Well I’ve had a very busy past week but I’ve not had access to the internet, will start recounting my experiences during that time over the coming days. But for now back to the beginning!
It’s a hot Tuesday morning in Colombo today so I felt it would be a good time to sit in a shady room and let you know what I’ve been up to. Yesterday I travelled up to the capital city of Sri Lanka from Hikkaduwa to give a lecture on my art practice to the Students at the University Of Kelaniya Institute Of Aesthetic Studies. My talk concentrated on the development of my art work in the past few years, focusing on how certain themes and subjects that I researched and developed into outcomes during the final year of my degree have continued to impact on the work I have developed since.
I always find that artist talks are a great way to focus your attention, make you more critically attuned to your work –especially when it comes to stating the intentions of your art and raising the question of whether that is actually happening – along with the opportunity to consider any connections in the work you have made in a recent period of time. Setting up a previous talk made me aware of certain trends that are apparent in the outcomes I have produced since 2010 and my lecture at the University of Kelaniya expanded upon this.
For the past few years my interests lay in exploring and presenting notions of time and memory and how they are perceived and experienced. Wanting to create work that best communicated these concepts in the most accessible ways, I became aware that film/video media and ephemeral materials were best suited as mechanisms of presenting art that dealt with time and memory, and could also influence those issues raised. When researching other artists who exhibit work that deal with these themes I kept finding art historians using an early 20th century phenomenological metaphysical notion of time as a way into and interpreting particular work, including those of Doug Aitken, Tacita Dean, Jeremy Blake and Andy Warhol. The notion was ‘Duration’ by the Frenchman Henri Bergson. This concept of time defined a different temporal experience, ‘lived time’; a one directional flow where past present and future merge together in different sequential rhythms. These rhythms were not controlled by space and could not be quantified –something he worried was happening as science began to delve ever deeper into the inner workings of the human body and mind– but was a virtual and qualitative multiplicity of heterogeneous differences in kind, not associated with number and could only be lived in the very specific moment of its unfolding. He’d go on to develop an all encompassing universal ontology of duration known as the élan vital and this would become an incredibly influential philosophy in western thought (so much so it has been stated his arrival in New York caused the first automobile traffic jam on Broadway and he would have heated debates with Einstein) (1) at the turn of the 20th century. But as quickly as it gained influence his theories would just as quickly recede and disappear until Giles Delueze would implement it within his own philosophies later in that century.
Delueze recognised the close affinity Bergson’s notion of duration had with cinema, affirming that film images could in fact produce a representation of duration. These capabilities gave cinema the power to transform philosophy and would be of great importance to Deleuze who demanded a new way of thinking from these possibilities. He would elaborate this idea in his book Cinema 2 by offering the concept of the ‘direct time-image’ (2) where the editing of irrational cuts would form a complex flow of time, crystallizing duration and enabling opportunities to rethink concepts and confront the dynamism of life. The ‘direct time image’ would only be viewable in a select few post-war cinema films including ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961) which slowly reveals the story of two characters caught up in an affair through dislocated sequences and irrational cuts from different locations and times, causing the past to interrupt, distort and transform the present, altering the future and causing a confused narrative where memory toys with the ‘now’.
This acknowledgement and use of duration opened the option for cinema to be philosophical and philosophy cinematic. Artist films coincidentally started to gain traction during the period Delueze’s books on cinema where published and translated in the 1980’s. While artist didn’t necessarily produce work which exemplified and used duration or Deleuze’s application, it none the less would become an effective empowering tool to interrogate, interpret and reveal a way into these forms of work for audience and critics alike.
This would also act as an influential tool of understanding video art within my practice and would help in the development of outcomes during the final year of my degree, with the specific focus on creating non-linear video installations and considering the expectations audiences place upon moving image art when they come into contact with them in gallery environments.
Since my degree I have continued to be caught up in temporality, from films that focus on the difficulty and the relevance of predicting the future within futurology to print based photomontages that use time as a material to gradually distort and transform images of urban settings into residues of abstract forms and colour over a period of time. But it was during the process of developing a recent artist talk that I became acutely aware of a very particular trend or theme that runs through my practice; how the development of technology, particularly digital technology, has accelerated how we perceive the world around us and is altering our experience of time.
This idea of how technology has transformed our experience and understanding of the world is what has bought me to Sri Lanka. Tomorrow I leave Colombo for Kitulgala, a town in the central hills of the country, to start developing a project about the set location of the bridge in David Lean’s ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957). Cinema exists because of technological developments and the cinematic has a strong influence with how we process images of reality. When the actual location of the River Kwai in Thailand was deemed not practical for filming on and not dramatically epic enough in appearance, they ended up settling on a location on the Kelani River a short distance from the town of Kitulgala in Sri Lanka. This location had the cinematic quality of exotic remoteness the crew where wanting to project onto film and gave a techni-colour visually delight for the audiences eyes to experience. This element is part of a wider trick within films which is regularly used to create illusions of place, replacing the real for an idealised fabrication and is an aspect that intrigued me about this site. How have the history and the memories of this films existence and production in a setting with no previous connection with the actual site of the story itself and far away from the Hollywood hills continued to reverberate in the location of Kitulgala?
Another key area of interest was the bridge that was built at that site on the Kelani River. This bridge ended up having to be full scale, capable of holding an old steam train weighing several tonnes and was a grand undertaking, through harsh stormy weather. Once built and the necessary footage for the scenes were captured, it was finally used in a ‘classically cinematic’ ending for the film where the bridge is blown up as a train hurtles over it, crashing into the riverbed and leaving behind smouldering debris of shattered wooden and steaming metal. This was a one take moment which couldn’t go wrong or be reshot, with the whole finale of the film hanging on this explosive moment…
The building of this authentic bridge within a natural but untrue location and its destructive end creates a fascinating situation where fiction and non-fiction collide and create something new and unexpected. This recreation inadvertently became a real and actual object which sustains in the cultural memory of Sri Lanka. Reality has been altered by the fictitious and illusory qualities of cinema and continues to resonate over 50 years after Hollywood packed up and left.
Finally I see the bridge itself as a transient construct, designed and built for the purpose to be destroyed. A recurring theme within my practice. These are the areas I will explore during my time in Kitulgala.
Into the Jungle I go…
1. Guerlac, S. 2006. Thinking In Time an Introduction to Henri Bergson. Cornell University Press. Ithaca. London.
2. Delueze, G. 2005 (originally 1985). Cinema 2: The Time Image. Continuum. London.