abstract, approaches meaning or even symbolism. The artist’s trick is to avoid representation, yet come close enough to it to activate the viewer’s instinct to decipher an image. Thus is, of course, an old modernist recipe, used to great effect by abstract artists such as Paul Klee, Antoni Tàpies and Cy Twombly (on whose influence Rosa is outspoken). The essential element is that of drawing – a hand rendered quality that invokes a human voice trying, on some level, to communicate.

But most critics have been weary of comparing Rosa and his contemporaries – such Rebecca Morris, Joe Bradley and David Ostrowski – to this older abstract tradition, known for its conviction and spiritual depth. Advocates of the contemporary works emphasise their playfulness and improvisation, with terms like ‘casualism’ and ‘provisional painting.’ But this has inevitably invited more caustic labels such as ‘slacker abstraction’ or ‘zombie formalism’. In a piece for the March issue of Frieze, David Geers accuses Rosa of outright nostalgia.

Latent in these tags, I think, is the criticism that painters like Rosa are borrowing the fashions of the past without demonstrating any of that daring and commitment which originally characterised them. What this means in the language of contemporary art is that the work is not subversive enough; it is too consumer friendly, and thus devoid of substance.

Installation shot of Christian Rosa’s exhibition, Put Your Eye in Your Mouth, at White Cube Mason’s Yard, March 2015. © White Cube and the artist

But subversion is not Rosa’s aim, and it must be said that the energy and curiosity of his work, though fleeting, leaves this criteria itself feeling nostalgic and more than a little institutionalised. Indeed, there is an element of the famous Whistler v. Ruskin dispute in these criticisms of current abstract painters – a sense of resentment towards the market for celebrating work that has not taken long enough to paint.

Moreover, Rosa has updated pictorial abstraction. One of his most consistent elements is, unmistakably, the screen – screens everywhere, in different sizes, colours and textures. The way that elements float on his canvases implies the moveability of icons on a desktop, and their arrangement in front of and behind each other mimics the indeterminate digital space, at once flat and infinitely deep. There is even room, in his exploration of the way autonomous objects can connect, to interpret a more profound evocation of modern life.

At the exhibition opening, all this was rather epitomised by Rosa himself, absent-mindedly wandering around the room looking at his phone. Process and its inherent sense of personality are prominent in Rosa’s work, and this is just the art you might expect from a skater in a Where’s Wally hat who paints with his friends in a Los Angeles warehouse, and dispenses corny phrases like ‘New York is dead,’ and ‘I never chose painting, it chose me.’ Both he and his work embody an unassuming, satisfied and nonchalant strand of creative culture. Whether you like or loathe him probably reflects how you feel about that culture.

The Abstract White Relief

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on Feb 10 2015

‘Abstract white relief’ is not an easy term to get your head around. It can sound highly technical, or positively poetic: three slight and airy words that threaten to float away like a balloon as soon as they are said. Yet this simple sensation of transcendence was precisely the intention of many of the artists who used abstraction and whiteness to transform the ancient medium of relief sculpture during the 20th century. They sought to turn an object in the physical world into a window through it.

A new exhibition at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in London charts the ghostly progress of the abstract white relief through the work of 18 different artists, from the 1930s to the ‘70s and beyond. The show is titled ‘Sotto Voce’, although there is not so much a voice in these works as a sort of visual static – impersonal, monotonous and often unsettling textures and rhythms, with the occasional burst of violence. And they are all white: one cold white artwork after another, set against walls of pigeon grey to amplify their subtle three-dimensionality.


Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief), (1936)
Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief), (1936)


You could, if you were so minded, construct a narrative here, and that would be more or less the narrative of 20th-century art. Two bookends present themselves. On one side is the earliest piece, Henri Laurens’s plaster relief Deux Femmes (1930): here we see the last refuge of the human figure en route to abstraction, its body spread into angular forms and its head, literally, effaced. On the other side, Mira Schendel’s Untitled (XII) from 1986: two white planes and a thin strip of black acrylic paint – all that remains of the relief is a shadow, an idea.

