Moving Images: Mark Lewis and David Campany in Conversation

This post was contributed by Carrie Mcalinden and Meg Hanna,  both students on Birkbeck’s MA Film, Television and Screen Media.

It is only recently that Mark Lewis has begun to embrace the label of filmmaker. The screening of three of his works in the Birkbeck Cinema last week provided a seemingly appropriate context for his discussion with David Campany, writer and curator, though we were quickly instructed to “imagine what this would be like in a picture gallery.”

As the intended exhibition space for Lewis’s films, the gallery is referenced directly by both Black Mirror at the National Gallery (2011) and Outside the National Gallery (2011). Both films exhibit the defining characteristics of most of his work – the long shot and silence – and for Lewis it is these elements of the ‘pictorial’ that deem the gallery a fitting environment for this display of his moving images.

However, now that he has come into the title of ‘filmmaker,’ he seems to be more open to letting the spectator experience his work as films and not as pictures. He used to say when installing his work in a gallery, “we should pretend that they’re not films,” and now he is setting up benches and encouraging a more relaxed environment. Still opposed to the rigidness of the cinema, he would rather his films be experienced in something more akin to the avant-garde’s dream of the ‘smokers cinema.’

In his early work, Lewis relied on the four minute film reel to make the choice of duration and has carried on this limitation into his current digital work. Keeping the context of the gallery as well the spectator in mind, he is not interested in projects of endurance, and keeps each of his current films under eight minutes. Such explanations are emblematic of Lewis’s attempts to distance/efface himself from his work. Outside the National Gallery in particular suggests the absence of the filmmaker, despite his assertion that what looks like one long take is actually several takes edited together. As such, his films evoke the actuality films of the Lumiere brothers, yet also embrace elements of artifice in the tradition of Melies.

This distancing of the filmmaker from his work brought up questions of the ‘location of consciousness’ in his films. In the third film screened, Beirut (2011), the camera, on a crane, moves up and over buildings, slowly investigating the world and embodying a ghost-like perspective. Here we see illustrated one of many examples of the “consciousness of the camera” – an idea explored in much of Lewis’ work. Given its limitations, “what would a camera do if it had consciousness?”, he asks.

But perhaps he puts too much emphasis on the camera doing all of the work and not enough on his own ingenuity. “Anyone can make a film,” he proclaimed, provoking a prompt objection from the programmer of the evening, Laura Mulvey. Speaking directly to the ambitious mechanical engineering that went into the filming of both Beirut and Black Mirror at the National Gallery, Mulvey pointed out that “some of Mark’s films are completely crazy.” He is not in fact just some guy with a camera, but rather often finds himself doing something which is “excessive and makes no sense and is irrational, but actually seems to work.”

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Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures

This post was contributed by Linda Grant, a Birkbeck PhD student working on the Renaissance reception of Latin love elegy, and jointly supervised in English and Classics by Professors Sue Wiseman and Catharine Edwards.

On Thursday May 232013 as part of Arts Week, Birkbeck was delighted to host a lecture by Leonard Barkan, Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, on the ‘deliciously ambiguous’ relationship between words and pictures, poetry and painting. Leonard, with typical verve, energy, humour and keen insight drew on his recent book, Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures (Princeton University Press, 2012), but also took the opportunity to explore some of the questions that, as he put it, weren’t in the book but should have been.

The concept and literary practice of ecphrasis, the textual description of a visual work of art, has a long history going back at least as far as Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. But what happens when an art object is created out of words within a literary text, or when a painting turns on the mimetic representation of written language? Moving with enviable ease between classical antiquity and the European Renaissance, Leonard offered rich and perceptive analyses of some key cultural moments when poetry and image come together: Ovid’s Metamorphoses which insistently probes the relationship between name and physical form; Caravaggio’s 1602 painting St Matthew and the Angel with its central focus on the physical writing of the gospel; Desdemona’s vividly-described handkerchief in Othello.

Erudite and yet wonderfully relaxed and generous, Leonard gave us a stimulating talk which prompted many questions and much discussion afterwards.

