Clare Langan In Coversation with Cristín Leach.
Clare Langan is an Irish artist who makes films in inhospitable places. Her work
has been shown all over the world, including at MoMA in New York. Her first trilogy – Forty Below (1999), Too Dark for Night (2001), and Glass Hour (2002) – was shot underwater, in the desert, and across a molten volcanic landscape. She has made films in Namibia, Iceland, at Skellig Michael, in the sky above the city of Dubai, and on the largely abandoned island of Montserrat. She started shooting in the late 1990s on 16mm film using hand-painted glass filters that operated like eyelids, later moving to unusual film stock, including black and white infra-red. Now she’s working in digital, still making beautiful, urgent art about human fragility and resilience.
In the summer of 2021, we are sitting at her laptop in her home in the wilds of County Kerry, beyond Dingle. The mist is hiding the mountains all around. The windows frame Irish landscape views. There is fresh moisture in the air outside. We have been talking about her 2020 film The Heart of a Tree, and she is about to show me some clips from the film she is editing. It’s called The Rewilding.
Clare Langan: The proposal for The Rewilding was written in 2019. It was just after I did a masterclass with Bernie Krause who’s like the godfather of soundscaping. He’s been collecting the sounds of animals and insects for the last sixty years. He has something called the Great Animal Orchestra. It had me thinking about this idea of letting the landscape do what it does without human interference and in Germany, where I was, they were practising this. It was this idea that it wasn’t just the landscape that needed to be rewilded but also us, as humans.
This was shot in the summer of 2020, just after the first big lockdown, very close to where I live. Rather than me going far away to make something in a different kind of landscape, I was making something home-based. I worked with a dancer, Rachel Poirier, who together with her partner, Michael Keegan Dolan, are neighbours. In the film, we had Rachel performing and her two children and my son. We also had two wolves, an owl, and a raven.
Cristín Leach: As in … actual animals and birds?
Actual animals … We had an animal handler come down from Wicklow. And we had Robbie Ryan over again, who I have collaborated with on the cinematography for the last twenty years.
When you wrote it, were you imagining shooting it somewhere else?
I hadn’t really decided.
And when you say you wrote it, how do you write your films?
The films I’ve been making have been funded by Arts Council projects awards, so you really start with a core concept and build out from there. You’d write sample scenes and also talk about the visual aesthetic and music or whatever else you’re going to bring in. But it does often change. Most of my films come about through the actual process of making them.
With The Heart of a Tree, I had originally intended to film that in the Redwood forests in California. It was just after the wildfires out there. And then, when it came to actually shooting, in the summer of 2019, it felt stronger to shoot in a place that had no trees. I collaborated again with Maria Nilsson Waller, who’s a Swedish choreographer based in Ireland. We talked through the concept of the importance of trees and having air and how precious that is, and how air is the new gold. So the costumes, these balloons that people had on their back, came about through the idea of them having exterior lungs. And what the performers – Marcia Liu, Erik Nevin, and Maria – were doing in Iceland was steam collecting. With The Heart of a Tree, deciding to shoot somewhere like Iceland changed the direction of the film. Then, in the editing process, I turned the film upside down in parts so there’s a real disorientation and you’re wondering are they on another planet or is this an alternate earth? A future earth?
What’s happened to gravity?
Yeah, what’s happened to gravity? The outfits have a futuristic space feel. What I write is really the core concept, but what I make can often look very different. It’s funny sometimes because my descriptions are not like a normal script, especially for someone like Robbie.
How do you describe something that will be made in the making so people can know what they need to do to make it?
I guess because they’re also experienced. I mean, how do you say to someone you’re the steam collector? It’s really up to the performer. Everyone is in their own imagination as well. They’re bringing their talent and their take on it to the final image. Stefan Arni found this location and I had never heard of it before. It had been a ski resort but there’s no longer snow on the glacier year-round, which in itself is quite extraordinary. It had all these steps going up and up and up, and it’s really highly active volcanically, so there are just these booms coming from the earth. It’s an amazing, powerful place. So trying to prep in advance, having never been there, for what that was going to be like, was really hard.
That’s a leap of faith, isn’t it?
It's a total leap of faith. I mean that was such a tough environment to work in. Everything was incredibly steep, and you’ve got performers with these three foot balloons on their back being held together with plastic and there are winds blowing down through the mountains … That completely dictated the movement because all they were able to do most of the time was just hunker down and hold on. There’s steam coming out of all these holes in the ground and fissures. You can only be so prepared!
Tell me about the costumes?
They’re actual balloons. Blown up and strapped on like backpacks. So it was quite funny. People would come across the mountains from a different direction, hiking … and some of the comments were very funny, like, is this the future? And people were really quite worried that there’d been a disaster. It was a strange sight to encounter if you were just off on a hike.
Especially at this time in the world …
I know, though this was shot pre-pandemic. I finished it in February literally just before the first lockdown, so in a way it was quite …
… prescient? The importance of clean air and all of these things?
Exactly. That’s what it was about.
And it’s thrown into relief by a virus that’s carried in the air.
The end of the film where the performers have taken off the balloons and they are planting small trees ended up being like a meditation. They were planting these little trees in a kind of mandala, like a sun radiating out, and they ended up doing this really slow, meditative walking and movement. There’s a positivity there, a regeneration. The music-over that I chose for that is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Odi et Amo, sung by Theatre of Voices, an amazing Danish group. It gives a reverence to what the performers are doing: this is the most important thing, this regeneration. We should be bowing at the altar of this, not all the other shite. It’s quite simple if you pull apart the concept of the film and go, trees are really important, they help provide the air that we breathe. But then you go, actually, this is so important, this is really what we need to be awake to, reacting to, thinking about.
