Review of Artists’ Film International, Istanbul

An intriguing showcase of video art and short film finds its way to Istanbul this winter under the annual programme of Artists’ Film International: a curated collection of moving images from global artists. Partner institutions are as varied as Whitechapel Gallery, UK; Hanoi DOCLAB, Vietnam; and Project 88, India; however, this year’s batch are unified by themes and interpretations arising from Sigmund Freud’s seminal 1929 psychoanalytic reading of society and the individual, Civilisation and its Discontents. At the end of November a series of screenings were held at the city’s largest space for contemporary art, ?stanbul Museum of Modern Art, and an exhibition featuring snippets of the films alongside further commentary runs until 23 February.

Thematically, the shorts have been organised under four recurring concerns identifiable within Freud’s analysis of civilisation and the human: Weakness of the Body, The Superior Force of Nature, Prosthetic Gods and Becoming Neurotic. Since Freud’s analysis centres on the fundamental tension between civilisation’s demand for conformity and instinctual repression with the individual’s drives towards gratification – largely sexual or violent in nature – the paradox that his text arguably hinges on is that mankind has built civilisation out of a wish for human ideals of order, beauty and safety, whilst having simultaneously created a constant source of restraint and unhappiness for the libidinal individual.

It may read like a tall order for a selection of experimental videos, separated moreover by cultural differences in fundamental definitions such as “society” or “modernity” or “the individual”. Yet the impression these short films give the viewer is firstly one of general success in saying what they set out to say: the artists have approached their work through an openness to scale, which has allowed an organic coherence to emerge.

The Weakness of the Body collection draws upon anxieties regarding the limitations of the body, spatial and social self-orientation, and the dependency of the individual on the other in its need to consolidate its presence. The discomfort and ambiguity of this interdependency is urgent in Freud’s work too, especially in relation to the psychic adjustments necessary within the individual upon encountering the reality that we must live with other human beings in a society. Alix Pearlstein’s The Drawing Lesson (2012) is an especially striking addition to these videos: as the camera makes 360-degree circles around three seated actors, the space designated to the observed and the observer constantly shifts, creating a tense cycle of policing and self-policing while communicating precisely that paradoxical interdependency between the Body as the anti-social self-preservationist and the bodies that make up society. The staring eyes of the actors even draw the viewer in as a forth party, complicit in constructing the discontented balance between self-gratification and societal functioning.

The question of both human nature itself and the effect of the natural world on human civilisation is taken up under the videos titled The Superior Force of Nature. The struggle and sometimes eventual submission to nature, be this external-elemental or inner-libidinal, is addressed in short films ranging from Indian mixed-media artist Neha Choksi’s Minds To Lose (2011) to New Zealand-based video artist Murray Hewitt’s The Downfall of Light (2011), leading quite organically to the next collection titled Prosthetic Gods. Aptly-named, these take up the consequences of the human grappling with nature: urban life emerges as the symbolic pinnacle of the civilising process, bringing with it both god-like isolation and an artificial omnipresence to humankind.

Hong-An Truong and Dwayne Dixon’s The City & The City (2010) leaves a particularly lasting impression: encapsulating the multi-layered and often incoherent set of encounters, experiences and environments of Asian urban life, it makes use of split-screen to simultaneously depict Tokyo and Saigon. An accumulation of shots of these cities’ appartment blocks, railway depots, escalators and streets culminate in the sense of deep melancholy and derelict aesthetics. Punctuating these urban topographies are sequences of two people seperate in time and space, performing karaoke by themselves to some pop music TV show, alone in their own dingy one-bedroom apartments.

Whether focusing on the miniscule and personal to project collective anxieties with regards to the body, or lingering long on derelict city façades to incorporate vast individual solitude into panoramas of overcrowding, Artists’ Film International’s studied mix of close and distant observation yields an impressive survey of its chosen themes this year. A significant ambassador for the nuances and continued relevance of video art, this travelling global showcase once again shows art film to be much more challenging than short film or documentary to immerse oneself in; nonetheless, it is just as successful in realising this medium’s expressive capabilities, and certainly in opening us to experience the moving image non-narratively.

Artists’ Film International, until 23 February, ?stanbul Museum of Modern Art, Meclis-i Mebusan Cad. Liman ??letmeleri Sahas? Antrepo 4, 34433 Karaköy, Istanbul.

Sarah Jilani

1. Alix Pearlstein, The Drawing Lesson.