“Write the first lines last”, says Lis Rhodes in a voiceover. “Ambiguous journeys have many beginnings”. In her films, which are socially diagnostic as much as they are aesthetically rich, Rhodes recognises one of the most important linguistic truths of our time. Hypocrisy is an echo, the same thing twice in two ways. You can hear a claim in its negation. Leaders repeat themselves with increased fervour to mask their hypocritical actions. In her various explorations of the violence of language, Rhodes remembers what was said first in order to rewrite and salvage at the last. If echo is the key to hypocrisy, it can also be used to turn meanings on their heads. If you echo the lines of the oppressors in the right context, with the right pitch and timbre, they can become the lines of dissent.
Over a blank, black screen, ‘Light Reading’ (1978) begins to roll and Rhodes’ voice speaks: “she will not be placed in darkness / she will be present in darkness only to be apparent / to appear without image / to be heard unseen”. It’s an appeal to poetry, in poetry. Rhodes adopts lines by Gertrude Stein to invoke the poetics of repetition and deconstruction, before showing us a silent reel of images which use violence and subtle suggestion to reconsider our received ideas of ‘subject’ and ‘object’.
For decades now, Rhodes has, in a sense, been ‘present in darkness’, her profound influence on contemporary art recognised quietly, without ceremony. Hollis Frampton, Harun Farocki, Christian Marclay, Tracey Emin, even David Lynch - it’s hard to think of a modern artist working in video without some cross-pollination with the language of cuts, flashes, spaces, and darknesses which Lis Rhodes has constructed in a career spanning a half-century. This exhibition (which, Rhodes tells me in person with some force, should not be considered a “retrospective”: this is ongoing work) brings her voice into the light.
The more abstract films are celluloid crises that often seem to have been shot somewhere inside your own central nervous system. ‘Dresden Dynamo’ (1971-2) and ‘Light Music’ (1975-76) perform acts of immersive synaesthesia, sound/sight/light becoming a single sensory amalgam with matching rhythms and vocalics.
Throughout her career, it seems, Rhodes has been crafting her own aesthetic language. And, when the moment calls, it can take action. Films like ‘Running Light’ (1996), ‘Journal of Disbelief’ (2000-16), and the ‘Hang on a Minute’ series (1983) take Rhodes’ fractured, harmonic visuals, the pulse of her poetry, and apply it to intersectional injustices - human trafficking, oppression of women and workers, corrupt legal systems, migrant communities the world over.
Nowhere is this enactment more powerfully done than in the film made especially for this exhibition, concerned with global inequality. The visual landscape of ‘Ambiguous Journeys’ (2019) is as riveting as it is unsettling, mostly abstracted monochrome stills. The compulsion is always towards motion, but this instinct is in tension with the stationary content of the images.
The frame warps, shifts, moves in rapid Ken Burns pans. On screen, fractal lines resolve themselves into lightning bolts, river channels, borderlines, silver edges of massy black clouds, palms of reaching hands.
“Underhand they slip the people / through the border promise breaks / in the falsehood of survival expectations thrown aside”, the voiceover says. The identities and narratives of oppressed people are similarly tense, warped, controlled by unseen and all-powerful mediators. The medium of the film re-enacts what it criticises, making viewers feel complicit. The revulsion compels you to act.
And the film itself begins to point the way against its own systems, echoing itself but changing the import. Rising in a voice of dissent. “In the last belonging moment / burning the final shards of fractured minutes / the voices rise”.
Lines, for Rhodes, must become dissident. Dissidence must apply itself with force to whichever network of lines controls and systemises human beings. Then maybe borders and narratives can be rewritten, redrawn, and salvaged. Dissidence is an echo. So shout back. Ambiguous journeys have many beginnings. Write the first lines last.