In between the two is a dense web of iconic gestures and interconnected artistic movements, so characteristic of modernism. After Laurens the human figure disappears from the exhibition. In the work of Jean Arp it is dispersed into an arrangement of vaguely organic shapes, like Cubist body parts spread on a table. The early reliefs of Ben Nicholson, on the other hand, replace nature altogether with circles, squares and rectangles.

Aesthetically speaking, the different approaches of Arp and Nicholson to the abstract white relief can be traced like parallel paths into the heart of the century. Arp’s curvaceous approach, still suggestive of life, can be felt in the Achromes of Piero Manzoni – tactile patterns made by the action of kaolin on canvas – or in the furtive curling of wire in Pol Bury’s Erectile (1959). The colder geometric lines of Nicholson can be traced to Günther Uecker’s prickly square of white nails (Untitled, 1967), or the angular monoliths of Sergio de Camargo.

Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958)
Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958)

But ‘Sotto Voce’ itself does not suggest any such narrative, nor does it privilege any great works. In fact, there is no information at all on the walls, no chronological order, and where there are two works by the same artist they are separated from each other. This is mischievous curation, since in many instances works from different generations, continents and artistic backgrounds appear similar enough to be mistaken for each other.

But paradoxically this lack of organisation reflects more honestly the history of the abstract white relief. The medium did not progress along simple lines of influence, but acted instead as a gravitational force that achieved critical mass in the middle of the century, attracting artists to the power and simplicity of this aesthetic gesture. Abstract white reliefs cropped up across Western Europe in avant-garde groups such as Nul and Group Zero, who cross-pollinated and formed an extended network with artists in North and South America, eventually laying the ground for Minimalism and, to an extent, Conceptualism.

Yet, it remains tempting to say that this exhibition has a centre, and that is the yawning abyss ofLucio Fontana’s slashed canvases from the seminal ‘Concetto spaziale’ series, made during the 1960s. Not only was Fontana’s stark new dimension symbolic of the movement away from the picture and towards the mental act, his accompanying discourse of ‘the void’ – which he spread personally across continents and generations – describes the appeal of the abstract white relief.

That was an appeal of escape, from the daunting questions of post-figurative art, and from the brutality of mid 20th-century history more generally. Its essence is vagueness and distilled optimism: Fontana spoke of man as ‘pure spirit’, and of a ‘philosophy of nothing’, which was, however, ‘a creative rather than a destructive nothing.’ This language makes itself broad enough to capture the anxiety of the contemporary zeitgeist, while simultaneously offering the sense of a blank state, a fresh start.

Whiteness and abstraction were tools for the ritual scrubbing away of a complicated and compromised physical world, leaving a medium whose raised, textured or punctured surfaces invited the consideration of something – anything – more pure beyond.

Cotton to Gold: The Industrialist Collectors

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on 30 Jan 2015

‘From this filthy sewer pure gold flows.’ That was A. de Tocqueville’s response to an industrialised Manchester in 1835, a terrible alchemy that still shapes the way we consider Britain’s industrial age, and in particular the astonishing cultural artefacts we’ve inherited from its great collectors. We flip these objects over and search underneath for the blood of an oppressed population, for the Dickensian squalor of slums, workhouses, and sooty children.

But a new exhibition, ‘Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West’, at Two Temple Place, adds depth to the picture with the stories of a handful of Lancashire industrialists who gifted their collections to local institutions both during and after their lives. For one thing we don’t often consider is that collecting was precisely a means for these men to get away from the tainted ‘gold’ that otherwise threatened to define them.

Yet from all this arises some quite cohesive insights into late industrial society. For one thing, you get a clear picture of the obsessive curiosity – the need to gather, categorise, understand – which animated Britain’s middle and upper classes during the age of Empire. You get a feel for tastes of the period. But most striking to me is the notion of community presented here, bound by ethics and articulated through culture.

