Is Film Art?

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‘Is Film Art?’ in ‘Free Radicals: Cinema on the Wrong Side of the Tracks’

It’s a big day in the office with today’s opening of our latest suite of exhibitions. For me, this means celebrating three exhibitions: Pretty Good for the 21st Century, Free Radicals: Cinema on the Wrong Side of the Tracks and Glitch Envy: Experimental Films by Jodie Mack.

The Free Radicals exhibition is the larger exhibition here and features works by Rodney Charters, Bruce Conner, Steve Cossman, Oskar Fischinger, Richard Lomas, Len Lye, Jodie Mack, and the Parasitic Fantasy Band (Eve Gordon/Sam Hamilton). The title of the show is obviously via Len Lye, but the subtitle was taken from Pip Chodorov in his similarly titled documentary Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film, speaking of ‘cinema on the wrong side of the tracks’. Throughout the exhibition, we’re screening Chodorov’s film alongside the exhibition as well as Brecht Debackere’s EXPRMNTL documentary which explores the EXPRMNTL film festival held in Belgium between the 1940s and 1970s. It was here that Lye’s 1958 film Free Radicals won a prestigious 2nd place. Lye’s 1959 essay ‘Is Film Art?’ lamented the neglect of experimental cinema in the United States and declared he would no longer make experimental films.

Films of Jodie Mack

I’ve just wrapped up a new programme for the Len Lye Centre’s cinema, our next Projection Series. This is the first dedicated to a single artist (other than the regular Len Lye programmes we do) and celebrates the tenth in the series. Projection Series 10 is titled Glitch Envy: Experimental Films by Jodie Mack.

We’re running this programme every Saturday (1pm) from 12 May through 21 July alongside our larger exhibition concerning experimental cinema, Free Radicals: Cinema on the Wrong Side of the Tracks (Mack’s work features in the exhibition too).

You can view the brochure for this programme here. It includes a new essay on Mack’s work by film scholar Jennifer Stob from Texas State University.

Here are a couple of old but good interviews with Mack, by Stob and Daniel Kasman.

 

Len Lye at ‘Toi Art’, Te Papa

I was fortunate this week to have some time travelling in the South Island (including a rare visit to Dunedin to launch Tao Wells’ new publication EASIER).  Having a few hours free between connecting flights in Wellington I was able to get my first look at Te Papa’s new Toi Art exhibitions.

My professional interest in the new exhibitions comes with the inclusion of Len Lye, represented by four of his experimental films, one of which Kaleidoscope (1935) lends the title of one of the key permanent exhibitions, Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa.

 

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Len Lye’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ in ‘Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa’, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

 

Te Papa has a great painting by Lye in their collection (one of the best), however, most know Lye through his kinetic sculpture and experimental cinema so these films give Lye a fairly prominent place in the new Te Papa project. One of the great aspects of Te Papa’s display of Lye’s work here is what they have included with Tusalava (1929).

Lye’s first film, Tusalava generally screens without a soundtrack. The premiere screening at the London Film Society in December 1929 included a live, two-piano accompaniment composed by the Australian Jack Ellitt. The score was torn up by the temperamental Ellitt and, since it was never recorded, the film has remained silent except for an occasional use of Eugene Goossens’ Rhythmic dance for two pianos, op. 30 (said by Lye to be similar to Ellitt’s original piece). What this means is that Tusalava is often treated to new soundtracks by contemporary composers, such as Alcyona Mick and Harry Harrison. Te Papa is exhibiting Tusalava in its silent form along with three optional alternative soundtracks produced by Matatumua Opeloge Ah SamPoulima Salima and Matthew Faiumu Salapu (aka Anonymouz).

These three soundtracks were composed in 2013 as part of the exhibition Len Lye: Agiagiā produced by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Mangere Art Centre (curated by James Pinker and myself). Roger Horrocks reviewed the exhibition in Art NZ #149 (From the Fringe to the Centre: Len Lye at Mangere Arts Centre) and Ema Tavola commented with disdain here. You can buy a copy of the catalogue here.

