Lis Rhodes, Dissonance and Disturbance, review by Amy Budd
Moving image representations of female sexuality, identity and subjectivity, particularly from a feminist perspective, seem to be experiencing a critical renaissance in contemporary art. Following the archive exhibition Reproductive Labour at The Showroom last year, the work of small-scale but significant women’s film and video distribution agency Cinenova is increasingly emerging at the forefront of this debate, and in turn encouraging the work of women artists associated with these early cooperatives to be singled out for revision. One such artist is the London-based filmmaker Lis Rhodes, whose continual experimentation with film as a vehicle for female expression and political resistance is evidenced across her current survey show Disturbance and Dissonance at the ICA.
Occupying the upper floor galleries of the ICA, the exhibition features a selection of films made by Rhodes over the last thirty years, from 16mm projections to her most recent recordings of the London protests, radically reconfigured here alongside works from the 1980’s. In the first gallery two of Rhodes’ earlier works are screened in sequence. Prefigured by a series of graphic notations of the 16mm film ascending the staircase to the exhibition, Dresden Dynamo (1972) recalls Rhodes innovative investigations into optical printing, in which contrasting geometric forms rapidly shape-shift across the screen, morphing and oscillating from circles to stripes in infinite illusory sequences. Her mind-bending imagery is the product of a simple experiment, whereby a blank 16mm film soundtrack is used as a base material for producing basic geometric, aural and chromatic patterns. The resulting sound is the image and vice versa; an aural translation of printed matter, where colour and shape distort one another against a background of atonal white noise.
As the only example of Rhodes’ early experiments in optical sound art, Dresden Dynamo is unique here. In contrast, Rhodes’ subsequent politicised or feminist film-works are predominantly reliant upon the inclusion of spoken narrative soundtracks. In Light Reading (1978), the second film of this sequence, the self-conscious dialogue of a female speaker, later recognised as the voice of the artist, adds complexity to oblique sequences of montage imagery on screen. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness, Rhodes’ narrative is accompanied by an ambiguous visual lexicon, comprising a mixture of scrambled Letraset letters followed by instruments revealing the handcrafted means of manufacture - film strips, perspex rulers, scissors and tape measures - interspersed with black and white footage, photographs and surrealist motifs. Repetition is employed as a device to scrutinise the visual vocabulary of the film. A photograph depicting bloodied bed sheets on an unmade bed zooms in and out repeatedly, a gesture similarly echoed in the cyclical nature and rhythm of the dialogue. Snippets of speech from the narrative seem to hint towards the potential meaning of this tableau vivant. From ‘her image had her thoughts framed’, to ‘she looked at the sounding of the image’, finishing with the paradigmatic feminist statement ‘she was both subject and object’. The shadowy persona of ‘she’ haunts Light Reading, suggesting the female figure as the latent subject of the film; one who can be constructed in language without ever being truly represented.
The trope of the female narrator appears throughout the following films, and is, for example, exhibited reinterpreted as operetta style singing in Hang On A Minute (1983-85), another sequence of short videos playing on a monitor between both galleries. Dating from an era when experimental film was broadcast on prime time television, these strange, bite-size videos read as topical interventions into mainstream broadcasting. From the reclamation of land at Greenham Common in Goose and the Common, to unregulated mining in Namibia in No. 8 Bus, Hang On A Minute (1983-85) seemingly sets the tone of resistance that characterises much of Rhodes’ later work, which touches on political oppression in an offhand yet critical manner.
The last three films sees Rhodes adopt an alternative strategy for display, merging together A Cold Draft (1988), In The Kettle (2010) and Whitehall (2012) within a double screen projection to produce the most compelling installtion in the exhibition. Positioning animated watercolour landscapes and photographs of urban communities on the left screen with footage of London riot police, conflicts in Gaza, and kettled protestors on the right, Rhodes’ latest conjunction of films collapses distinctions between global and local acts of resistance, and the political authorities that condition and contain them. The female narrative from A Cold Draft (1988) provides the ‘shared soundtrack’ to the installation, with Rhodes taking the American poet Emily Dickinson as a creative point of departure. In her original poem I Took One Draught Of Life (1725) Dickinson writes, ‘I’ll tell you what I paid/ Precisely an existence/ The market price they said’, providing an analogy for Rhodes’ trilogy of films, where governing political rhetoric comes at the price of human experience.
Bridging the gap between experimental, documentary and agitprop styles, Lis Rhodes films are mechanisms for interrogating dominant narratives and histories, which give voice to those traditionally without one. While her own voice of dissent is undoubtedly louder in the later films, her ongoing experimentation with the medium testifies to film as an enduring vehicle for female expression and political resistance.