All of these men lived and collected into the 20th century. They arrived at the end of an era which itself had obsessively questioned the human cost of wealth and greatness – the century of Carlyle and Dickens, of the Factory and Reform Acts, of the first organised labour movements. Those who made their money in the cotton trade were the third or fourth generation to do so. They were not gaudy nouveau riche who amassed culture as they would capital; they often had been to public school and Oxbridge, where the culture was a refined, if condescending, paternalism rooted in Christian moral duty.

They felt obliged – and proud – to give something back. This was the basis of a whole web of formal and informal institutions in Lancashire towns, of which museums and galleries were only one kind. George Eastwood, who collected ivory sculptures from around the world, encapsulated this reciprocal relationship. He actually worked in a Burnley mill from the age of 10, before making his escape as a venue dresser, and ending up as mayor of Southport, Wales. Yet after his death he still sent his collection to be displayed in the town of his birth.

Katshushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky, from series 36 Views of Fuji, c.1830-32, coloured woodblock print. (Lewis Collection, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)
Katshushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky, from series 36 Views of Fuji, c.1830-32, coloured woodblock print. (Lewis Collection, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)

There was, of course, a personal dimension to collecting as well – one strongly revealed in the two most impressive collections on show, those of Edward Hart and Thomas Boys Lewis. Both were Blackburn men, born into industrial wealth, who led their family businesses. They were also scholars and eccentrics with intriguing personal tastes. Collecting, which both pursued with great idiosyncrasy and on a gigantic scale, was an escape from business into the realms of history, culture, and aesthetics. Hart apparently paid an auction house with £5,000 in cash, saying that he preferred his bankers not to know how much he spent on books.

This division of business and culture strikes me as essential to understanding the wider social meaning of collecting at this time. Anthony Howe has written of the paradox by which such men were crushing their workers in the boardroom while behaving like saints in their private lives, supporting orphanages, churches and schools (Lewis himself taught classics). The answer is surely that these philanthropic activities, converting cotton not into gold but into more sacred symbolic gifts, justified the moral compromises of business.

Was this generosity motivated by guilt, then, or perhaps vanity? A more relevant question for curators Jack Hartnell and Cynthia Johnston is whether we today are still able to appreciate culture as an invaluable gift in the way Hart and Lewis undoubtedly did. They hope ‘Cotton to Gold’ will remind people of the riches surrounding them in regional museums across the country, such as the Pennine Lancashire Museums which keep these collections. For if visitors are not forthcoming, these gifts will disappear. All that’s required is simply to go and receive them.

Interview: Assemble Architects

This article was first published online by Protein on 28 Oct 2015

The concrete no-man’s land that divides East London and the Olympic Village is not an attractive, fashionable, or even very accessible place for an architecture and design studio. But that makes it all the more fitting for the headquarters of Assemble, a young collective who have built their reputation on finding witty and resourceful answers to imperfect situations, often in landscapes just like this.

With their open, collaborative, project-by-project approach, Assemble have turned a lack of experience into their greatest asset, and given people a new degree of involvement in designing the spaces they will use. And now they are not only securing major commissions such as a new gallery for Goldsmiths University, but have also achieved suitably unusual recognition with a nomination for Britain’s top contemporary art award, the Turner Prize.

Assemble is composed of fourteen individuals, all still in their twenties, and incorporates members from very different backgrounds. It first came together in 2010 around a group of disillusioned architectural assistants who wanted to get out and build something. That turned out to be the Cineroleum, a makeshift cinema in the shell of a disused petrol station on Clerkenwell Road.

Assemble’s Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung

Two of the founding members, Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung, explain how the collective was forged in this venture. “The project wasn’t an architecture project,” says Leung. “It was about running a bar, programming films and that kind of stuff.” In an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere, everyone merged into the fabric of the team.