The new soundtracks featured as part of a public programme where three local (South Auckland) contemporary composers were invited to produce alternative soundtracks to the film, adding a new element to the Pacific character of Tusalava. Kelly Carmichael reviewed this event, noting

‘As public programmes go, New Compositions: Three Composers Respond to Tusalava was one of the most ambitious and successful examples of how cultural organisations can operate in an expanded field of practice.’

The soundtrack project within Len Lye: Agiagiā was driven by James Pinker. He and the three composers should be congratulated that the project lives on beyond a single public programme and now sits inside our national museum at a moment of celebration.

Te Papa has also included a further soundtrack option with Tusalava, an audio description for the visually impaired. This came about from an initiative at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery as part of our Len Lye programme and lead by Sarah Dalle Nogare. Tusalava was selected for a pilot project to see how audio descriptions for the visually impaired would work on pieces of experimental cinema. It seemed the narrative structure of the film would make this the most productive example to work with. Working with our partners at Ngā Taonga: Sound and Vision and Able we produced the descriptive soundtrack and then ran an audience workshop in New Plymouth to get feedback. The exhibition On an Island was the first opportunity to present Tusalava with this new audio and it seemed to integrate well into the exhibition. Hopefully, at Te Papa, many more visitors will make the most of this particular soundtrack. Meanwhile, we’ll be working on audio descriptions for further and the more challenging of Lye’s abstract films.

Weekend Reading

Just back from Melbourne after a quick two-day trip to attend the opening of Antipodean Emanations: Cameraless Photography from Australia and New Zealand at Monash Gallery of Art. Curated by the MGA, the exhibition takes over from the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery’s 2016 exhibition Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph (curated by Geoffrey Batchen) and considers cameraless photography from this part of the world in more detail.

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ANTIPODEAN EMANATIONS, Monash Gallery of Art

You can see from the image above that Len Lye is a strong feature, as he did with the earlier Emanations (serving as the starting point for the whole project). The MGA’s exhibition casts a wider net for artists working with cameraless photography from Australia and New Zealand, including many not seen in the earlier exhibition and many others represented by different or more examples of their work. A few examples can be seen here. I’ll write in more detail on this in a separate post. I’d expect a fair few reviews of the exhibition to turn up in coming months. Here’s the first, from Anna Dunnill at Art Guide Australia.

The publication by Geoffrey Batchen, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph continues to accompany the exhibition is its present form. A recent review has been published by CAA from Australian reviewer Natalya Hughes.

While I was in Melbourne I was able to make the last days of Runes at the Centre for Contemporary Photography. Curated by Justine Varga and Geoffrey Batchen, this was great to see alongside Emanations at the MGA as it included a few works from the Brewster’s earlier Emanations. Irrespective of that connection, this small exhibition was a fascinating group of photographs and the notion of readability.

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RUNES, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne.

I also had a little time to see the NGV Triennial which recently received a miserable review from the Australian, similar in tone to recent articles in the UK from Tiffany Jenkins. A more positive review is here from the Guardian.

 

 

Weekend Reading

Over the last year it has become clear that nothing sends a shiver down the spine of museum colleagues as consistently as a new peice from British journalist Tiffany Jenkins. Here’s this week’s piece in the Guardian – on crowds in museums. And here an earlier and releated piece from the Financial Times more blunt in reccommending entry fees as a way to keep the decorum in and the hordes out. It’s all far from the ugliest of Jenkins’ work (but still snobbishly calls school tours of galleries ‘desperate’). For that, work your way back from this response by Andrew Paul Wood in Eyecontact and this by Kathy Bowrey.

A while back I posted a link to Len Lye’s 1937 film N. or NW. This week MUBI published a great piece from Cristina Álvarez López on the same work.

The New York Review of Books and Simon Callow on Paul Robeson.

