This is the third year of Jerwood Staging Series, a curatorial project that creates events of work that includes film, installation, performance, and discussion. This year’s four artists are diverse in their interests and work: Onyeka Igwe, a London artist and filmmaker absorbed in the archive, place, and the body; Essex-based Rebecca Moss, whose work plays with slapstick and absurdism; multi-disciplinary artist and sculptor AJ Stockwell; and Birmingham-based curator and researcher Seán Elder. Below are reviews of two of the Series’ events, those by Onyeka Igwe and Rebecca Moss.
Onyeka Igwe’s installation at Jerwood Space, ‘There Were Two Brothers’, continues her work on archive, place and the physical body. At its centre is her film, ‘the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered’, which Igwe described as being ‘of together three interconnected narratives’: her grandfather’s; ‘the land’; and ‘an encounter’ with Nigeria. Forms and narratives are layered to create a manifold negotiation: of archive and assemblage; of visual styles and forms; of narratives personal, fictive, and colonial. Archival footage of Nigeria passes to contemporary footage of Igwe in the physical archive. British colonial photography gives way to the artist and her collaborator in dance, their hands gathering and discarding the space around them. Wide architectural shots of hallways and staircases open onto further archive footage, which speaks of history, and folklore, and which in turn distil into close-ups of eggs, viscera, chickens in the dust. Around and within the weft of the visuals runs Igwe’s voiceover, as narrator, interlocutor, subject, observer.
All of which is very conscious and interested in construction. For instance: the film begins with a close-up of a slide projector. It is throwing archive stills on to a black wall and our perspective moves from the projector itself - image of conscious construction - to the images it portrays. These photos are shown a few times within distinct cycles, each of which engages rapidly and unnervingly with a totalising colonial eye, as it observes Nigeria, and with various subject ‘I’s. A group of women glower into the camera, shoulder to shoulder and full of fury; the screen flashes up the text, ‘types of igbo beauty’ in capitals; a young woman grins down the lens, eyes confident and warm; the glowering women return.
Later, the image of a projector recurs, this time playing a film reel. We see Igwe searching for the reel in a physical archive in Nigeria, on her own trip into familial and artistic history. After she finds it, she holds her hands up to the camera, palms streaked with dust. When the tape is played, we see nothing of the film. Instead we’re shown close-ups of the projector and unspooling tape, as Igwe’s voiceover describes the scenes being displayed. There are multiple films at play here, and each shown to exist in many places at once: as physical reel; as artefact; situated in the place of the archive; in memory; in narrative contrivance. It’s a sequence that binds mechanism and artistry: the mechanisms of film; the artistry of reconstructing and interpreting an archive; the role of personal perspective in realising a narrative.
By the end of the film, the ‘three interconnected narratives’ have split, multiplied, and been interwoven beyond separation. One of these strands is the folk tale of three brothers, characters that twine with and give further vocabulary for the story of the artist’s family. At the film’s close, the three brothers, whose paths have detached and joined repeatedly throughout, are reunited in ‘The Place Where’. It is a final gathering for the many elements of the film: a false finality, a place of continual possibility, continual reading; a living archive.
At one point in Rebecca Moss’ ‘A Panel Discussion’, two women - curator Anna Smolak and artist and academic Dr Chantal Faust - each positioned behind painted cutout boards, leaned through their respective face-holes, trying to pass a piece of paper from one to the other. The paper had a quote by Margaret Atwood on it that Smolak wanted to reread, so Faust stretched a limb through the hole where the face of a World’s Strongest Man should be, towards Smolak. Smolak reached her own hand out of the empty face of a clown - and the audience laughed, tense, as their fingers almost touched. The moment held, the hands still reaching out of the face-holes and the laughter grew. Then they retreated, passing the paper to each other behind the cutout boards and - most bizarrely - we all returned to quietly listening to a panel of women discuss the feminist potential of absurdism.
Part seminar, part performance piece, ‘A Panel Discussion’ brought six artists and curators together to consider the feminist possibilities of slapstick and absurdist comedy: Elise Atangana, Roshanak Khakban, Anna Smolak, Dr Ruidi Mu, chair Dr Faust and Rebecca Moss, whose work was screened at the event. From behind face hole boards - a country & western couple, the World’s Strongest Men, a pair of clowns - the panel explored the radical feminist catharsis of a collective joke, and the pleasure and pain of slapstick violence. They spoke about ‘the joyful moment between women’ that a face hole board can elicit and the vulnerability of having your face framed but your back exposed. The conversation absorbed and revelled in the awkwardness of panel discussion format: silences, sore backs, difficulty hearing the speakers (there was a giant moustache involved) all spoke to the absurdist framing.
The problem was that the framing concealed a multitude (pun ... etc.). It gave, for instance, a kind of license for wide-ranging discussion, with ideas being raised then falling away. Take Dr Faust’s comment, that ‘when everything is a joke, maybe to be truly absurd we have to be really serious’, which would have been great to follow up, given the gallery context and the oddity of the situation. More importantly, we got very little sense of the speakers and none but Faust spoke for more than a few minutes in total. Having the speakers present, but hardly participant, was frankly a little uncomfortable and - sure - absurd. And while that contributed to the interesting framing, it would have been more valuable to hear about the various panellists particular practices.The panel itself ended up straddling the two sides of Faust’s comment: neither truly absurd nor truly serious; neither fully engaged with the performance, nor with the academic conversation. Was that to greater effect? Did it engage the central conceit in a particular way? If you can’t explain why someone falling over is funny, can you explain why it’s not?