Assemble’s early work continued with the theme of using inexpensive materials to conjure surprising designs in tricky urban spaces. Many were temporary, although beside their Stratford workspace they have a monument to this methodology in the form of the Yardhouse, a simple wooden-framed structure whose façade of mottled tiles has drawn the city’s selfie-brigade en masse to this unlikely grey landscape.

With their range of skills the team soon became dizzyingly versatile, and in the last five years have worked on performance venues, workshops and town squares, as well as more artistic projects such as the Brutalist Playground they installed at the Royal Institute of British Architects earlier this year.


Assemble has no hierarchy, but the chaos of joint decision-making is compensated for by emotional support and the quality of ideas. “It’s probably one thing that’s absent from most offices, the idea that everyone has an input,” says Edgerley. “It also means no one can fire anyone, because we’re all friends.”

Naturally, as the operation has grown, it has been a challenge for the group to maintain its spontaneous energy – especially as everyone has to make a living. “The thing that we’re trying to do now is find the way that we can all work in gainful employment in the same way that we started working together when we were doing it for fun,” explains Leung. “We don’t have loads of younger people to do all the work for us.”

Assemble’s answer to this problem is what it affectionately terms the ‘buddy system’, where each project is run by at least two members, but is opened-up to the rest of the group for ideas and criticisms at weekly ‘Pan-Assemble’ meetings. Each individual works on a freelance basis, keeping half the fee for the projects they do and putting the other half back into the collective, which pays for some members to do admin roles.


Assemble is so determined to keep its diverse structure because this has given it its edge, especially as it has moved into public-realm projects where understanding the needs of communities is essential. Non-architect members of the team undertake months-long consultations, working with local activist groups to get the public involved in testing ideas and even in construction.

“If you have people enthusiastic and involved from the beginning, and taking some ownership of it, then it means that they’re going to be happy with it,” points out Edgerley. And happy they are, not least in Toxteth, Liverpool, where Assemble’s work with the residents of Granby Four Streets housing estate brought their unexpected Turner Prize shortlisting.

The Toxteth project illustrates how far beyond the cosmetic Assemble are willing to go. They are, for instance, in the process of setting up a business manufacturing household goods, so embedding a legacy of craft and ensuring residents receive material benefits from the Turner nomination. “We’re just one part of the project,” says Edgerley. “Even though it’s an incredibly desolate area, the community spirit there is really amazing.”

This ability to nurture a sense of self-determination in communities is the key to Assemble’s success. They are not reluctant to concede power over the design process – that is their strategy. “It’s about asking for help as well,” says Leung. “In most projects it seems like the architect or designer is not in the best position to work out what all the answers are.”

Mário Macilau’s Portrait of Maputo

This article was first published online by Wallpaper* on 1st Mar 2016

‘As a child builds with his or her own hands a toy to play with, that was photography for me.’ This is the rather poetic answer of Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau when asked how his practice began. It’s quite a story: Macilau started out with a borrowed camera when he was 14, photographing rural Mozambicans bringing goods to the capital Maputo, where he worked at a market. He developed the images at home in an improvised dark room, and later traded his mother’s mobile phone for a Nikon FM2.

Since then Macilau has won numerous awards, and his work is going to the VOLTA art fair, New York, at the start of March. But inspiring as it is to see an artist rise from obscure poverty, this is not the way Macilau would have you look at his photography. His mission is to cast light on some of the most invisible people and places in Maputo and beyond, giving these ‘isolated groups a way to retrieve their own voice and hidden identity’.

Mário Macilau, 'Ninja.' Copyright the artist, courtesy Ed Cross fine art.
Mário Macilau, ‘Ninja.’ Copyright the artist, courtesy Ed Cross fine art.


Macilau does this with photographs that, although undoubtedly bleak, smoulder with personal intimacy and memory. His subjects are starkly framed in a way that seems to drag the viewer into their subterranean lives. Likewise, Macilau says his black and white aesthetic is about ‘the experience of composition, light, shadow, and texture.’ You feel present in a way that is more visceral than voyeuristic.

