23 April – 10 May 2020
by JOE LLOYD
Yuko Mohri’s film Everything Flows – Distance (2020) opens on a monument, behind which a boat silently traverses a body of water. Then, we see a cluster of vernacular Japanese houses with ribbed roofs, aglow in the sun, and a pitch-black freight train passing through them. The third shot closes up on the train, giving us a better look at the houses in the process, before we zoom up to a single building on a hill. Then we are inside a house, with tatami floor mats and shoji room dividers. A shadow hovers over this interior, and then we see in quick succession the house’s door, a shadowed alley, some smoke-belching chimneys, mingling traditional and modern.
Yuko Mohri, Everything Flows – Distance, 2020.
Something is a little off in this sequence. These shots are all taken from Tokyo Story, director Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece of humanist cinema. But – with the exception of a couple of boatmen in the first shot, and that passing shadow – we haven’t seen people at all. Mohri has excised the scenes that feature characters, distilling eight minutes of (almost) entirely depopulated landscapes and domestic interiors from Ozu’s conversation-heavy 136 minutes.
Empty cities, claustrophobic houses, the merest hints of interaction with others: the echoes with our present situation, of course, are easy to perceive. Mohri’s choice of source material is also telling. Tokyo Story centres on an elderly couple whose adult children neglect them. Such intergenerational tensions, already sharp in the UK due to economic inequality and recent political events, have come into sharper relief during lockdown.
Yuko Mohri, Still, Everything Flows - distance, 2020. Courtesy the artist..
Mohri’s piece is one of the best artistic responses to lockdown I have encountered. It was commissioned by Glasgow International for its digital platform, which is available for the festival’s slated duration. This features several video works and audio pieces, all by artists who were going to appear in the festival, as well as a lecture by T. J. Clark and a roundtable. Four were newly created in the month since the festival announced its postponement until 2021, and several intentionally or accidentally reflect on the present situation (scarily, one of Georgina Starr’s pushed back Gi2020 commissions was named Quarantaine).
The rescheduling of an art festival is a minor annoyance in the scheme of things, but it is dispiriting to see so much creative and organisational effort fizzle out, even if much of the work will return in a year’s time. There is a particular sadness to Gi2020’s absence due to its distinct structure, in which a director’s programme runs in parallel to a vast swathe of projects led by local institutions, many of which give a spotlight to the local scene. As well as bringing international practitioners to Glasgow, the festival grants the Clydeside metropole’s artists the chance to appear on a global stage. Given the calamitous economic outlook for the years ahead, for some practitioners the missed chance might be crippling.
Jenkin van Zyl, In Vitro (all the love mix), 2020.
Gi2020’s digital platform does not intend to replace what has been lost, but it does serve as a placeholder for the festival’s intended programme. Two film works, by London-based Jenkin van Zyl and the Scottish-Barbadian Alberta Whittle, rework footage from festival commissions. The former’s three-channel In Vitro (all the love mix) (2020) sees a trio of performers don grotesque “cake head” masks and embrace, crawl and dance over a blasted tundra, to a soundtrack that spans Mahlerian orchestral pomp and churning ambience. Occasionally, we see ping pong balls scrawled with the characters’ numeric names dropped into a slot, though the significance of this act remains opaque. Tantalising rather than sating, Van Zyl’s contribution feels akin to a trailer for the work to come.
Alberta Whittle, Business As Usual – Hostile Environment, 2020.
Whittle’s 16-minute piece, Business As Usual – Hostile Environment (2020), is more direct. Her original film of the same title aimed “to reflect on the role of waterways in the voluntary and involuntary movement of people”. Little of this investigation remains. Instead, Whittle has reworked her material to focus on the disproportionate number of deaths from Covid-19 among immigrant NHS workers and BAME populations, which she places in the context of recent UK governments’ draconian immigration policies. “In a hostile environment,” placards tell us, “respectability will not save you.” At its best, Whittle’s video is a cogent precis of issues in Britain surrounding health, race and migration.
Some of its archive footage – West Indians arriving on the HMS Ascania, Notting Hill Carnival, a dance sequence – seem a little overfamiliar, from other artworks and documentaries. I was reminded of Liz Johnson Artur’s excellent Real… Times (2018) at the 10th Berlin Biennale, which used the perspective of young Londoners today to interrogate the country’s appalling treatment of the Windrush generation. But an extended scene that closes in on a singer’s mirrored face as she vocalises is laced with unspoken tragedy. Whittle’s repurposing of her material is impressive, and the final version of Business As Usual – Hostile Environment is one to anticipate.
Sarah Forrest, The Unreliable Narrator, 2019.
Sarah Forrest’s The Unreliable Narrator (2019) and Urara Tsuchiya’s Give Us a Meow (2019) come courtesy of Glasgow-based practitioners, and both predate Gi2020. Yet Forrest’s film – which show the hands of an anonymous magician performing card tricks, cut so that some tricks abruptly stop and shift to another – may be the piece here that relates most clearly to what would have been the festival’s theme, “attention”. As with Mohri’s piece, its combination of repetition and variation and refusal to answer questions becomes simultaneously hypnotic and disorienting.
Urara Tsuchiya, Give Us a Meow, 2019.
Give Us a Meow, which was filmed by Ben Toms and previously shown at Frieze, is less disorienting than disconcerting. Dressed in a succession of homemade outfits, Tsuchiya curls and paws around a rustic house, making feline motions. She manoeuvres her way across a cattle grid while wearing heels, tries to place her head in a lampshade and strikes a pose on the toilet. Tsushiya – whose piece for Gi2020 was going to involve ceramic and textile work installed in a hotel room – taps into the imaginative freedom and maddening frustrations of solitude.
The audio works that round out Gi2020’s online offering are two very different propositions . Liv Fontaine’s Some People Say (2020) is a spoken word piece uniting Ubu Roi absurdity, punkish rage and theatrical storytelling, accompanied in parts by clattering percussion and wailing guitars. Genre-straddling YBA Georgina Starr’s contribution, Yesterday (1991), meanwhile, is simplicity itself. Produced when Starr was a student at Slade, it is a recording of her whistling the eponymous Beatles song in the art school’s empty corridors. By stripping McCartney’s maudlin ballad of its pity-me lyrics about a lost relationship but retaining its overpowering yearning, she distils it into a wistful ode to times past, better times. Almost 30 years after it was made, Starr’s piece acquires a strange new resonance.