Ben Rivers

Temporary Gallery, Cologne, Germany

ben_rivers_011-CMYK.jpg

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2011, anamorphic 16mm film still

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2011, anamorphic 16mm film still

Slow Action (2011) – one of two 16mm films comprising Ben Rivers’s solo show, ‘Fable’, at Cologne’s Temporary Gallery – sketches out a possible future in which Earth has been flooded and mankind has withdrawn to a few islands where strange and highly distinct cultures have taken shape. Rivers conceived the work in four chapters with a screenplay by sci-fi author Mark von Schlegell. While it is clearly fictional, it is presented as an ethnographical documentary of sorts, in which Rivers ‘visits’ four of these islands: the dry and desert-like Eleven (filmed on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands); Hiva (actually the Pacific island of Tuvalu); the deserted Kanzennashima, full of industrial ruins (in real life the abandoned Japanese coal-mining island of Gunkanjima); and Somerset, shot in the eponymous British region, where Rivers grew up. A voice-over provides encyclopaedic facts about each locale’s geographical features, peoples and tribes, flora and fauna, history and political systems. Over the course of 45 minutes, Slow Action unfolds a (post-)apocalyptic panorama of utopic and dystopic endings to history.

inline_ben_rivers_001-CMYK.jpg

Ben Rivers, Things, 2014, 16mm film still

Ben Rivers, Things, 2014, 16mm film still

Things (2014), Rivers’s most recent film, is also a sort of travelogue, albeit a wholly different one. Likewise structured in four parts – winter, summer, spring and autumn – the film’s underlying principle is one of a year-long travel through ‘one’s own room’. The press release references Xavier de Maistre’s short travelogue Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage Around My Room, 1794) as a source of inspiration. Like De Maistre, Rivers remains in his apartment, ‘travelling’ only by scanning his rooms with his antiquated 16mm camera, filming images and artefacts he collected from various trips and research projects. Things reaches its crux with a reading of the first page of Robert Pinget’s 1971 novel Fable – a strange surrealistic account of a man on his voyage home through an apocalyptic landscape. Then, a drawing of one of these very scenes from the novel appears in the flickering projection, as well as a drawing of the cover of Pinget’s book (the drawings themselves – together with two other ‘by-products’ of the film – were also on display). Rivers’s show seems to collapse different spaces and times: the literature referenced in the film, the images being filmed, the film shown alongside the images.

inline_ben_rivers_002-CMYK.jpg

Ben Rivers, Things, 2014, 16mm film still

Ben Rivers, Things, 2014, 16mm film still

The final chapter of Things, ‘Autumn’, takes us on a computer-animated walk through the very apartment scrutinized in the three previous segments, with images and details reappearing as posters on the wall. The strangest effect, though, comes from Rivers’s use of computer-generated 3D renderings filmed in 16mm – an odd fusion of old and new media. Above all, Things is a meditation on the nature of film itself: not so much as a window on to the world (as the travelogue genre usually suggests), but as the creation of a completely new one – a room in its own right.

The atmosphere of the exhibition – and, ultimately, its content – was defined by Rivers’s use of the outdated 16mm format. This is ‘film’ in the most literal sense of the word: a specific (and now historical) medium, rather than an inaccurate substitute name for any moving image work. The fuzzy, crackling analogue material gives Rivers’s works a patina of nostalgia. If you want to use a buzzword from a few years ago, you could term Rivers’s approach ‘hauntological’ – a reflexive mourning of utopian dreams; ‘ruins of ruins’ as the voice-over puts it at one point in Slow Action. His films seem to come from a just-passed age: too young to be rediscovered, too old to be trendy, the lee-side of progress. I say this not to criticize ‘Fable’ for being out of tune with current aesthetics; rather, the contrary. The feeling of the just-passed paradoxically adds to the show’s vigour or, to quote Slow Action: ‘We are our own visitors and ghosts’, which is also true, it seems, of Rivers’s approach.

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

Issue 167

First published in Issue 167

Nov - Dec 2014

Most Read

‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018