ESSAYS Mousse 16
Forms Exceeding Ideas: Emily Wardill
by Stefania Palumbo
How many forms, and what kind, can language take in different media to communicate ideas, political positions, philosophical reflections? Emily Wardill has managed to make versatile and daring use of a good many. Her performance pieces, installations, and 16mm films create scenarios rich in imagery that lie halfway between Modernism and the Baroque; offbeat explorations that trace the history of thought, or that suggest multiple ideas through a sophisticated absence of form, as in the case of Sea Oak, one of her most recent films, where not only do we not see any oaks: we see nothing at all.
The best approach to understanding the work of Emily Wardill (born in Rugby, England in 1977) is to consider the motivations for awarding her the Follow Fluxus-After Fluxus prize (instituted by Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden) this year: its goal is to identify young artists whose work suggests a connection to Fluxus, a movement that staged its first event of global propagation, the Fluxus International Festival of Very New Music (1962), in Wiesbaden. Linking Emily Wardill’s work to Fluxus means establishing precedents for her vast universe of references. From video to performance and from scene-building to painting, Wardill appropriates every means possible to offer the image of a truth that cannot be extrapolated in an intelligible way, but rather through a peculiar obscurity. The political aspect that characterized Fluxus—or Dadaism, by which it was inspired—is characteristic of an avant-garde movement: questioning, and thus disrupting the establishment. Throughout the 20th century, we witnessed various expressions of dissident thought, different ways of echoing Rimbaud’s hope for “a necessary disorder”. The “anti-ness” of many artistic, intellectual, and political movements became a hallmark of entire generations. Fluxus defined a way of provocatively confronting contemporary society. Emily Wardill’s attitude is definitely more subtle, but no less effective; the deconstruction of language in her work has an equally explosive power. Films like Born Winged Animals and Honey Gatherers of the Soul (2005) and Basking in what feels like “an ocean of grace”, I soon realise that I’m not looking at it, but rather that I AM it, recognising myself (2006) or like Ben (2007) create apparent disjunctures between form and sense that come to be revealed as extraordinary psychological devices for triggering critical thought in the viewer. The Tateís Artists’ Film and Video Programme called Born Winged… “a mesmerising visual and phonetic translation of an excerpt from the prologue to On the Genealogy of Morality 1887 by nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In this text he argues that humans have never been able to find out who they really are and even in the attempt to do so they inevitably lose themselves”. The artist is inspired by the image, which Nietzsche uses by way of example, of a person absorbed in thought—“divinely distracted”—then suddenly awakened by the twelve strokes of a bell at noon. Drawn by this insignificant event towards a series of existential questions that go unanswered, man is destined in the end to lose his sense of reality. The 16mm film is divided into an audio track and a video track, in which the noonday chimes of the church of St. Anne, in the Limehouse neighborhood of London’s East End, accompany—intentionally off-synch—a montage of scenes of everyday life, filmed in the same neighborhood.
The search for self is punctuated by a sound that doesn’t create a relationship between images so much as underline a profound isolation. Philosophical, political, and psychoanalytic concepts are the substratum of Emily Wardill’s films, reworked into a rich visual repertoire that retraces the history of thought, playing with a narrative of complex interrelations and a twelve-tone soundtrack composed by the artist herself. Once again, the structure of language and its transformation at the hands of the media are at the heart of her investigation. In this sense, the means by which ideas are expressed takes on fundamental importance; the use of 16 mm film—which Wardill finds essential—is not a purely aesthetic choice, but rather responds to specific desire to restore the lapidary nature of objects through the filmic image. In installations like The Reader’s Wife (2007), video, film, and photocopies of paintings and collages become symbols of a precise linguistic mechanism. Wardill’s cinematic syntax analogously functions like a mysterious visual contrivance, in which the ordinary codes of interpretation can be put aside, letting yourself be transported into what seems a fascinating representation of the unconscious. In Ben, two voiceovers tell two different stories. A female voice—not a native speaker (an expedient that accentuates the sense of detachment)—reads out a case history recounting the social behaviour of a patient—Ben—used by American psychology students to understand the state of paranoia; a male voice, in the intonation employed to induce a state of hypnosis, reads an experiment that Sigmund Freud used to illustrate the concept of “negative hallucination” (when a patient believes that a room full of objects is actually empty). The film, which could be seen as an oneiric representation of a negative hallucination, is shot in colour, but shows a set and characters dressed and made up in black and white. There is also a visually strong reference to the artistic inventions of Oskar Schlemmer and Fortunato Depero.
In 2007, the film Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck (2007) was presented at the ICA in London; in it, the medieval windows of English churches serve as a starting point for analyzing the processes of a dominant visual culture, creating parallels between past and present. In the Middle Ages, the liturgy was narrated through stained glass windows, which took the place of the written word for the illiterate population. In the film this leads to an alternation and layering of scenes, constructed and illuminated like a visual echo of the windows, mingling medieval iconography with references to contemporary superstitions and comic sketches, like the one of Amira reading the Yellow Pages instead of the Bible. Different levels of narrative overlap—accompanied by an equal number of audio levels—creating analogies with Fassbinderian forms of cinematic melodrama, analogies and shifts that conceal intensely political messages in a form of communication that captures popular attention. Metaphors and allegories undergo a metamorphosis to adapt to the communicative codes of different historical eras, always moulding a language that skillfully incorporates additional meanings.
Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck also refers to Jacques Rancière’s analysis of the stage as a space that unites public activity with personal fantasy. All of Wardill’s work seems a vast scientific experiment that catapults the viewer into the phase of suspension between initial givens and the final solution, into the limbo where logic performs its riskiest explorations, where irrationality becomes an obligatory passage towards a solution that otherwise could not be considered complete, and where viewers are given a space within the work so that they can appropriate it. One of Emily Wardill’s recent works, Sea Oak (2008), presented at the closing exhibition for the Wiesbaden award, reaches the limits of exploring language and its paradigms. The artist has created a “blind” film in which the duality of thought and form, word and object, is summed up in a 16mm film that transmits a dark image, while the projector itself is lit up. The audio track consists in a series of interviews with a group of experts from the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, which until April 2008, was conducting a study into contemporary political rhetoric. The use of words that can elicit specific visual reactions in the listener and consequently foster support for a party is examined through a unique method of analyzing contemporary language, along with its power of suggestion in regard to personal schemes of interpretation.
At the beginning of the film, Eric Haas, a member of the institute, introduces us to the complete absence of images, describing how the word “bird” will evoke a similar image to anyone—a sort of prototypical fowl. Listening to the film is thus a sort of experiment that the artist asks us to subject ourselves to, offering an opportunity to enter her work and appropriate it in a subjective way—this time entirely—by abandoning the physical dimension of form. The black film unwinds to accompany an exploration of how symbolism is used in politics, with emotions and religious values becoming associated, for example, with Republican ideas. The English artist’s intellectual and philosophical framework is clear from the outset, underlying every piece, guiding how it is understood, and structuring its syntax: this is where the jury in Wiesbaden saw the subversive, propulsive spark of Fluxus, as in the wide spectrum of action through which Wardill expresses her ideas.
Originally published on Mousse 16 (December 2008-January 2009)