Susan Mansfield, 'Review' (The Scotsman, 14/07/2009)

Video is taken for granted these days as an artistic medium, and the range is diverse, from works like Douglas Gordon’s Zidane, which wouldn’t be out of place in a mainstream cinema, to experimental shorts which push film in new and often difficult directions.

The playbill of films currently showing at Sorcha Dallas, which traces links between early artists’ films from the 1950s and 1960s and the work of Scottish contemporary artists, is in the second category. All of these films are in some way concerned with the relationship between art and moving image, where the act of drawing meets the art of the camera.

The age of a work of art frequently has nothing to do with how fresh it looks. The oldest film here, Len Lye’s Free Radicals, made in 1950, sparkles with energy. In it, he pioneers the idea of drawing and scratching directly on to the film, resulting in a fluid, moving line which marries perfectly with the energy of his jazz soundtrack. It stands on the cusp between drawing and film – not just taking a line for a walk, but making it dance.

If Free Radicals looks new, Katy Dove’s animations look retro, despite having access to digital techniques Lye couldn’t dream of. Her dancing kaleidoscopes are based on hand-drawn shapes, like abstract paintings brought to life, and have a similarly integral relationship to music. The newer piece here, Welcome, has a soundtrack by Muscles of Joy, of which Dove is a member, with several other Glasgow artists.

Forty years ago, John Latham was animating shapes in a much more confrontational way. Speak, made in 1962, is an 11-minute endurance test of throbbing, flashing images, with a frenzied soundtrack which finds its way into your head like a trapped wasp. It makes its point, pushing film to a point at which it is barely watchable.

Kate Davis’s first film, Disgrace, is also a bit of an endurance test. She, too, is exploring a place where drawing meets film, as well as continuing her dialogue with the representations of women in art history. The camera focuses for ten-second intervals on a nude by Modigliani, each time showing more scribbled lines which Davis has added. Between each is ten seconds of black-out in which a chorus of voices chant “Boo-hoo, boo-hoo”. This goes on for nine-and-a-half minutes, and instead of working with what the medium has to offer, it barely seems like film at all, just a sequence of still images punctuated by sound.

Home by Steina & Woody Vasulka, feels like a piece of playful experimentation, subjecting different household objects to a series of imaging processes and animating them. It is, perhaps, a still life set in motion, though it feels as though the couple’s concerns are less with weight of art history than, “What happens if you do this to the tea pot?”

It makes an interesting comparison with Craig Mulholland, who uses some similar types of image processing combined with stop-frame devices. Like his installations, Mulholland’s films are rich, cerebral and highly polished, referencing writers and thinkers, Old Masters and Moderns. His 2004 film Plastic Casino explores not only a rich web of ideas but also the possibilities of mood which cinema offers. As a darkly surreal urban journey, it rewards repeat viewings.

Subject Exhibition

I am a Camera, Sorcha Dallas, Glasgow
With: Kate Davis, Katy Dove, John Latham, Len Lye, Craig Mulholland, …