by Ann Jones
Lis Rhodes isn’t an easy artist to write about. That the exhibition Dissonance and Disturbance at the ICA represents her forty-year career in seven films doesn’t help. There is a world of difference between the abstraction and pattern of Dresden Dynamo, Rhodes’s 1972 cameraless film in which sound and image come from disrupting the surface of the film by applying Lettratone and Lettraset and using filters to introduce colour, and In the Kettle (2010) and Whitehall (2012), recent works centred around political protests. Yet, somehow, there is a coherence and a sense that there are central concerns explored throughout Rhodes’s career and the body of work on show here is brought together by a consistent approach to layered and collaged imagery that keeps recurring. Ultimately, for me, though the messages may be powerful and important, what makes me want to watch the films is the beauty of Rhodes’s image-making whatever source material she is working with.
Lis Rhodes, Dresden Dynamo, 1972
Dresden Dynamo, a series of patterns in red and blue with an abstract soundtrack of noise, almost but not quite musical at times, fascinated me. The visual element is fast moving, in some ways feeling like a music video, but the soundtrack is jarring and uncomfortable, with brief moments of something approaching a kind of electronic music. This is a work that seems to be absolutely about the stuff of film and the possibilities it offers for making sounds and pictures even in the absence of a camera; at the time the work was made, Rhodes was active in the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, many of whose members shared these concerns. Watching the work now, it seemed to me that a lot of what Tacita Dean said in interviews about her Turbine Hall commission, FILM, is summed up rather better here. Ultimately though, this piece seems very much of its time; it’s an experimental work that tested the boundaries of how the moving image could be used to make art at a time when video was a speck on the horizon. Concerns with the physicality of film recur throughout, with images of film strips featuring in several of the works on show.
Dresden Dynamo alternates with Light Reading (1978) in the first room. The two films share a certain abstraction, though in the case of Light Reading there are discernible sounds and images somewhat abstracted by the editing whereas Dresden Dynamo is wholly abstract. The narrative here – if that’s the right word, there certainly seems to be elements of it buried in there somewhere – isn’t easy to follow, but it’s confusing in a way that definitely keeps me watching.
To some extent all the work here seems to include aspects of collated or layered visuals and this putting together of pictures is something Rhodes does very well. The use of fragmented and repeated images in Light Reading is coupled with a soundtrack that keeps returning to the same questions, thoughts and descriptions. This is self-referential work, very concerned with the politics of representation and rooted in the feminist film theory of the 1970s. The complexity of the image making and the disjunction between sound and image – they often happen at different times: there are both long silences and periods when the screen is blank – make the work a lot more engaging and enjoyable to watch than that sentence makes it sound.
In the second room the works are shown as a two-screen installation, for which Rhodes has created a shared soundtrack, so that A Cold Draft (1988) is seen in relation to both In the Kettle (2010) and Whitehall (2012). This works up to a point, though I found my attention held more strongly by the right hand screen (In the Kettle alternating with Whitehall) to the extent that I remember comparatively little of Cold Draft. The works here are more immediately and explicitly political with the two contemporary works relating to recent protests – with the story of the destruction of the last flour mill in Gaza by Israeli bombing as a potent aside – and it is perhaps the familiarity of the images here that holds my attention. What makes these films interesting is that, despite a strong political message, Rhodes mixes the harsh narrative of protest against war and injustice with poetry and her eloquent brand of image-making, itself highly poetic; documentary footage is mixed with text and softly layered and fragmented images.
Though Rhodes’s work is well suited to gallery exhibition and has been included in some major exhibitions of artists’ film, she has mainly shown work at film festivals. The opportunity offered by this exhibition to allow works to be seen as installation – in particular the melding together of In the Kettle and Whitehall with Cold Draft as effectively a single two-screen work – is an interesting one. And it feels very right for Rhodes to finally have an exhibition on this scale in London (actually I think I’d argue for a bigger scale show). In some practical ways though, for me at least, Rhodes really isn’t well served by this ICA exhibition. Firstly, seven films made over the course of forty years seems like too extreme an edit. I would have liked to see more. The work occupies the upstairs galleries and though the spaces are big enough and dark enough and don’t suffer too badly from sound leak from other rooms, the presentation feels a little too basic. My main grouch, as it so often is with time-based work, is with the seating arrangements (or lack thereof). In each of the two spaces where works are projected there is a single, very shallow, unusually hard bench which seats four at a squeeze. On my visit, most viewers either stood or sat on the floor; in fairness, the floor was probably more comfortable. Given that the longest work on show here is nearly half an hour long, this is far from ideal. Two one-minute films run on a monitor – equipped with a single set of headphones – between the two galleries. It’s not easy to get things right when showing moving-image work in galleries, but in my view an arrangement that makes the audience fidgety and unwilling to give the work time – as this does – is bafflingly unsuitable.
Lis Rhodes: Dissonance and Disturbance is at the ICA until 25 March 2012