A response by Elisabetta Fabrizi to From Purgatory to Paradise: an indulgence, by Ali Kayley and Dan Glaister

‘Memory fogs, so does film’

Entering the upstairs gallery at Meantime Project Space we are suddenly propelled into two identical landscapes. An installation comprising two looped 16mm film projections, Figure in Landscape consists of two scenes projected almost floor to ceiling, side by side. On the right a solitary, eerie landscape – a small copse; on the left, within the same landscape, a jittering ghost-like figure, barely distinguishable, disappearing at times, dwarfed by nature, running along the copse’s edge, falling, struggling to find a way to enter it. The small copse filmed in the piece is certainly an intriguing and challenging starting point to Ali Kayley & Dan Glaister’s residency and exhibition at Meantime, in Cheltenham. Said copse is in fact called Purgatory and is situated east of Slad, near Stroud, three miles to the south of a hamlet called Paradise, not far from where the artists live and from the gallery. The project started with a word on a map, they tell us; and as death as way of life had been a central point to some of their recent work, coming across Purgatory offered them the perfect opportunity to develop their practice and current concerns. Importantly, the artists have chosen not to research the history of Purgatory, and leave the many questions (and answers) such a name prompts to the gallery visitors. What they do tell us though is that Purgatory is a real place, a real trace in the English landscape, in so doing striking the gallery visitors with a direct reference to the real; but fully aware that, inevitably, the viewers must also tune in to the iconography of purgatory – both visual and literary – as well as their own (present or absent) religious beliefs.

The matter of fact title of Figure in Landscape, representing an apparently rather simple scene, hides complex, universal themes. What comes across – beyond the metaphor of universal human struggle – is the mixture of familiarity and mystery established within the piece. This psychological landscape is created through a series of artistic decisions: the careful composition of the scene, clearly divided into three horizontal areas (the grass, the copse, the sky) together with the non descriptive figure give the scene a look of unreality; the undefined light in which the film was shot, creating an atmosphere of Dantesque memory; the format chosen (16mm film) and the way it is installed in the gallery space, which, as the artists put it, ‘deliberately reflects the constraints of film medium in the theme’.  The simple and powerful framework of Figure in Landscape – both compositional and thematic – acts as a vessel for the gallery visitor to bring together and explore universal, existential questions at whatever level they choose. The project successfully combines the human, the everyday and the eerie using the specific language of film installation to create meaning. Reading the captions, we find out that the term used to define this work is diptych (as opposed to double-projection), a telling choice on behalf of the artists – a word which takes us back to a religious painterly tradition. Yet the artists are fully aware not only of the intrinsic ontological realism of film, which they exploit by filming a carefully framed and composed ‘nature’ open air, but this installation demonstrates their specific interest in what the format of film installation has to offer. 16mm film contributes to creating an environment which feels poetic as opposed to technological, acting, one could say, as a spotlight on memory. The intricate, very personal and almost corset-like way in which the artists have the installed the film strips which travel along the gallery ceiling before reaching the projectors, create a sense of alchemy, fragility and constraint which fills the exhibition space. This brings us to another distinct feature of film itself: the fact that it decays, ‘it fogs, just like memory’, to cite the artists again. The look and feel of the piece would be drastically different if it had been shot and installed on digital. This element is crucial to Ali Kayley & Dan Glaister work: film’s limitations, its technical difficulty, cost, and fragility – aging, almost – is what attracts the artists to this format. Interestingly, in Figure in Landscape, what appear to be two different 2 min reels are in reality one 4 min reel, cut precisely in two. This is achieved through careful storyboarding and in-camera editing. The artists also use the loop to create meaning. On the one hand the looped films: every two minutes the scene is repeated, over and over again, a cyclical passing of time resulting in a timeless space, and in an ‘absent’ time, a limbo of impossibility and struggle in which the indistinct figure in landscape, walking along the edge, appears stuck. On the other hand, the characteristic sound of the 16mm reels passing through the cogs of the projectors becomes a sound loop. As the actual piece is silent, this monotonous soundtrack creates a mantra-like score which acts as a conduit to reflection.

