‘Borrowed Time’ is the title and theme of the current show at Jerwood Space, the result of Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella’s yearly commissioning prize. The winners, Alice May Williams and Karen Kramer, were each awarded a £20,000 prize for the production of new films which explore ideas surrounding the exhibition’s theme.
Removed of its ability to age gracefully, Williams’ film ‘Dream City – More, Better, Sooner’ takes Battersea Power Station as its focal point. It introduces the context of government cuts and their social consequences as exemplified by the Nine Elms development scheme, a £15 billion private redevelopment of the South Bank of the River Thames between Vauxhall and Battersea. Meditating on time, the film follows the history of this area from the growing of Battersea artichokes and the Nine Elms melon to the Thames watermen, industrial revolution and the power station, right up to today. “Here comes the old money, the certain type of cafes, the estate agents,” says the voice of the narrator robotically illustrating our present.
The subject matter and the linearity of history are powerfully paralleled here with the construction of filmic time in the edit. Events are reeled off at a frenetic speed as if being delivered by a machine that has begun to self-destruct. The film is a cut up of sorts, featuring archive footage from Pathé to 3D animation of the proposed plans for the power station and a collection of sequences purposely shot on HD video and camera phone. Both the images and the narrator adopt the position of a sentient body able to move temporally. This body is the city – an organism in its own right and an emotionally receptive force. It is experienced yet challenged, attacked yet unable to die. The work seems to long for a graceful death, to sink back into the mud of the river with the memory of what might have been – all in the shape of Battersea Dream City’s “illuminated tower of electric light”.
Karen Kramer’s work ‘The Eye That Articulates Belongs On Land’ is an anthropocentric study set in Japan, using a Japanese voice-over and a haunting figure to explore a landscape of utter desolation. This protagonist is the character of Sasaki whose very presence feels like rumination, experienced as if in hindsight and packed full of echoes and regrets. The content focuses on a battle between nature and the man made, set in an un-named place exhibiting signs of deep trauma. It bares more than a passing similarity to Fukushima. Slow pans and long shots exhibit human detritus but this is not just waste – this is what was left behind post-apocalypse.
Throughout the work there is the sense of nature’s return, creeping back in through the cracks in the rubble. Yet underneath remains the spectre of death. It is felt in the silence. Even when we see life in the form of a young fox it seems to creep in, feeding on the destruction. In a few shots’ time we see a fox again but this one is dead, slumped on a pile of fishing nets. “What of the salmon breeding” the narrator asks? What indeed – this is a place where nothing survives. There is a surreal sequence in the film wherein a line of men stand fishing. This is the only time we see any evidence of human inhabitants. Next to them on the beach lie the bodies of dead fish. Poisoned by the sea they are eaten by birds, the scavenger again entering into this scene of destruction. More death arrives in the image of a mummified animal, possibly another fox, which spins around on the screen with its chest altering as if some unearthly being has possessed it. A dialogue occurs in which the voice of our main character describes feelings of extreme thirst – the nuclear tragedy has occurred. A conversation follows between narrator and fox, as if a deal was done with the devil and this is his retribution. It was us who weren’t prepared for how much he would take in return.
The theme of the exhibition manifests itself in dark realities in the works of these two artists. Strong, unrelenting and unforgiving narratives demand attention and require action from us in our usual role of passive viewer. We sit with a strange feeling of powerlessness, now impassioned by the tone of these works. If this is our shared reality then we are indeed running on borrowed time.