Gasworks, London, UK
Just as silence can suggest as much as words do, images can effect as much in their absence as in their presence. Exploring the spaces both within and without images, Eric Baudelaire’s practice has circled around the question of representation, of what can be entrusted to an image, for more than a decade. The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2011), which retraces the history of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) through the personal and political journeys of two of its protagonists, is no exception. This feature-length experimental documentary, which forms the centrepiece of Baudelaire’s solo exhibition of the same name, is almost entirely without images of these two subjects themselves. The camera turns instead to what is around them.
The film opens with quiet, bleached-out shots of crumbling apartment block exteriors and empty domestic interiors – shadows cast on a bed, an empty stairwell, household objects on a windowsill – shot in present-day Japan and Lebanon. These are the backdrop for a delicately calibrated interplay between the biographical recollections of May Shigenobu, daughter of JRA leader Fusako Shigenobu, and the analytical voice of radical avant-garde filmmaker and JRA activist Masao Adachi. Retracing the JRA’s expedition from Tokyo to Beirut, where they joined the Palestinian cause in the early 1970s, to their eventual return home some 30 years later, the film is an allegory of Xenophon’s Anabasis (391–71BC), an epic journey that is at once a wandering into the unknown and a return to the very place from which one began. While the allegory of anabasis ostensibly refers to the JRA’s movements across geography, it is no less mirrored in their political and ideological journeys as well.
Another subtext to the narrative is the story surrounding Baudelaire’s own position in making these images. As the film reveals, Adachi, who is in effect imprisoned in his home country and whose own footage from his years abroad was destroyed, enlisted the artist to shoot a series of sites and situations in Lebanon in return for his help in making the work. It is in his contract with Adachi that Baudelaire finds the touchstone for the film’s success – it allows the work to take on a form that embeds within it salient questions concerning perspective, authorship and the relationship between subject and object. The images in the film are simultaneously Adachi’s ‘lost images’ from the past, as well as the Baudelaire’s own from the present. What further complicates the duality between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is the artist’s decision to shoot on Super-8, which engenders a greater intimacy between the images that were lost and the images that were made anew.
Included within the exhibition and contained within the film are extracts from Adachi’s films – most notably, his 1969 collaboration AKA Serial Killer, which provided the impetus for the development of his ‘theory of landscape’, or fûkeiron. As a proposition that relies on the sole use of landscape imagery to reveal ideologies of power entrenched within the land, fûkeiron calls for a particular use of the image – not least within the documentary form, which traditionally describes events by showing subjects in action. In inverting the conventional perspective of the camera, turning it away from the subjects to the landscape, Baudelaire’s Anabasis… represents an application of the theory, turned back on none other than its theorist.
However, Baudelaire’s use of fûkeiron is not just approbatory in spirit, but also critical in effect. While Adachi’s theory relies on the potential of the image to reveal, Baudelaire’s images are less deterministic, less precise. Much remains hidden within the fuzzy contours and impressionistic quality of what we see in the film, as the grain of his Super-8 images work against fûkeiron’s clinical approach, to create spaces of freedom within the narrative.
An assemblage of surrounding documents, photographs, drawings and works on paper presented in the exhibition further unfolds different aspects of the story set out in the film. Pictures of Documents (2011) is a set of nine black silkscreens in which key images from the story are re-printed not with ink, but with varnish. While these prints problematize the status of documents as images, other works such as the Fusako Shigenobu Family Album – 27 Photographs (c.1900–73) open up a more intimate and humanized perspective. Together with the film, the works in the exhibition almost seem to take us on an anabasis of our own – they don’t resolve any quest for adequate representation, but rather set us out wandering, circling around images both present and absent, from both ‘now’ and ‘then’.
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