Thursday, October 20, 2011


Artists in front of and behind the camera
Ben Rivers’s documentary is a portrait of a life lived in isolation, while a web series focuses on artists living in New York City

By Iain Millar | From issue 228, October 2011
Published online 19 Oct 11 (Features)

Artist Ben Rivers’s film “Two Years at Sea” was screened at the Venice Film Festival last month, where it won the Fipresci award for the best film in the orizzonti (experimental) section, and goes on show at the London Film Festival this month.

Rivers uses a handheld, wind-up, 16mm film camera, often using film stock past its sell by date (which he processes himself) to contemplate life at the margins, focusing on people and environments away from everyday civilisation, such as the disabled ex-servicemen in a soon to close factory in “Sack Barrow” (which won the Baloise Art Prize at this year’s Art Basel fair) and the faux anthropology of the “Slow Action” tetralogy, which purports to document post apocalyptic societies. For “Two Years at Sea”, he revisited the subject of his earlier short, “This is My Land”, 2006, which reflects on the life of Jake Williams, who lives in isolation in woodland in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Rivers said that he wanted to find a subject who chose such a lifestyle as a positive act, as opposed to someone who follows a hermetic existence as a reaction against the world.

The title, “Two Years at Sea” refers to what Williams did to begin his self-sufficient life: he spent two years as a sailor before striking out to live in self-imposed isolation.

Rivers’s aesthetic is ambiguous: “Two Years at Sea” can be seen as an exercise in formalist cinema, both via the limitations imposed by use of his wind-up camera and in his processing techniques, as well as in restrained use of editing and framing, or sometimes holding a scene so that movement within the frame is almost imperceptible. It is also a documentary: what we see is the life of another, undertaking recognisable tasks and following courses of action in narrative time.

So here is Jake Williams showering, chopping wood, reading, playing music, washing clothes and driving. In one sequence, we first see him striding through the landscape carrying a kind of rig. He arrives at the edge of some water and proceeds to construct a crude boat, with inflation devices at each corner. There follows what is arguably the film’s most beautiful scene, where the camera, from a fixed vantage point, captures Williams on his boat, very slowly drifting from one side of the frame to the other.

That Rivers’s work crosses boundaries between fine art and conventional cinema is indicated by the fact that his films screen in galleries and at art fairs, as well as at conventional film festivals. “Two Years at Sea” is a haunting piece that makes the viewer question what it is to be an outsider and stands in contrast to the pace, social organisation and value systems of much of contemporary life.

The lives of the artists themselves are laid bare in the web series “New York Close Up”, produced by Art21, who also make the biannual series “Art in the 21st Century” for the US public network, PBS.

Fourteen films, each around five minutes long, give thumbnail sketches of emerging artists working in and around New York City. The portraits are intimate views into the practices and lives of the subjects. Among the films are: “Keltie Ferris Spray Paints in Solitude” in which the painter is shown in her studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, reflecting on how she spends so long in her studio that she will often go to buy groceries simply to have a conversation with another human being. There is also an examination of how she makes her works using layers of oil paint, applied using tools ranging from palette knives to spray-paint rigs more often used for retouching car bodywork.

“Tommy Hartung’s Underground Movies” observes the eponymous artist making stop-motion experimental films in his Queens studio and contemplating how a piece can be minimal, yet still manage to convey a story to its audience.

In “Mika Tajima versus The Cubicle”, Tajima explains how she purchased a disused modular office cubicle system and used it to create mobile sculptures that address ideas around the dehumanising effect of modern office life. The portrait is intercut with archive promotional film for the system, which includes such unintentionally ironic lines as: “She’s an action secretary and she needs an action office.”

“Rashid Johnson Trades Art with Angel Otero” needs little explanation. The two artists negotiate exchanging works, although there’s a headache for Otero in choosing what to swap as he says: “The gallery took everything from me.”

Politicised performance is to the fore in “LaToya Ruby Frazier Takes on Levi’s” as the Braddock, Pennsylvania-born artist and activist relates how the clothing maker used Braddock as the “gritty” backdrop for an advertising campaign, while the reality of life in the town, especially for its black citizens, was a long way removed from the image Levi’s wanted to project. In response, Frazier destroys a set of Levi’s clothing she is wearing on the pavement in front of a pop-up exhibition of Levi’s photography in SoHo.

This set of films, a fascinating scrapbook of the diversity of practice across the city, rolled out during the summer and is now online.

Artists’ films at the London Film Festival

“Two Years at Sea” shows on 21 and 24 October. Ben Rivers’s short “Sack Barrow” is part of a triple bill with two films by Nathaniel Dorsky on 22 and 25 October. Steve McQueen’s second feature, “Shame”, fresh from its world premiere at Venice, screens on 14 and 15 October. Phil Solomon’s work “American Falls”, a triptych of sequences taken from documentary and fictional films, forming a portrait of contemporary America, shows on 23 and 25 October. The festival’s experimenta section also includes artists’ films by Emily Wardill (22 and 27 October), Jonas Mekas (19 and 20 October), Chick Strand (23 October), as well as the documentary “Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film” by distributor Pip Chodorov, whose artist friends appearing here include the late Nam June Paik and Hans Richter (21 and 24 October).

“New York Close Up”
For details on the London Film Festival programme visit

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