No Place to Stay
Clare Langan’s post-apocalyptic trilogy of films, Forty Below,1999, Too Dark for Night, 2001 and Glass hour, 2002, individually and collectively offer us visions of a future in which the forces of nature appear to have overwhelmed the human hold on the planet. The causes of environmental catastrophe are never specified, but there is no doubting the fact of catastrophe. In the most recent film, Glass hour, a hapless, vulnerable figure is glimpsed moving through a simmering, volcanic landscape. There is no straightforward linear narrative, but a cumulative, compelling sense of a huge, industrialised environment being engulfed by a vast lava flow. All this is conveyed in the form of shots of molten, seething terrain, of abandoned and crumbling factory installations – and of what looks like a domestic structure bursting spontaneously into flame as the lava approaches.
In an unobtrusive way, a resonant image of a vacated, destroyed or disintegrating domestic space is at the heart of each work, most explicitly in the central film Too Dark for Night. Here the unidentified protagonist journeys purposefully across the desert towards a house in a deserted settlement, a town that has, we learn, already been engulfed by advancing sands. Shots of a grove of petrified trees reinforce the fact of calamity. A sequence of images provides an inventory of a home hurriedly abandoned and now invaded by sand. This inventory stands as a general portrait of domesticity, of refuge, of a lost sense of belonging in the landscape.
Each film details the consequences of a different kind of catastrophe. Forty Below plunges us into a world that is both drowned and frozen. In Too Dark for Night desertification has overwhelmed the human presence. Glass hour posits not so much a volcano, perhaps, as a vast lava outflow of the kind that has engulfed huge tracts of the earth’s surface in the past. In the context of an increasing awareness of the destructive effect of human activities on the biosphere, it is not unreasonable to draw a cautionary ecological inference from Langan’s trilogy, not least because of its many references to industrial activity. But, while such a line of interpretation is certainly left open, the work itself is never anything other than ambiguous in this respect. As other observers of her work have noted, her films “are pervaded by a sense of uncertainty. “Often it is not clear “what is real and what unreal.”
The dreamlike structure and striking optical qualities of the films do a great deal to bolster a sense of their subjectivity, blurring the boundaries between real and unreal. All are dreamlike in their lack of linearity
and, it could be argued, their logical implausibility. In each an individual, unnamed protagonist, without visible resources, is completely alone in extremely hostile terrain, moving through a bizarre, vacated world with an impunity that could be interpreted as detachment or indifference. The plight of the protagonist, alone in a post-apocalyptic world, recalls various literary and cinematic narratives, but there is no attempt to emulate such narratives. The usual function of the cinematic protagonist is to avert disaster or make good its effects, but Langan’s protagonist is an oddly passive witness and, for much of the time a flickering, insubstantial presence who fades quietly into the background, who might not even be there at all.
Optically the films are extraordinary, and not only because of the choice of extreme, exceptional locations in Ireland, Iceland and Namib Desert. Frame for frame and film by film, it is hard to think of more compelling,
eerily beautiful evocations of a strange, hallucinatory imaginative world. The audaciously distorted, strongly coloured, sinuously mobile surfaces of the images are a result of Langan’s practice of devising customised, hand-painted filters during shooting. This means that the distortions of form and colour are never subsequent enhancements but are integral to the original filmed image. She pushes the photographic process and format to extreme lengths, making remarkable, pulsing, lens-shaped images that verge on abstraction.
It was inevitable and appropriate that the trilogy’s iconographic template, the theme of a human figure rendered insignificant in the face of the scale and power of nature, would be measured against the Romantic model, of which Casper David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above a Sea of Mists is a prototypical pictorial example. And Langan can plausibly be identified as a post-industrial romantic given the sublime mingling of dread and beauty, the unmistakable exhilaration that accompanies an intimation of the destructive force of nature, that is surely evident in her films. Her own statement, that her work is about “man’s brief fragile existence in the face of the apparently limitless force of nature” is consistent with this view.
Besides viewing her work in relation to Romanticism, however, there are also certain links between it and that of a number of Irish painters, not only in terms of the obvious, though perhaps superficial correspondence
with the apocalyptic vision of Francis Danby in The Opening of the Sixth Seal, but also, less obviously, with the mid-twentieth century generation of landscape painters. The work of Patrick Collins, Camille Souter and Sean McSweeney, to take some of the most notable exemplars, generally invites such epithets as lyrical, poetic, romantic, and even spiritual.
All of which is true. Certainly with the benefit of hindsight, however, one can also see something tougher there, something that has to do with their common penchant for dealing with landscapes characterised by transience, loss and impoverishment. There are historical, as well as personal historical reasons for the sense of dispossession and alienation that comes through in many paintings of the Irish landscape, in contrast to the character of landscape painting in Britain, to take an obvious and pertinent example. This is not necessarily to argue that Langan is a natural successor to that generation of artists, but to suggest that there are links between her work and theirs, and the links are interesting and relevant.
It is self-evident that her trilogy is concerned with a post-apocalyptic world, but it would be a mistake to presume that it cannot equally be concerned with the everyday world of here and now. Most immediately, it addresses our relationship to what might be described as the world as the Kantian thing-in-itself, a congeries of materials, forces and processes distinct from and, as Langan’s films forcefully conclude, blankly indifferent to our sensory perceptions of it. And indifferent, of course, to our cognitive efforts and emotional states.
Behind the distorting screen of appearance, which is of course all we know in Langan’s films, the world may well dismiss us and our preoccupations. There is a paradox between the considerable visual and aural beauty of each film and the way each pointedly and firmly refuses us a foothold. Each initially seems to propose a quest, a purposeful protagonist, but in each case the implied promise of eventual comfort is broken, the idea of a destination comes to nothing. The various romantic responses of an identification with nature, subservience to divine will or some other transcendental experience, that allow a degree of comfort, are effectively precluded.
We are offered glimpses of recognisable, perhaps even promising worlds that, it transpires, were never and can never be ours. Or, if we regard the images as translated versions of our own world, the implication
is that there is something ultimately deceptive about its apparent familiarity.
The presence of a rootless, itinerant human subject poses the question of how one might find a place in this world, but the implicit answer is always that there is no place for us. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s words:
…the cunning animals
realise at once
that we aren’t especially
in the deciphered world.
The world is deciphered by means of our efforts to make it familiar to ourselves. We do so through different symbolic systems of knowledge and belief, some empirically or logically based, others based on revelation, instinct or aspirations, all variously consistent or inconsistent with the facts, with the thing-in-itself. But from our immediate point of view, such systems possess the common appeal of making intelligible what would otherwise be hopelessly alien, making an amenable, imagined work from an indecipherable one. No matter how fine the mesh of the symbolic net we cast, however, sometimes the inescapable otherness and coldness of the world is likely to slip through. This might take the form of, in Schopenhauer’s formulation, an overwhelming blankness. It often seems that Langan’s films take the world close to this state of unredeemed blankness. For in them, as Rilke, again, put it:
…there is no remaining,
no place to stay.
© Aidan Dunne / Clare Langan