Sunday 5 September 2010

On Runa Islam @ MCA

There's something comforting throughout the MCA's small but stunning Runa Islam retrospective, the analogue flicker of 16mm film, the gentle hum of spindle and the clatter of sprockets creates a welcoming soundtrack. The retro technology has a qualitative effect on all of the film pieces on show, there's a warmth and an intimacy in the medium that reflects much of the subject matter. The first couple of works one comes across borrow heavily from the past. One might be an Andy Warhol screentest, another takes the cold light of Fassbinder and the slow deliberate pans of Antonioni, together this seems like a visit to the past. However as you watch and spend time in and with these works you feel something very different. The icy nihilism of Warhol is nowhere to be found nor is the dispassionate dialectic of the modernist filmmakers, this work feels much more tangible and sympathetic but no less intellectually rigorous. In fact 'Assault', Islam's version of the Warhol 'Screen Tests' breaks down the cold modernist stare by involving and implicating the viewer. Here a young androgyne man is filmed having light shone through coloured gels directly into his eyes. To see the piece properly we have to stand in front of the translucent screen it's projected on, this when the light is at its strongest and the subject squints so does the viewer. It's tricksy and not entirely successful but it shows something that makes Islam interesting, she privileges the senses over the intellectual. This makes her far more affecting than any number media theorists and it gives the work depth and intrigue.

The most ambitious work here 'Scale 1/16 inch = 1 foot' hints at narrative as it focusses on reality and representation. In it a concrete multi-storey car park sits above a non-descript town like a spaceship landed. The film explores the car park and issues arising. The mildewed concrete of a Sixties municipal edifice are contrasted with the brilliant orange of chairs in a restaurant, and immediately a space is created between the idea of town planner's utopia and urban decay. The camera takes on a dispassionate and clinical role as it surveys the building, it is geometrically gorgeous but sits oddly amongst Victorian terraces and whilst this isn't a rant against brutalist architecture it is nonetheless unsettling. The name of the film can be pinned down to format and subject, Two interlinked reels are projected, on on to a small screen hanging in front of a much larger one. At times the images interact, most obviously when one screen has the camera moving around the exterior of the car-park and on the other the same movement is played out on an architect's scale model. The whole film gives a sense of dislocation, between people and their environment, between intention and result and between aesthetics and lived reality. It rewards viewing and is much more satisfying than its tricksy conceit might suggest.

'The House Belongs To Those Who Inhabit It' simply explores a derelict warehouse. A projection onto a suspended screen hangs in front of a dark wall but also seems to cut through it. A camera with a narrow field of vision, giving no sense of anything peripheral simply scans its surroundings, up and down and panning along. The movement and the blinkered field is unsettling, the whole picture refuses to reveal itself and as the camera moves around it takes on an urgent personality. we can imagine our surroundings but we will only believe our eyes. The screen becomes our aperture into another world from which we have been separated and in doing so it makes us much more conscious and appreciative of its details. In fact this is a familiar theme across the works here, Islam is concerned with the particularity of the senses, of their capacity to comfort or confuse us.

The heightened sensory property of film is again explored in 'Be the first to see what you see as you see it'. It looks like Fassbinder but feels like Hitchcock. In its almost narrative a girl in a china showroom lifts, rocks and spins pieces of porcelain. Watching her as coffee pots wobble is like waiting for a bomb to explode in a thriller. Islam doesn't just rely on the implicit fragility of china as symbol but layers on a brittle naturalistic soundtrack and has the protagonist touch the fragile crockery in extreme close up. What Islam manages to do is contrast experience with imagination, the whole film is a tease, we expect something to smash soon but it is always simply concentrating on the physicality of the object. The effect is at once hypnotic and thought provoking.

Runa Islam is a film buff's delight. She takes on Tarkovsky's 'Stalker', almost everything by Antonioni and the saturated directness of Fassbinder. This magpie borrowing makes it easy to see the works here as small essays on film history and the properties of a medium. It seems to me this is a lazy and narrow reading of what she does as despite these elements the films are far more emotional and visceral than conceptual. What Islam does is use the properties of film, when stripped of the demands of narrative, to explore how we experience our surroundings whether mediated by film or not. This makes the films curious and ruminative, they challenge us through our senses rather than through contrived visual oxymorons. The fact that these films have such a physical presence and effect is testimony that this is much more than 'art as lecture'. Runa Islam is asking us to consider how we see the world rather than how we see film, that's a far more righteous challenge.

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