Caravaggio_MatthewAndTheAngel_byMikeyAngels

Caravaggio – Matthew and the Angel

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Shakespeare and the Senses

This post was contributed  by Jessica Barrett, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

On Tuesday evening Birkbeck arts students attended a successful presentation on Shakespeare and the Senses with Mr Simon Smith, Dr Gillian Woods and Dr Derek Dunne as part of the 2013 Birkbeck Arts Week.

The evening began with Simon Smith’s talk on sound within and without of the theatre. Attendees listened to clips of music from the early modern era. One clip, called The City Cries by Richard Dering, gave examples of the street noises one might hear of people selling their wares at the markets in Elizabethan London. Also, Mr. Smith called attention to the measurement of sound by comparing the decibels of applause, a human shout and moderate surf, all noises that would have surrounded the Elizabethan playhouses. Lastly, Smith highlighted a 1596 petition to the Privy Council by 31 Blackfriars’ residents, which prevented Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from moving into the city because of fear of noise pollution. Smith’s lecture was an interesting exploration into the sounds of early Modern England, adding a three-dimensional quality to what life surrounding the playhouses might have been like, as well as reminding us that sound is one sense that can happen to you without you actively or purposely taking part.

Dr Woods followed with an insightful look at George Hakewill’s The Vanitie of the Eye, focusing on how sight was considered the most dangerous of all senses to many Elizabethans (especially anti-theatricalists). Sight was compared with types of sin alluding to how, like sin, theatre spectators can become trapped or fixated on what they are gazing upon. Woods exemplified her points by focusing on The Winter’s Tale and its plot of deception. Leontes thinks he sees his wife, Hermione flirting with his good friend Polixenes, which leads to Hermione’s arrest, and trial. Woods ended her talk by deconstructing the last scene, where Hermione’s statue comes to life, a moment of idolatrous wonder from her daughter, Perdita, and a transformation, which confuses audience members’ seeing it for the first time.

Dr Dunne closed the night’s talks with a discussion on sound deprivation in relation to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the judicial system of Rome. The play’s many instances of deafness, dumbness, and blindness were seen as a loss of metaphor for a judicial system that does not listen. Dunne goes further in his analogy by examining how tears are a result of the blindness and dumbness and are instrumental in obscuring meaning creating ambivalence in the thoughts of the characters.

Those who attended the talks were keen to ask questions at the end and further explore the final scene in The Winter’s Tale as well as commenting on sensory overload in Shakespearean films which contrasted nicely with the presenters’ topics.

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Handel’s Cross

This post was contributed by Dr Fintan Walsh, lecturer in theatre and performance studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Enghlish and Humanities.

Thursday night saw a production of Handel’s Cross take place in the recently launched G10 performance space in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Directed and performed by Birkbeck lecturer Andrew McKinnon, and written and also performed by Martin Lewton (his partner in Theatre North), Handel’s Cross stages one man’s recurring sexual fantasy involving the 18th-century composer.

The performance begins with Lewton removing his clothes and being bound to a St. Andrew’s cross by McKinnon. He directly addresses the audience, sharing a story which takes us back to 1751, on the night of the premier of the then 66-year-old Handel’s cantata ‘The Choice of Hercules.’  The leading role is performed by renowned 22-year-old castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

Few details are known about Handel’s personal and especially sexual life.  Historians tend to agree that he was over-weight and even greedy, as mocked in Joseph Goupy’s caricature that features a grotesque pig’s snout (see right). Lewton takes the ambiguity surrounding Handel’s imitate life, and the notion (based on his rousing music) that he must have been a passionate man, to imagine a relationship between Guadagni and the composer, and to imagine himself as a subject of his brutish desires.

As Lewton speaks from the cross, acting as a kind of Handel substitute, McKinnon steps in at various points to attach nipple clamps, spray his chest with hot wax, and whip his body. With Handel’s music intermittently flooding the space, the S&M scenario combines with historical fantasy to powerfully suggest a link between artistic pain, Christian suffering, and homoerotic desire.

‘What are the attractions of fantasy in a world where bodies are bombarded and oppressed?’ Lewton asks towards the end of his 45-minute performance. It’s not a question he answers, but it’s one that lingers after his dismount.

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