The size of the projection, the level of darkness of the room, the specific framing of the image – with an overwhelming sky, copse and miniscule spirit-like figure – all contribute to the viewer instinctively being catapulted into the scene, despite the lack of narrative. Due to the nature of the installation and the position of the projectors, our physical exploration of the gallery space often results in our shadow becoming part of the work. We could say, quoting Dante – the first to envisage purgatory as a place of suffering as opposed to a temporary condition, and to imagine it as ‘a divine forest, dense and alive’ – that if in hell we act as judges, and in paradise we feel reverence, in purgatory we feel directly involved. Like Dante in Purgatory, the second Cantica of the Divine Comedy, we feel empathy, as we are in a landscape with a figure who is our equal, psychologically and physically.

In the downstairs gallery we find another film installation, titled Flight Arrested, a single super 16mm film loop, intimate in scale and content. The mysterious (yet familiar) copse of its companion installation gives space to a thicket of exile and sequestration. The openness of the landscape of Figure in Landscape is also gone, replaced by details of a figure – seemingly inside Purgatory – desperately trying to escape it: hands, arms, chest, and some direct religious iconographic references such as a drop of blood and thorny branches. If Figure in Landscape looks at Jeff Wall’s work for its clarity of language, intent and staging, Flight Arrested seems to aim at transforming the personal – the detail indeed – into universal value, beyond literal meaning, specific historical backgrounds and cultural references. In this, as well as in its austere and precise style of filming, the piece seems to reference the work of French director Robert Bresson – often called the dark Catholic of French cinema – famed for his use of authentic details in order to transcend them and inspire metaphysical meditation.

Flight Arrested is installed in a room with two works on paper, beautiful letterpress prints on charcoal. One is based on the map of the area from Purgatory to Paradise, a distance the artists will walk on 1st June, bringing an ulterior element of reality into their chosen metaphysical theme. The other is an example of a new series of works which refer to the tradition of Indulgences – popularly envisioned during the Middle Ages as decreasing the duration of time the dead spend in purgatory. Pre-Reformation England was not immune to the belief in purgatory and the redeeming powers of indulgences, quite the contrary. To cite one widely known example, in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer tells us how a Pardoner abuses his position by selling indulgences for a very high price. Ali Kayley and Dan Glaister recuperate this forgotten tool, writing their own indulgence; narrating their story which perhaps aspires to become an epigram, a disclosure of intent: ‘The bearer of this Indulgence [….] shall be guided directly and without diversion [from Purgatory] to Paradise, […] traversing its neglected track of centuries past and shall be delivered thus untainted and free of guilt or knowledge [….] in that sweet home of pure oblivion’.

There is a duality at play in this project: on the one hand we have the ‘real’ image and the ‘constructed’ image (a resurrection of the seen and of the lived); on the other, through a series of religious iconographical cross-references, the artists take a welcome and multifaceted stand on the meaning and use of contemporary art.

 

Elisabetta Fabrizi studied Art History and Film at the University of Bologna, Italy, graduating with distinction on the subject of Art and Film. While at university, she worked on several exhibitions and film projects, and as a music and arts journalist. In 1998 she moved to London, where she went on to complete a Masters degree in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London, continuing her investigation of the moving image in a gallery context. She was Head of Exhibitions at the British Film Institute, London and has held positions at Milton Keynes Gallery and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.  She has extensive experience of curating and commissioning contemporary art projects, including by Jane & Louise Wilson, Deimantas Narkevicious, Mat Collishaw, Patrick Keiller, Michael Snow, Peter Campus, Pierre Bismuth, Erwin Wurm, and Carol Rama amongst others.

 

FROM PURGATORY TO PARADISE: AN INDULGENCE was developed during a four-week residency at MEANTIME from February to March 2013 and chronicles the flight from Purgatory on 16mm film. The works will be shown at SITE 2013 in Stroud, Gloucestershire on Thursday 30th – Friday 31st May 4-9pm; Saturday 1st June 11-4pm at the Goods Shed, Stroud GL5 3AP (Stroud station) and at Knapp House Barn, Slad, Stroud GL6 7JZ on Friday 31st May – Saturday 1st June 11-4pm.

The Walk from Purgatory to Paradise will take place on Saturday 1st June, 2pm commencing from Knapp House Barn, Slad, Stroud GL6 7JZ. Enquiries contact bindlestifffilm@gmail.com / 01435 759520. More information and full programme of SITE 2013 events here.

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