Life in Film: Imogen Stidworthy
In an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice
The first film I saw alone I remember for the architecture I was in as much as the film: a minimal, cubic 1970s house in the countryside with bare brick walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. I sat in a high-backed chair directly between the television and the front door behind me, with its un-curtained glass panel running down one side. I was seven, babysitting the neighbour’s children; I turned the TV on. A woman appeared holding a telephone receiver, a look of total horror on her face; a voice emanated from the telephone, repeating over and over again: ‘You killed me!’ She slammed the receiver down, but the voice kept coming: ‘You killed me!’ She ripped the phone cables out, but the voice emerged again from a bust of Beethoven on the grand piano; she smashed it to the floor but the voice kept coming. Then she ran to the balcony and threw herself off it. It was terrifying, but by then the black panel of glass in the door behind me was even more terrifying – I knew anyone looking in would be able to see me. I sat totally still, holding my limbs in tightly so I wouldn’t be visible from behind.
Certain details of films return again and again, in different configurations each time – often associated with a situation that I’m working with, as a reference and a form of fuel. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislav Lem’s novel, Solaris (1972), came to our cinema when I was 11. I was fascinated by the boiling planetary sea that Lem describes as a ‘sticky, colloidal mass’, but looked to me like simmering porridge; it manifests vestigial forms and resemblances from the memories of the astronauts in a space station. Hari, the main character’s wife, who had committed suicide years before, returns in such perfect semblance that it becomes impossible to define her – she confounds any differentiation between embodied memory and human self. The planet can only generate what Kris remembers of her – sometimes she stumbles on inexplicable gaps in her own memory, which deeply disturbs her – provoking constant doubt about her autonomy and intention.
I have worked with two men who suffer from aphasia. Both of them experienced fundamental shifts in the way they related to and used language; neither they nor I could be sure that they were saying what they intended, although they both knew exactly what they wanted to say. When I was talking with one of them, Edward, the image of Hari kept coming to mind. I asked him whether he had seen Solaris and explained the association with Hari. Obviously, I wasn’t suggesting he was an alien being – it was about the thread of doubt running through our communication. He nodded his head emphatically, smiled and started to cry, he so strongly recognized this analogy with an image invented by Lem, translated by Tarkovsky, and later referenced by me in trying to understand Edward’s experience.
There is a scene in Tarkovsky’s later film, Stalker (1979), in which three men are travelling along a railway track into the ‘Zone’, on a handcar. The shot is of the men’s shaved heads, seen from behind. As they travel, the landscape glides between and beyond them, out of focus; the heads seem less like people than sculptural objects; you hear the sound of the wind in wire cables and the metallic whine of the wheels, and realize you are listening to what they are hearing; there is visual distance, but you are in the same sonic space. The ‘Zone’ itself is rather like a sound installation, organized by invisible borders, concentrations and traps, into an immaterial architecture.
Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Conversation (1974), opens on an image of a roof-top sniper. You see the crosshairs of his telescopic sight as it scans a crowd and focuses on a young couple. Their voices emerge from the sea of noise; as they switch between comprehension and a jumbled electronic signal, it becomes apparent that the sights are targeting sound – the gun is not a weapon, but a microphone, held by an acoustic sniper. Later, the recording becomes evidence, played over and over again by a detective, each time producing new interpretations and meanings. The sophisticated technology promises all the power of transparency and control – as it does in Solaris – but is doomed to be only as objective as its interpreters.
Jean Rouch’s documentary Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters, 1955) focuses on a ritual in Ghana, then a British colony. We see road labourers at work in Akkra and it then cuts to them gathered in a jungle clearing; they enter a drug-induced trance to embody generals and corporals in the French army (who perform their own daily rituals in the city square), acting out meetings and negotiations, moving shakily and inhabiting their characters like badly fitting clothes. Choosing to internalize, to literally possess, the colonial authority seems to be a way of countering an intolerable powerlessness – a form of ventriloquism that extends the physical and mental limits. It is interesting to note all the ventriloquial metaphors in the preface to Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth (1961), which was written by Jean-Paul Sartre. Near the beginning, he describes the Western world uttering the words ‘Parthenon!’ and ‘Brotherhood!’; the voices echo back from the colonies: ‘thenon … therhood’. Sartre could seem to be suggesting something infantile in the voices that speak the colonizing language so poorly – which relates to one of the criticisms of Les Maîtres Fous, that it shows people lose their power by trying to emulate the French – but I see it more as an exorcism.
There is a film I have never seen, a B-movie called The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (José Quintero, 1961), that my father saw in his youth. He used to endlessly re-tell certain scenes, until I knew them by heart. When he talked about his own experiences, I could recognize the narrative form and the dramatic tensions of the film transposed onto his own life (ageing heiress, risky sexual encounters, a downhill spiral, squalor etc). The work was a concentration of the drive to narrate, and dependence on given scenarios. Later, I made a rather violent work that involved him retelling a scene from the film and a scene from his life, with a typewriter that sounded like a machine gun. I don’t remember him telling the story again after that.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) includes a re-enactment of a battle in Mexico between Spaniards and Incas. The Incas are represented by chameleons dressed in capes and feather head-dresses, and the Spanish by toads in paper bonnets shaped like Conquistadors’ helmets. They are set free in a model of a citadel, cast in sand. The toads are hideous in their bonnets, and ultra-violent, clambering over each other in a frenzy to attack the chameleons. Suddenly, pockets of gunpowder buried in the sand are ignited by a network of fusewires. The citadel erupts and the air is filled with charred bonnets, burning feathers and bits of singed toad. In his memoir The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Maker of El Topo (2008), Jodorowsky describes his childhood in a Chilean slum, where he and his friends would spend days preparing such battles, collecting creatures, making costumes, building the architecture and inventing special effects. So the scene in the film comes directly from his childhood, which makes me wonder how many other images in his films are based on situations he has seen, or been part of.
Imogen Stidworthy is a British artist who lives in Liverpool. She works predominantly with moving image and sound, investigating the structure of language and the subjectivity and nuances of linguistic formation. The first major survey of her work in the UK, titled ‘Lingua Franca’, just closed at Arnolfini in Bristol; her work was also included in Art Sheffield 2010, ‘Life: A User’s Manual’. Stidworthy will be exhibiting newly commissioned work at Matt’s Gallery, London, in March 2011.
First published in Issue 131