‘Men Gather, in Speech…’ takes its title and curatorial cue from the writings of twentieth century German philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and classical Greek definitions of dialogue and politics. Placed into this arena are three film works by three quite different artists: Emma Charles, Rose English and Abri de Swardt.
The dominant work in the exhibition is a film documentation of English’s acclaimed solo performance ‘Plato’s Chair’, filmed in 1983 at artist-run organisation The Western Front in Vancouver. At just under 86 minutes long, it requires commitment from the gallery audience and indeed the exhibition as a whole seeks a substantial investment of time in order to view each work in its entirety. For those prepared to make this effort, a rich seam of language and ideas awaits.
English has been a key figure in performance since the 1970s; writing, directing and performing her own works internationally. ‘Plato’s Chair’ is improvised around a basic set of points: a “morass of ideas” including the sublime, death, the soul, the void, pleasure, art and the theatre. English’s elliptical monologue is both punctuated and disrupted by snippets of music from Georges Bizet’s opera ‘Carmen’, and by her metrical breathing, dance interludes and often absurd or humorous performed actions. English cannily deconstructs conventions of theatre, art and dialogue in a search for understanding and an appraisal of language.
Abri de Swardt’s film ‘I’ll never wear sunglasses again’ (2014) is an imaginary exchange between the late artists Derek Jarman, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Paul Thek, who all tragically died from AIDS related illness. The philosophical void is here transposed into a digital limbo, in which the starkly almost-naked figures of Jarman, Gonzalez-Torres and Thek converse in a blank white nothingness that brings to mind Jarman’s “queer white”1. Digitally collaged props float over the figures in a tenuous link to the world of objects. The disjointed logic and fragmented dialogue of dreams occurs in a sequence of surreal encounters that contemplate life, death, poetry and the vulnerability of the body amidst the discomfort and white noise of a fictional, virtual unreality.
Projected alternately with de Swardt’s film is Charles’ study of a different type of digital entity, ‘Fragments on Machines’ (2013). The title of the film is a reference to Karl Marx’s manuscript ‘Grundrisse’ and is an unveiling of the humming heart of modern day capitalism: the server. The film is a journey through the urban cityscape of New York and its glossy Art Deco buildings to a backstage underworld of cables and machines. The slick, ornate exteriors of the buildings housing these super servers for multinational companies belie an abject labyrinth of computer equipment, maintained by drone-like workers and vulnerable to threat from nature’s elements. In contrast to the other two works in the exhibition, the focus here is on the phantom dialogues generated and eroded by machines, data and the internet.
In these times of increasing political and social disparity, it feels particularly relevant to consider the concept of ‘the political space between us’ and the role and effectiveness of dialogue within it. ‘Men Gather, in Speech…’ makes an imaginative and thought-provoking attempt to do so.
1 Derek Jarman, ‘Chroma’, Vintage, London; 1995 (p.18)