Rachael Thomas 2007

Metamorphosis: through a glass darkly

‘Although the elements of land and air and sea were there, the earth had no firmness, the water no fluidity, there was no brightness in the sky. Nothing had any lasting shape, but everything got in the way of everything else; for within that one body, cold warred with hot, moist with dry, swift with hard, and light with heavy’
Ovid, Metamorphose1

Nature, for Ovid, is a violent and intricate force that is intrinsically linked to transformation. Nature having taken its shape out of a primeval chaos can be read as a chain of chaotic and unrelenting elements. Ovid’s multiple narratives of transformation parallel this ever-shifting flow of the physical world.

Western literature found its pre-eminent myth of creation in these stories of change and transformation, and Ovid proffers to us multifold formal schemes, motifs of instability and flux, as a means to represent such a world replete in alchemical and optical speculation. Similarly, Clare Langan’s oeuvre poetically explores these ideas of origin and apocalypse, revealing a complex and shifting range of images both real and imagined. For Langan nature is an infinite sphere.

With today’s full-speed propulsion into virtual dimensions of multifold visual realities we can no longer assume a reality to which our sense of self corresponds to our environment. In a world ‘where tele-presence and tele-robotics are no longer just the ingredients of science fiction novels or utopian visions but features we take for granted in our everyday lives, the concept of space, place and movement must be re-negotiated. Against this background linear time is questioned. Paul Virilio states our world has become ‘ a system of representation of a physical world where future, present and past become interlined figures of underexposure, exposure and overexposure 2’. Informed by this sense of topography well as the narrative disjunctions of Ovid’s text, Langan approaches time as a series of moments that can be actively manipulated to challenge the relationship between memory and our personal and social history. Charged with an oscillation of time her breathtakingly seductive landscapes open up the endless possibilities of reality. Langan’s practice powerfully cultivates introspection elegantly intertwined within elegiac atmospheres. These are extraordinary works that explore these convergences of time, as well as the crossover of reality and fiction, memory and history.

Contemplating the forces of nature is a subject that Langan approaches with a fresh vitality. Her new film, Metamorphosis, 2007, exposes the romanticist strain for isolation and plays with the genre. That is to say the film has evocations of melodrama from the European 19th century school of thought that looks at psychological depth and singularity. Inevitably this takes on a certain existential gravitas when, for example, we see an isolated figure in an interior sequence and question its relationship to the rest of the film. Metamorphosis, renders this predicament of indeterminate selfhood with Langan’s unmistakable sensibility as the figures’ appearance is intermixed with scenes of stormy landscapes, snow filled interiors, frozen glacial surroundings and violent seas. Langan shares the concerns of the monumental landscape interventions of the post –war Land art works by artists such as Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer and Dennis Oppenheim, with visions that suggests a ‘critical and nostalgic notion of ‘the garden’; alternately aggressive and nurturing towards the landscape3’. We are drawn to the epic landscape in Metamorphosis. Scenes appear, and then disentangle into the next abstracted scene, sparse and refined. There is no figure of enlightenment.

Metamorphosis recalls Langan’s acclaimed series, A Film Trilogy, 1999-2002, in its meditations on nature and the construction of a language of nature. Similarly it approaches the camera as an instrument to indicate reverberation; a sense of loss. Metamorphosis deals with issues of cinematic off time, capturing a proliferation of fractured spaces and images. Released from a chronological representation of time, it allows time to become specific as we witness it suspended as a continuous moment.

The visual qualities of beautiful washes of colour by Langan’s hand painted filters, (an early cinematic tool which distorts the colour during the filming) in each scene invokes a painterly perceptive of a subterranean otherworld. The word ‘landscape’ is defined by the literary historian John Barrell as ‘a view or prospect of natural scenery’ and links landscape with theatre. As he states the word ‘scene, applied to a landscape, assumed also that what was being described lay opposite the observer, ‘en face’; and this sense came from its theatrical origin – the flat and square-shaped ‘skene’ behind the orchestra in a Greek theatre. A scene then, in description the landscape, is something opposite you and enclosed by the limits of your vision in very much the same way as a painting is enclosed within its frame4’. Similarly, Langan interprets this translation as her theatrical staging of nature imparts a dreamlike resonance. The colour is also a vehicle for the narrative – whereby distinct segments induces further ontological instability, which drifts us further into a dreamscape of realties. Clare Langan shares this new modus of cinematographic narration with a number of other contemporary artists such as Doug Aitken, Anri Sala and Pierre Huyghe. Their works explore the changing cultural landscape and the new ‘perceptual plateau’ where viewers have been taken to’5. Doug Aitken associates this as a ‘quiet revolution in perception’. This change took place in the in the late 20th / early 21st century and subverts linear hybrid narrative to extremely fragmented experiential way of viewing and obtaining information. Taken from cinema and visual media these artists are cinematically exploring hybrid narratives and fragmented ways of structuring time. Langan’s films are distinct in that they engage the spectators’ own capacity to make connections between disparate images and narratives. Langan echos the pioneering 1960s filmmaker, Alexander Kluge, who ‘gravitated towards developing films that provide the spectator with new and more active ways of engaging with films, ways of activating the spectators’ own capacity to make connections between disparate images and narratives’6. Langan cast a new vantage point of the surface of the landscape. It is shot in a mixture of created environments, maquettes (built by the artist), along with actual natural landscape. There is no clear line between reality and created environments. This, along with Langan’s familiar use of exquisite hand –painted filters, creates a physically powerful visual dynamic in the film, a world that is both familiar yet beautifully unreal. As spectators, we are not only caught between the gaps and fissures breaking up the illusion of linear time but also in the predicament of being unable to discern between what is real and artificial. We are required to transcend our traditional cinematic meaning structures.

Compellingly Langan is a masterful narrator who proscribes a propaedeutic relationship between art and nature, and asks us to look beyond its optical composition. Can we begin to understand its power of resistance in light of our own finitude? Similarly, the legendary film director, Ingmar Bergman commentated on his own practice described

‘Film as dream, film as music. No art passes through our conscience in the way film does, and goes down into the darkrooms of our soul’.7

Metamorphosis could be read as a fable yet if we peer through the glass darkly, Clare Langan offers us the sight to see, while still carrying a debt that cannot be spoken but only witnessed to.

[1] Ovid, Metamorphose , translated by Mary M. Innes, published By Penguin Books, 1955. Pg 29, Book One.
[2] Daniel Birnbaun, notes from The Cowboy Flâneur, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2005.
[3] Land and Environmental Art, Edited by Jeffery Kastner, Brian Wallis, Phaidon, London, 1998.
[4] John Barrell, The Idea of landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840, Cambridge, 1972.
[5] …dontstopdontstop, Hans Ulrich Obrist, published by Sternberg, New York/Berlin, 2006
[6]…dontstopdontstop, Hans Ulrich Obrist, published by Sternberg, New York/Berlin, 2006
[7] The Magic Lantern, An Autobiography of Ingmar Bergman, Translated By Joan Tate, University of Chicago Press.

Rachael Thomas
Senior Curator: Head of Exhibitions

Irish Museum of Modern Art

© Rachael Thomas / Clare Langan