Print the Legend

(The following article was written for Animate Projects' and was published in October 2010)

As American Night by the German artist Julian Rosefeldt replaces John Akomfrah’s ravishing Mnemosyne at the BFI Gallery; and as the Hayward Gallery prepare for Isaac Julien’s ambitious nine-screen installation Ten Thousand Waves (which itself, has travelled the world already) and as we lie in the wake of one of the most successful films of the year thus far, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee…, it’s difficult to think anything other than that artists – our favourite film artists at least, in a time of meagre pecuniary prosperity for the arts – are making sense and analysing the present situation using the blanket of mythology and reflection.

They are not dissimilar in content either. Where Uncle Boonmee… and Mnemosyne tread the route on the search for discovery of identity, the latter takes as its starting point the disparity of opportunity provided to migrant workers in the quest for a (figurative) gold rush. A gold rush that weighs its shadow heavily over Rosefeldt’s five-channel installation, comprised of a (thematically and chronologically) anachronistic analysis of the foundation myths of the American west. Inherently, a gold rush will define, in many cases, a permanent settlement of itinerant workers foreign to at least the immediate area. This is the immediate concern of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves. Following the tragic death of twenty-three Chinese people working as cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004, Julien re-interprets The Tale of Yishan Island, a 16th century tale of a fisherman lost at sea, led home by a goddess figure, a tale which originated from the same province as the cockle pickers.

Taking four years to research and produce, in this time Julien also exhibited the five-screen installation WESTERN UNION: Small Boats. In the wake of the tragedy, the artist invited poet Wang Ping to England to write Small Boats, a meditation on the disaster, which is recited in Ten Thousand Waves.

The shackle of modernism bears weight over all of the above artworks, and not only them. Ori Gersht’s wonderful Evaders is, almost literally, the imagining of the journey taken by Walter Benjamin as he escaped the Nazis; I don’t need to spend any more time writing about Omer Fast’s Nostalgia when so many others have done so before me, and these are only an example. What are these other than contemporary representations of Homer’s Odyssey, the cultural history of a community or communities fragmented and disconnected? With the disillusionment of the post-war era, continuing long into the twenty-first century, a substitution of a mythical past takes place. These films share very modernist conceits. Their respective styles embrace a consistency of form that gives their work more in common with the colour field abstract expressionists than traditional filmic convention; however, these artists operate with more cynicism than action, and are more academic than intuitive, side-stepping punk for a (pre)postmodernism.

There is a line of argument that believes that indulging in mythology and legend removes by one step an engagement with the real world and the issues in front of you. Certainly, mythology and the visual arts make comfortable bedfellows, relying as they do on an innate set of symbols and allegorical meaning intertwined with morality and emotion. Ernst Cassirer stated that it is in the agency of myth (as in symbolic form) that the object is made visible and that that is the fundamental practical element of myth: As an organ of self-revelation.

The tragic resonance of myth, its brutal implications, represents to each artist an elemental truth.  As Mark Rothko might have put it (though undoubtedly in a more perplexingly intricate manner), it is the shared poetry of the myth with the visual arts that elevates the artist’s message to that at a level equivalent to the medium of music (or poetry, for that matter); that makes the moral, the unanswerable question, a penetrative, near unearthly, appealing, emotional experience.  “This is not mythology out of Bulfinch,” says Adolph Gottlieb, “…the implications here have direct application to life.” Abstract art is developed not by clear narrative but it must speak to an audience and be recognisable in some fashion for it to work successfully as a piece of art.

Utilising the multifaceted aspects of the filmmaking process, these artists are able to fashion a layered fabric of sensory acuity upon the viewer; the notion of a technique commonly used in painting but repressed (or deliberately skewed) among the historical chronology of avant-garde cinema and the art-film. Without wanting to sound facetious, it is, palpably, a post-painterly abstraction.