Runa Islam @ Musee D'Art Contemporain

Runa Islam , Be The First To See What You See As You See It, 2004
Edition of 3,16-mm film with sound, Duration 7 min 30 sec
Copyright The artist, Photo : Gerry Johansson; Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)


Runa Islam
Musée d'Art Contemporain
185, Sainte-Catherine Ouest
Montréal, Québec
H2X 3X5

Musee d'Art Contemporain, Montreal and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, commissioned a new work by Runa Islam in 2010. Magical Consciousness debuted in Montreal in the spring, and opened in Australia in autumn. The installation at MACM included four additional pieces from her body of work: Assault (2008), Untitled (2008), Be the First to See What You See As You See It (2004), This House Belongs to Those Who Inhabit It (2008) and Indelible Encounter (2009). Together, the pieces performed some loose explorations of the relationship between the moving image and the still, but overlapping concerns were absolutely secondary to the pronounced voice of each individual piece.

Assault was installed mere feet from the MACM exhibition entrance, suspended front and centre. On walking in, the viewer's gaze was returned by a man who seemed almost to be blinded by an unseen, polychromatic light source. Assault features a ruthlessness that is reminiscent of Richard Avedon as far as unflinching exposure of a subject, but Islam's piece is abstracted away from a 'real' individual via theatrical makeup and anonymity, and is intensified with unreal colour. Her subject winces uncomfortably and the viewer becomes complicit in a form of looking that seems somehow violent. Its positioning in this particular exhibition set a strong tone, reminding you immediately that there was power in how you would see what you were about to see. But in something of a literal reversal, the piece as installed exercised some power over the viewer, too: it was difficult to escape the confrontation. Because the screen was suspended, the projection was visible from both sides and Assault continued to grimace at you even after you had walked past it to the next work, Untitled. Another film that engages portraiture, Untitled cuts quickly through still, abstracted details of an image that is gradually revealed to be not only a historic photograph of three women, but a photograph of that photograph. Untitled slips the print into multiple simultaneous contexts and a linear flow, mimicking photography's static nature with still shots while at the same time recreating it as a time-based medium.

Runa Islam, Assault, 2008
Edition of 3, 16-mm film , Duration 5 min 31 sec
Copyright of The artist; Photo : Jon Lowe; Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)

Referencing Bresson in the title and Resnais in its breaking vessels, Be the First to See What You See As You See It is an acclaimed piece, rife with tension around beauty that is both cold and fragile. In it, a woman repeatedly tips china dishes off of pedestals. The film negotiates an absorbing balance between hard and soft. The colour palette is delicate, as is the pre-descent chime of porcelain bells and gently rattled teacups. These are contrasted by the explosive violence inherent in shattering dishes, but even in the moment of impact, slowed film creates a fascinating beauty around the destruction. A close-up of the woman's full lips is a foil for the unyielding reserve of her expression. Though the piece pre-dates Mad Men, there is something of Betty Draper in the detached prettiness of the of the female subject. She recalls a severely neat, utterly composed version of femininity that seems more in keeping with stereotypes of the 1950s than of any subsequent, more revolutionary eras. The aesthetic echos the china pieces which are themselves cool, precise and lovely. In each incident, she begins by fondling the object lightly, which leads to rocking it gently. The build up to the fall is gradual; anticipation intensifies as the piece is gently wobbled towards the pedestal edge, but, again, this is contradicted by her seeming nonchalance. The moment of succumbing to gravity signals not only the destruction of a teacup, but of decorous (feminine?) social norms that would dictate one not destroy perfectly good objects, particularly if they are sanctified by a museum pedestal. In each case, an austere construction of beauty is shattered and it is left to the viewer to determine whether this is disconcerting or satisfying.

Be the First to See... was a tough act for Magical Consciousness, the star of the show, to follow. Fortunately, Magical Consciousness is, likewise, complex and beautiful. An engagement with experimental film, the work reflects a contradictory version of minimalism that is steeped in metaphor. The piece is essentially a prolonged meditation on the gilded, reverse side of an opulent Japanese screen. While it is formally reductive, it invites - rather than diminishes - analogy and projection. As the film is black and white, the depicted screen becomes silver, and it is actually remarkable that a piece which ends up centered around such an obvious, literal metaphor - the silver screen - is as successful as it is. At times the screen is folded, the collapsed joints creating starkly contrasted fields that in some shots vaguely resemble abstracted, cinematic architecture. When it is opened flat it can't help but recall the opening seconds of a silent film - but in this case, no narrative will ever develop. What the film seems instead to focus on is the potential for narrative, or imagination. As much as it references the literal screen of the theatre, it also, nudged by the title, alludes to the notion of our consciousness as a shimmering, blank canvas onto which is projected multifarious hopes, narratives and desires. Again, veering away from the theoretical minimalism or formalism invoked by the pared down visual elements, when one understands the front of the screen is ornately decorated, this sense of being party to the underlying, more fundamental elements of creation is intensified - as is an awareness of strategic mediation of the artist-chosen frame in terms of what is hidden and revealed. And, as with Untitled, static, silent shots of a motionless object question the difference between film and photography. Here, long, linear scratches on the emulsion delineate the specific idiosyncrasies of film, echo the structural elements of the japanese screen and, in their flickering, add a dynamism and an abstract life-like quality.

Runa Islam , Be The First To See What You See As You See It, 2004
Edition of 3,16-mm film with sound, Duration 7 min 30 sec
Copyright The artist, Photo : Gerry Johansson; Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)

The MACM show included two old photographic plates constituting a piece titled Indelible Encounter. Its historic aesthetic related strongly to Untitled, but what stood out most palpably in the midst of the hovering, fluid screen images was the physicality of the thick, glass plates which emphasised the 'objectness' of a photographic print. Bits of the plates were cracked into solid chunks and the fragility, the mortality, of the medium ran counter to the title, but was echoed by its subject, dogs eating a dead horse. The final film shown was The House Belongs to Those Who Inhabit It. Certainly the most political of the works, it depicts an abandoned structure in the quasi-wilderness of South Tyrol; the projection was installed in a rough, wood-frame structure that served to deepen the viewer's psychological immersion into the subject. The motion of Islam's camera actually traces the words of the title. Sweeping up and down through levels of decaying architecture, offering, alternately, peeks and vistas of wooded hills, it ultimately rests on the graffitied phrase that inspired the work. It's an interesting reverse mechanism - graffiti is cast onto a building and left on location in an act of philosophical claiming, but here, Islam's film-writing, rather than marking the building, draws it into an artistic expression that can be transported anywhere. It does, to a degree, though, act the same way in terms of claiming territory - that particular setting can't be used by another artist, now, without it constituting a direct reference or appropriation.

Runa Isam has a strong, unique voice that is capable of traversing wide territory and operating on many levels without losing its focus or character. Her aesthetic is considered and authoritative. Working from an inherently non-narrative structure, her associative scope runs the gauntlet from specific art theory and history to abstract sociocultural themes - often simultaneously. In their commission, MACM and MCA have received a genuinely distinctive work that relates effortlessly to her earlier pieces while forging its own areas of inquiry.