Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Rosalind Nashashibi at the ICA

Posted in Reviews by patgibson on October 21, 2009

thumbnailWalking through the crowded rooms of Rossalind Nashishibi’s ICA exhibition I kept thinking about a recent trip I made to the Freud museum. Freud’s original psychoanalytic couch is preserved in glorious technicolour. Strewn with brightly hued Persian rugs and luxurious chenille cushions, and encircled by a miscellany of archaeological artefacts – African, Classical and Prehistoric figures – the good doctor’s divan is an object so dense with auratic overtones – the incalculable influence of psychoanalysis on contemporary culture – I found it hard to breath.

Now in front of me at the ICA was a group of films deeply cognizant not only of Freudian thinking but also concurrent theoretical projects, structural anthropology in particular; bodies of thought so dissected and assimilated, even ossified, in art practice I wondered how Nashishibi could meaningfully retain a voice. Strands of cultural theory quietly percolate though the work – concepts of ‘ the double’ and ‘the gaze’ to name a few – but as I progressed through the show I began to see them as a loose and associative framework through which Nashishibi extends her own investigations.

On the ground floor three films are compellingly condensed into a single presentational arc: a pattern of formal congruencies and departures highlights the focused concerns of Nashishibi’s recent practice. The first film, Footnote, a minute long loop, reconstructs a late night vignette from Nashishibi’s life, with Helke and Thomas Bayrle playing the artist as she reads an issue of Afterall in bed, her boyfriend asleep beside her. The enigmatic image of a toy frog, resting on the ledge of a garden basin, cuts in and out, and the image is washed alternately in orange, yellow, blue and green tint.

Next, Eyeball – perhaps the most instructive of the three- is a progression of found images of human faces, physiognomic detail observed by Nashishibi in the architectural backdrop of New York City, interspersed with observational sequences of male police officers decorously parading outside the First Precinct Station in Tribecca. The observed ‘faces’ – three indentations in a wood panel, circular windows between a brick pilaster, for example – are an aesthetic recall of modernist painting, Picasso in particular, and the primitivist fantasies that inspired him. Sound – the macho bustle of a New York city street – is decoupled from the documentary footage, alienating Nashashibi’s characters from their own subjectivity. The unattributable visage prevails, overwhelming the depersonalised mass of individuals with a primordial archetype.

Last in the triptych, The Bachelor Machine Part 2, consists of three interpolated elements: two parallel screens and a sound recording of a public lecture by Thomas Bayrle during which he digresses to articulate a dystopic vision of technological society. On one-side Bayrle and his wife Helke replicate scenes from Alexnder Kluge’s 1968 Artists under the Big Top, a portrait of circus organiser Leni Peickert. On the bordering screen, blurred images from Nashishibi’s own films, obscured to basic shapes, confirm her ethnographic leanings.

In the upper galleries are Nashishibi’s two most recent works. The Prisoner restages a sequence from Chantal Akermans’ The Prisoner – itself a restaging of a Proustian passage – in which a vulnerable young woman is observered from a distance by a male pursuer as she traverses Paris. Two projectors in the centre of the gallery show the film simultaneously on parallel screens with a short delay between them, as film is thread from one machine to the next. The most consciously cinematic, Prisoner is a rehearsal of means, unpacking and re-presenting a potent moment in film.

Jack Straws Castle, the last and most complex work, opens with naturalistic shots of dense forest from which anonymous male figures emerge. Details from renaissance painter Piereo di Cosimo’s fantastical The Forest Fire – strange unresolved hybrids of human and animal – cut in and out. Night falls and the filmic register shifts, the forest is transformed to an orchestrated film set.  Nashishibi spectacularises the unremarkable actions of a film crew. Orders are remotely issued and obediently implemented, a community in service of cinematic artifice.

N’s hermetic films are never completely sealed off. In fact, intricacies of construction – offsetting the sound of the hollow clack of the protagonist’s heels in Prisoner, for example – paradoxically allow for greater freedom. The artist displaces the social with the anthropological, antique patterns of culture and quotidian social structures. But in framing the subjects of her films she also attempts to frame herself – her mother appears on the set of Jack Straw Castle and Footnote is autobiographical – dissolving, or at least broaching, any implied power asymmetry between artist and the people she observes.