Two reviews of the new book appeared over the Christmas and New Year period from John Hurrell at EyeContact and Sally Blundell in the Listener.

Nasty & Shabby

Idle hands make for the devil’s play. Something like that lead my curiosity get the better of me this Saturday as I put aside my qualms about a near $40 entry fee and went to see the Art of Banksy exhibition at Auckland’s Aotea Centre. There’s a fair bit of hype around this $40m worth of Banksy touring to New Zealand and particular of attention drawn to the curator of the exhibition and former business partner, Steve Lazarides, not being on good terms with the artist.

The Mayor of Auckland praised the exhibition as a ‘huge win’ for the city yet Don Rowe at the Spinoff said pretty much all that can be said of this exhibition. It’s a pitiful experience, all the more remarkable for its size and the number of ‘hits’ included within and no exaggeration to say the inevitable gift shop climax to the exhibition was delivered with more care. I’ve never seen such a shabbily produced exhibition and the entry fee of $37.50 renders the whole effort shameful. It’s a remarkable thing for Auckland to be proud of given the stresses currently affecting its much more capable exhibition makers.

Len Lye’s Jazz

Today is the last day in the office this year (all things going to plan). Last week we opened our summer Len Lye exhibition, Big Bang Theory. This one’s quite special as Lye’s ‘myth’ paintings from the late 1970s are shown together for the first time in nearly 40 years. It’s been quite a while since  Andrew Bogle at Auckland Art Gallery curated Len Lye: A Personal Mythology, introducing this important series of works. More info on this exhibition is here and in 2018 following the exhibition we will be launching a new book concerning these works.

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‘Big Bang Theory’ at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, 2017-2018. Photo: Bryan James

Another project seeing us through the summer holidays is the ninth in our Projection Series Programme. This is our (roughly) quarterly film programme concerned with short format cinema, based around the experimental films of Lye and his peers as well as that of contemporary filmmakers. Each Projection Series is accompanied with a brochure and short essay and we’ve just made all of these available digitally on the Gallery’s website. Grab them at the following links for some holiday reading:

Projection Series #8: The Long Dream of Waking
Projection Series #7: First as fiction, then as myth
Projection Series #6: A Little Faith
Projection Series #5: Once more – but different
Projection Series #4: Man Without a Camera
Projection Series #3: Syncopated Cinema
Projection Series #2: Six Artists Respond to the Poetry of Joanna Margaret Paul
Projection Series #1: Len Lye’s Colour Box

The programmes above featured: Jordan Belson, Luis Buñuel, Katherine Berger, Jordana Bragg, Mary Ellen Bute, Steve Carr, Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Oscar Enberg, Oskar Fischinger, Rico Gatson, Christoph Girardet, Ane Hjort Guttu, Nate Harrison, Murray Hewitt, Karin Hofko, Ian Hugo, William E. Jones, Daisuke Kosugi, Kutiman, Sonya Lacey, Len Lye, Evelyn Lambart, Norman McLaren, Tracey Moffatt, Ursula Mayer, Matthias Müller, Peter Roehr, Nova Paul, Miranda Parkes, Martin Rumsby, Rachel Shearer, Barry Spinello, Martine Syms, Shannon Te Ao, Popular Productions and Peter Wareing.

Curators included Marc Glöde, Sophie O’Brien, Tendai John Mutumbu, Solomon Nagler, Frank Stark, Sarah Wall, Mark Williams and myself.

Projection Series #9: Len Lye’s Jazz begins screening daily on 30 December 2017. This programme is a quick survey of Lye’s association with jazz through his filmmaking. I invited Dr. Nicolas Pillai to write the essay accompanying this one which you can grab at the previous link. Pillai is the author of the recent book Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image.

One of the films featured in Projection Series #9 is Lye’s N. or N.W. (1938), produced for the G.P.O. Film Unit and presented here by the British Film Institute. Although not Lye’s typical abstract animation, N. or N.W. includes a very Lye-esque soundtrack featuring pieces by Fats Waller and Benny Goodman.