PHOTO: Courtesy of the artist and gallery.

Still from Maria Dumlao's Untitled (2010)
HOMELAND at Maas Space
Posted: 11/11/11

HOMELAND, a screening curated by Jesse Pires as part of the recently ended Inspiration Information exhibit at the Maas Building, offered a thoughtfully considered program of films and videos about the power of place and its influence on one’s point of view. Human presence is elusive in these films, but each in its own turn uses sound and lonely, unpeopled landscapes to explore place as a social and personal construct. The biggest pleasure of this show is in the sum of its parts – the contemplative pace of the program encourages a reading across the four films. Viewed together, they emphasize the rewards of slowing down to take a good look at the places to which we have grown habituated, which we are complicit in constructing, and which ultimately control and define us.

Alabama Departure (1981), by Peter Bundy and Bryan Elsom, crisscrosses the southern half of that state in a series of small-town vignettes that hover between documentary and abstract collage. In Coffeeville, close-ups of spindly forms come into focus as that characteristically Southern plant, Spanish moss. In Dauphin Island, images of jumping fish are wittily synched with a succession of chords. And in Buffalo, shots of an algae-filled swimming pool are backed by the high whir of cicadas and sounds of people, long absent, escaping the heat at the snack bar. In between each of these brief scenes, an old man in Banks talks about liking “a lively meeting” at church and detesting selfish people; in the last shot, he sits at his pump organ with his back to the camera, playing a simple hymn. The filmmakers are neither heard nor seen and the camera moves very little, making a subject perspective hard to locate. But the tight shots, with their lingering duration, create a natural intimacy between the filmmakers and these isolated locations, and the nondiegetic audio – the sound of people where there are none, the buzzing of insects sped up and slowed down – provides subtle commentary that is nostalgic and elegiac in some spots, humorous in others. Bundy and Elsom present a portrait of place – one more of the idea of small-town South than of a particular location – that is both resistant to change and supple in the face of its inevitable arrival.

James MacSwain’s Amherst (1984) opens with a telling introduction: “When I left Amherst, I felt as if I were escaping from a cage.” The video follows the filmmaker on a trip back to his Nova Scotian hometown as he recounts painful instances of bullying and bigotry from his childhood and his eventual identification as a gay man. Amateurish pans and zooms fill the screen with a series of low-quality video images: houses, hospitals, schools, playgrounds. MacSwain’s halting narration, delivered in an intellectual register, connects these places to his memories of the past and his running analysis of the problems that afflict this small town. The filmmaker recounts personal episodes as the camera lingers on specific locations – being mistaken for a girl at the swimming pool, receiving letters at the post office from friends who had escaped to larger cities. These episodes alternate with more abstracted and metaphorical scenes, such as two chained mannequins in a shop window, that begin with an indictment of life in Amherst and end with a liberal reframing of the “victimhood” of the people who live there. Made in the 1980s, Amherst stands as an important record of homophobic attitudes that did, and still do, shape the identities of places and people alike. But MacSwain’s academically analytical narration has the uneasy effect of drawing attention away from his subject. In the voiceover, MacSwain suggests that the film “must be interpreted by you, the viewer, and given its own equilibrium” – a thoroughly self-conscious and postmodern directive – and it becomes clear that it’s not the place itself that is distinctive or important but the narrator’s own shifting, perhaps even unreliable, perspective.

In a reappraisal of Rocky, the 1976 blockbuster set in Philadelphia, local artist Maria Dumlao employs vertical and horizontal black bars to obscure the protagonist in her short, Untitled (2010). Dumlao selected scenes in which the landscape of the city figures prominently, from the South Philadelphia neighborhood where Rocky lives to the Art Museum, where he takes his famous training runs. With Sylvester Stallone concealed, what emerges is a study of Philadelphia, mediated by Hollywood: what does “filmmaking” leave in the frame after the star is removed? Philadelphia, as a character, appears down on its luck, quiet, and lonely, but possesses a rare beauty in its scenes of golden sunrises. Dumlao’s conceit carries its own mediated history, with well-known precursors such as John Baldessari’s signature prints of found photographs with colored circles blotting out faces, Paul Pfeiffer’s videos in which basketball players and boxers have been painstakingly removed frame by frame, and Cory Arcangel’s modded videogame, Super Mario Clouds, where everything but the 8-bit clouds has been erased. Though enjoyable to watch, Untitled does little to raise the stakes of this strategy, either conceptually or technically. Dumlao’s version does succeed in emphasizing the iconography of place, but as the black bar flits and ebbs to block out Rocky, it starts to become Rocky, drawing even more attention to him as a narrative device and, paradoxically, drawing attention away from the setting.

PHOTO: Courtesy of the artist and gallery.

Still from Shona Illingworth's Balnakiel

The last film in the screening, Shona Illingworth’s Balnakiel (2009),is a 30-minute piece originally (and probably more successfully) shown as a single-channel installation. A blend of documentary and narrative fiction, the project uses footage of a young woman traversing the village of Balnakiel, an outpost in the northwest of Scotland that has long been an active bombing range and aerial maneuver territory, intercut with documentary footage from the air control tower, aerial photography, and snippets of audio interviews with the people who live there. The deafening roar of planes and the omnipresent wind punctuate images of the brittle, isolated landscape, and the piece achieves a sense of place through a repetition of similar scenes and sounds. But Illingworth’s interviews are at odds with the claims to utter isolation that her images seem to make. People live and love here – we can hear that in the voiceover – yet Illingworth takes great pains to leave them out of the picture, focusing instead on building a pervasive sense of dread and precarity. In the end, Balnakiel feels less of an actual place than an artistic construction, one that emphasizes the effect that people, through the brutality of militaristic power, have on the natural landscape.

This, it seems, is the shared perspective of the films in HOMELAND. The four works explore the idea that people and spaces are locked in a reflexive relationship, with each one examining the physical, social, and psychical impact that people have on the environment and what effect that, in turn, has on individuals and society. Most interestingly, the films succeed in this through a displacement of human figures from the frame, as if to suggest that in pushing ourselves out of view we can better consider the traces we leave and the traces we carry away.

October 29, 2011
The Maas Building
1325 Randolph Street
Philadelphia PA 19122
(HOMELAND was part of the Inspiration Information show, which was on view from October 21 through November 12, 2011)


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