Wednesday, December 8, 2010
On Philipsz who won the Turner Prize and Otolith Group who should've
Susan Philipsz and her sonorous sound artwork Lowlands Away has won the Turner Prize 2010, and it is so hard to quibble with the judgement. Her spare work is more than just about her sweet, untrained, incredibly haunting voice. It makes you think of music in terms of volumes, shapes, movements and spaces rather than merely sound and thus transcends to sculptures, as they are often called.
Yet, quibble I must. For I wanted the Otolith Group to win, which considering my utterly bewildered first reaction to their works at the Turner Prize exhibition is surprising. Their works are not easy. As Adrian Searle, the guardian art critic commented in a video-article: “they are throwing a big fat, heavy book at you and saying - read this, look at this.” But the point is if you do read this big, fat book, as I did – if you engage with the works, read and think about them, go back and review them – you’ll find yourself filled with all kinds of novel ideas about reality versus fiction, story-telling, images, memories and how they are affected by time and distance. Layer upon layer of meanings and ideas will unfold as you start digging into their works.
Let’s look at Otolith 3 – a film they made in 2009 which is currently being exhibited at the Turner Prize exhibition.
The artists began with a whimsical idea – what if four characters from an abandoned film project called The Alien by Satyajit Ray stepped out of the script and demanded to know why they were never made. Then they created a voiceover script for these four characters plotting of ways to accost Ray, take him to task for abandoning them, and find a way of making the film for themselves independently. Their narrative plays to a dreamlike video that stitches together film footage from Ray’s films from the ’70s, footage of London shot by Sagar’s father in the ’60s, and more by Eshun and Sagar shot in the ’90s.
At a very basic level, the artists are interested in the haunting, unsettling presence of ideas and projects which were once talked about with vigour but never realised. What is their status in our lives – are they real because they live in our minds, or they are unreal because they never came into being? They are interested in the anxiety and frustration that the unfinished leaves inside us.
But it is the clever way in which the artists use film and images and painstakingly combine them with audio to create that sense of haunting and powerlessness inside us that takes their work to the next level. The carefully selected images and footage, the way they are edited and put them together in a loop – each time returning to the same image and story, but with a slight difference – makes us, the audience, experience the anxiety they are talking about and not merely think about it. Indeed, they have a mastery over the medium they are commenting on.
Their works are no less haunting that Susan Philipsz, but they manage to combine several more media, ideas and thoughts about story telling, narratives and film-making into them.
Some art writers like Jonathan Jones have dismissed their works as pretentious and indigestible. But as Eshun said in an interview that I did with him: “pretentious for us just means a work that aspires to make statements about the condition of reality that we all live in”. But Eshun and Sagar don’t just aspire to make these statements, they actually manage to make them through their works.
As I said, I didn’t get their work at first go. But, upon suitable reflection, I digested them and found them rich and intriguing. Perhaps, Jones just didn’t bother to ponder over them long enough.
The Otolith Group's works are serious, challenging and decidedly unspectacular. But what's wrong with serious anyway? To me, it only reflects the serious, challenging and spare time that we are all facing.
For those more interested in The Otolith Group, here is a podcast of the raw interview I conducted with the Group over the telephone.
Interviewing The Otolith Group by chetna prakash