Friday, 6 January 2012


A recent post on this blog displayed an interview with Sophie Fiennes’ concerning her film Over Your cities Grass Will Grow. The activities of the prodigious Fiennes’ clan have once again caught my attention, this time in a collaborative piece between Martha and her brother Magnus.

Director Martha (previous credits: Chromophobia and Onegin) has created an original piece celebrating the nativity: a video ‘painting’ featuring the nativity’s principal characters, moving and interacting with one another against a constantly changing backdrop. Her brother Magnus (who also scored her two feature films) provided the musical accompaniment, a ninety minute extra-diegetic loop. The installation was housed in a timber chalet (somehow reminiscent of an up market Santa’s Grotto) in Covent Garden.

...image courtesy ...please note threatening guard

The installation was taken down on 2nd January and I was fortunate to catch it on the last day. A small queue had formed outside the grotto and a large Russian security guard insured that a ‘one-in, one-out’ policy’ was cheerlessly enforced. An odd touch, I thought, exceeded in oddness only by the stench of souring milk emanating from the dark interior of the chalet. Actually, that may have been an invention: there were lots of children present, and for some reason I always smell sour milk when small children are present in art galleries. Regardless: the small children did not obstruct my view of the nativity scene, displayed on a large flat screen.

The video itself consists of the familiar cast of characters from renaissance interpretations of the nativity- virgin and child, the magi, shepherds, the Archangel Gabriel, Joseph and the dog- all filmed individually and brought together in a computer generated environment. Characters enter and exit the scene at random intervals, meaning that the composition is in a constant state of flux. In addition, the architecture in the middle ground fades in and out to reveal different elements, transporting the scene across through time. The nativity is thus played out against a backdrop of petrol station, laundry, modernist concrete structure, Orthodox church and, of course, stable. Furthermore, weather and light effects- all computer generated- are also randomized. Combined with a background landscape that may at times appear verdant and at other times arid and there are enough elements to ensure that each viewing will produce a series of unique images.

...image courtesy ...note dog.

Though impressively executed this exciting concept somehow doesn't quite satisfy. Though the random compositions can be beautiful, it is difficult to suspend disbelief in the computer-generated origins of the image for long enough to truly engage with the piece. Which is an odd thing to say: I don’t expect a painting to trick me into accepting a reality that isn't actually there. Or do I?

Perhaps the failure of the piece was more to do with company: I could barely hear the soundtrack above the chattering of small children, though this did provide an ancillary to the main piece. Many had apparently entered the grotto hoping to find Father Christmas, and their disappointment was hilarious. On reflection, who would visit Santa Claus after Christmas? A greedy, horrible, spoilt child ignorant of the CURRENT ECONOMIC CLIMATE. I blame the parents, who could be heard muttering things like “Why make children queue up for this?”

Additional entertainment was provided by people exclaiming, very loudly, that they had “Seen this bit” and could therefore be excused from the artistic experience. Would it have been churlish of me to explain that due to the nature of the piece such a statement was impossible? Yes, and I am not a total wanker so I allowed myself an internal chortle.

I left both upset that the crowds had not enabled me to get to grips with a piece that was to be dismantled at the end of that day, but simultaneously very happy to have witnessed and overheard some amusing statements. “Look mum, a little baby!” Yes dear, it’s Jesus. “Where’s Santa?” Children are funny, even if they do smell of sour milk. But two thoughts were left competing for attention: one was the use of (private) security guards to police the use of- and protect against damage to or theft of- public art. I think I pondered this in the Anish Kapoor post from 2010, but I will be revisiting this idea of public versus private in an upcoming post. Secondly, I considered the possibility of digital art to illustrate and express metamorphosis. By lucky hap, I have something to say about that in an upcoming post very soon.

Until then, happy New Year.
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