These techniques allow Macilau to emphasise shared humanity. ‘I like close-ups because they break the borders between people and confirm trust,’ he says. The bold faces and limbs in his photographs project a certain confidence, implying control over their chaotic backgrounds. Macilau’s subjects may be neglected, but for that reason they are all the more masters of their own fate.

Mário Macilau is part of a new generation of African photographers, including the Ghanaian Nii Obodai and Ethiopian Michael Tsegaye, who are using art to reclaim this dynamic continent from the pity of the Western lens. ‘It’s still hard to change the way people see Africa,’ Macilau says, ‘because some people don’t want to see the reality. But I am changing it.’

Escaping Fiction

This text was written for a screening of Camille Summers-Valli’s film, Big Mountain, Diné Bikéyah, on 4 Jun 2015 

If the basis of documentary is to give a sense of reality, then moving film must be the best medium. Yes, we know the camera can be very good at lying, and that the questions of when and what to film, and how it is edited, lead to highly subjective answers. But nonetheless, filming is a mechanised recording process, and watching film remains the best representation of what it’s actually like in the world captured by the camera.

The problem for documentary film is that from birth it has shared the screen with the most overbearing and manipulative of partners: fictional narrative. As we know, people love stories. So much so that, for most, the immediate connotations of the word ‘film’ have nothing to do with reality. They are of beginnings and endings, twists in the plotline, suspense, characterisation, dénouement, tragedy and redemption.

We are, on so many levels, wired for stories. Stories arrange events to pluck meaning from utter chaos. We compose them every day. Memory is a storytelling device that crafts a cascade of incidental moments into the personal narrative that is identity. Collectively, too: religion, ideology, morality and ambition are all narrative frameworks within which we live, stories that give meaning to the enigma of existence.

In film, narrative reduces our need for sense and meaning to a mechanical process. Narrative takes us for a ride. It sets about constructing a puzzle: there is a progression of scenes, development of characters, the convergence of unrelated events and, somewhere in the basement of our minds, a series of clicks as things fall into place.

Given how addictive this can be, it’s unsurprising that documentary film has often taken refuge in the notion of the ‘true story’ – after all, we like those most of all. But a true story is not the same as truth or reality – nowhere near it. It is a composition and, despite our proficiency with stories, we can feel that, because it excludes so much of the background noise that we know reality contains. Furthermore, narrative conventions tend to universalise their subject matter. When the mind finds a narrative path that it recognises, the particulars become almost incidental. The story is a dream which makes its contents vivid and memorable, only to strip them of their reality.

Even if the audience can be kept out of this stream that it so longs to drift down, there is the issue of the medium itself – film, and the screen – which over time has become contaminated by the aura of fiction. It exists inside what WH Auden called ‘the magic circle’ – a parallel world that is deeply engrossing but, to our relief, makes no demands of us. When the credits roll, we collect our coats and go home. When we watch something classed as documentary, we are aware that it is supposedly ‘real life,’ and yet mentally it tends to end up right alongside fiction in a much bigger box marked ‘media.’

The challenges for documentary film are many, especially if – as is the case with Camille Summers-Valli’s film, Big Mountain, Diné Bikéyah ­– the reality portrayed is so different to our own. The stories to which we cleave emerge over centuries from the depths of our culture. In part, the suffering inflicted on the people of this remote corner of Northern Arizona stems from a failure to understand the fundamentally different narratives which give meaning to their existence. For the various authorities who have hounded them for generations, they have been an anomaly, a digression from the greater American story, and a minor obstacle in various tales of individual advancement.

To package these circumstances for easy consumption in our own narrative terms would be to repeat this disastrous misunderstanding and, what is worse, reduce it to a state of pseudo-fictional entertainment. The answer of Big Mountain, Diné Bikéyah is to kick us out of our passive state by representing the lived human experience in all its unresolved chaos. This offers us, momentarily, an escape from fiction, and the rest is up to us.