Saturday, 29 May 2010

Found footage: Otolith Group at the Turner Prize 2010

Photos of Otolith Group at Turner Prize 2010 exhibition, copyright Oli Scarff/Getty Images

I came to this year's Turner Prize exhibition with an uneven knowledge base, having seen Dexter Dalwood's exhibition at Tate St Ives this spring (the exhibition for which he was nominated - some of the works shown at the Turner Prize exhibition are from this show, others are not), but knowing nothing of the work of the other nominees. I was immediately captivated by the Otolith Group's presentation, a dark room after the light of Dalwood's, filled with a series of thirteen televisions and a single large projection screen, with accompanying round table with tiny anglepoise lamps and plenty of black plastic chairs. On the walls are stencilled quotations by Chris Marker. (The Otolith Group is 'an artist led collective' founded by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun. The book on the table presents Chris Marker as if he might be a member of the Otolith Group, which is not the case, as far as I can tell. Just as well, because, born 1921, he is surely too old to be a collaborator for the Turner Prize, the current rules for which state the nominees must be under the age of 50.)

The film, Otolith III, is largely composed of clips from black and white Indian films of the 1960's and 70's, with new colour footage and voiceovers added to weave together a series of narratives, of which more later. The smaller screens simultaneously play the thirteen episodes of a television series on the legacy of ancient Greece originally broadcast in France in 1989, The Owl's Legacy by Chris Marker, retitled by the Otolith Group as 'Inner Time of Television'. The programmes can be viewed individually using headphones, or collectively as an installation, as all are subtitled. As far as I can tell no alteration has been made to the content of the original programmes; they are simply re-presented, as it says in the catalogue on the table, as an opportunity for a new audience to see this hard-to-find television series.

Now it might seem that anyone could choose their favourite television series, arrange one player for each and have a sort of simultaneous 'box set fest' (though what people actually do is to watch their episodes sequentially on a single screen). So why is this presentation art? Aside from falling back on the notion, famously propounded by readings of Marcel Duchamp's 1917 Fountain and other 'readymades', that anything can be considered a work of art, especially if placed in the setting of a gallery, I initially struggled a little myself once I realised that the Otolith Group had not themselves made the programmes on the 13 screens. However, the images were individually captivating. Headshots of interviewees, usually dully located in academic offices as was the norm in this period of television, were juxtaposed by chromakey against backgrounds of art objects, particularly owls. The episodes could be watched individually with headphones, but because of the subtitles, it was possible to view the whole simultaneously, and to notice juxtapositions and repetitions between the episodes. The whole thus becomes more than the sum of its parts, though the parts, as the catalogue asserts, are a kind of television rare in its time, and not produced any more, in terms of its scope and associative linking. I haven't explored the full depths of this, as most of my time was focused on the film, detailed below (but if I manage another visit and watch one or more episodes straight through, I will certainly report my impressions here).

The description of 'Otolith III' that follows contains spoilers - although not in relation to a conventional plot

Otolith III is a film very similar to Fellini's in that it is about the process of making a film. The characters confront the director in turn, asking 'Why haven't you made the film yet? Why did you leave us trapped in the village?' The director asserts that it is 'a project I don't believe in anymore, a mistake'. The same story is told over and over in each section, each from the point of view of a different character (the boy, the reporter, the engineer, and others), but also from the point of view of the director, who contemplates casting possible actors from footage of members of the public, seen in slow motion colour film through a long lens. The story is told mainly in voiceover, over clips from a range of black and white Indian films from the 1960s and 1970s. Though disparate clips are ever changing, meanings are anchored to them from the voiceover. After a while the same clips appear again and again, with different shades of meaning given by the different characters. The story of the unmade film revolves around the encounter of the boy with a Martian; the frequent effect is that the footage, whether black and white or colour, appears as if from a detached viewpoint, as if we are seeing the behaviour of our own species as if we are another engaged in some sort of scientific study. This effect may not be so strong if one is familiar with the Indian film clips, which are from the arthouse tradition rather than the Bollywood: undoubtedly knowledge of the contexts of these clips opens up whole other levels of meanings, which interact in turn with the titles of the books on bookshelves the camera pans over during the credits, suggesting a survey of art, literature, science and philosophy, that is, thinking of this 'alien' human species.

A title interjected with footage of children playing seemed to sum up the crux of film:


The whole idea of the Martian, or the 'alien', can be taken as a metaphor for a person of one culture being plunged into another, with all the bewilderment that entails. Indeed the Otolith Group position themselves as 'tricontinental', and the viewer unfamiliar with Indian arthouse films of the 1960s and 1970s has some sort of experience of cultural dislocation in viewing this film.

There's plenty to engage with here, and even if you don't 'see everything' it is easy to spend an hour just in the Otolith Group room, plus however long one might spend with the other artists on the shortlist (who it might be said tend to get short shrift in terms of visitor time). However, if you are uncomfortable with films that don't present an immediately obvious narrative, I'd recommend you challenge yourself here for as long as you feel able, knowing that upon leaving the Turner Prize there is the reward of something much more straightforward in the form of Doug Fishbone's Elmina, just to the right of the Turner Prize gift shop. Oh, and the four short documentaries about the nominated artist, that play at the end of the Turner Prize exhibition. In which Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group says that the world doesn't need any more films, so that anyone who makes a film had better have something important to say. Otolith III is worth teasing out, as it certainly deals with some fundamental issues.

The Turner Prize exhibition continues at Tate Britain 5 October 2010 - 3 January 2011. Admission charge £8 / £6 concessions, free for Tate members.

23 November 2010

Turner Prize visiting info

Otolith Group Turner Prize documentary

Otolith Group web page

A Long Time Between Suns, the exhibition for which the Otolith Group were nominated for the Turner Prize

The Owl's Legacy (more about it, with a clip here)

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