You’re saying that’s a positive end to the film – we’re observing these people being very meditative and focusing on the most important thing. But the other thing is that we’re not doing that …
I guess that’s the point. If something doesn’t move you, do you bother? I do try and make things that are emotive. Sometimes that’s almost like a dirty word in the art world you know?
This is why I was asking how you write the films. Are you describing a feeling more than a visual aspect to the collaborators? Because you’re intending it to be emotive. It’s driven by feeling.
Yeah. It is. I want things to be emotive in a way that music is emotive, in a way that you can’t quite explain … I do think this film makes you feel sad, because it’s like a lament for a past world. But we’re not in that world.
The physical smallness of us in the bigger picture is always a pertinent aspect of the work. The people look like ants in a way …
Yeah, and I suppose Bernie Krause comes in then with his Great Animal Orchestra … And the whole thing about that is a lot of the insects and animals he had recordings of are already extinct.
When I was first looking at your films in 1999 and 2001, I wasn’t thinking in this way, but they are always about humans in difficult landscapes. If you think back tothe start of making films like this, were you thinking about climate then?
I was thinking about climate. I think it was through my own awareness of the landscape and how I felt in it.
It always felt personal … not in a this-is-a-film-about-how-Clare-feels way, but this is a film about people and then humanity. Or a person, then people, then humanity.
Yeah, it is about humanity existing in this world and dealing with various existential elements, and it went from the wide focus on the landscape to being more of a focus on people over the last number of years.
I think the first film I did where it was about relationships was Flight from the City (2015). That was kind of a turning point. Maybe subconsciously I had a fear of actually dealing with that or working with human relationships. There’s a mother and child in that, and it was for Jóhann’s piece of music Flight from the City where he just gave me the music and absolutely no instructions and said, make whatever you want, just react to that … It’s shot with a really old friend of mine, Tristan Gribbin who lives in Iceland, and it’s with her daughter Leela who was nine at the time. Tristan had recently lost her father and I had been through various things myself so there was a sense of love, loss, connection, letting go. And that film was so simply made. They were the instructions, that was the conversation, and then it was just me mainly with a handheld camera, and them in this hot pool in the Icelandic mountains and it’s just very, very simple, but it’s very real because they really are a mother and child ...When I edited it and put it to the music, I did a lot of slowing down and it became like a water ballet. And then Jóhann used it to launch his album in 2016, Orphée, and when I read his description of the album, it was all about love and loss and transition, splitting up with his wife and moving from Denmark to Berlin, I think it was, and it was really strange.
You heard that in the music?
I must have.
And it came to you as an iteration of this relationship.
It was kind of amazing. When he saw the film, he was like, oh wow …
But isn’t that the thing about art? When art tells you something that you didn’t even know was in it. That’s the bit where the intention of the artist has gone into the work, however visible or not it is, but somebody paying attention to the work hears it back on the other side.
Absolutely, yeah. It’s amazing. And the film wasn’t made as an art piece – he just said, will you make a film for me? So that’s what I did, and then you end up with this film that has universally connected with people because it’s on YouTube and it’s been seen millions of times. That one was a game-changer for me, and it came from left-of-field because I wasn’t making it for the art world. I was making it for someone whose music I liked, as a friend. We’d had a different intention. And that kind of made me go, hmmm, okay, so what happens from here on in with people in your films?
Will we see if this will work now, The Rewilding?
[The laptop has been refusing to play the mid-edit footage with sound. Clare restarts the laptop, opens the file again … it plays.]
They look really precarious.
They are. They’re meant to be stuck on an island at the bottom of a cliff, which is kind of where the adults have taken us, and what happens is the kids are the ones who listen to the animals and to nature and follow them to find a way out. It feels more narrative than my other work.
It’s also interesting finding your locations on your doorstep when you’re so used to travelling to film.
It’s a cliff down at Ballydavid, and I’d walked along it many times and then I looked down and it looked kind of amazing down there and the next thing I looked and Loic [Clare’s son] was down there, and I was like, how the hell did you get there? It’s just a little sheep trail. It was a bit precarious getting down, but then we realised it was a really rich environment. It was incredible. So, working with the restrictions of the pandemic, you know …
But also finding what you need, right there.
Yeah, and just this idea of being trapped as well because we all were a bit trapped.
Is this in colour the whole way through?
It is, yeah.
Is that the first time you’ve done that?
It is really. They end up in a forest.
This is really luscious, jungly. Where is this?
It’s actually Kells Bay, which is also not too far away. It’s just over in south Kerry.
It looks really tropical, doesn’t it?
It is really tropical and obviously the sound is making it feel more tropical than it actually is, but it’s unusual in that it’s a primeval forest.
There’s a distancing mechanism with the early films with the camera being far away and the person being small in the landscape but this is really close-up, we’re very close here to the people in the film … A different feeling, isn’t it?
To a certain extent it’s more challenging for me to edit ... And it’s quite hard to edit performance, children, and animals – two of those elements are totally doing their own thing – and creating a story out of that.
What about the other film you’re making right now?
Alchemy, or that’s the working title anyway. Alchemy is the process of transformation, of turning something into gold. And it’s using that idea of the pandemic and what people have gone through and again how we chose to go forward. The film starts in black and white. It’s shot in the recently burnt part of Killarney National Park and because the landscape is burnt and the performers are negotiating their way through, it really resembles a war zone, which gave me a shock because I hadn’t intended that. But that’s that whole thing of mixing concept with location. The first part of the film feels very claustrophobic. It turns to colour at some point, and you’ll see the burnt stub of a tree with this beautiful bright green fern unfurling from it. It was amazing because over the period of three weeks from the first time I saw it to the day we actually did the shoot the regrowth was happening at a fast and furious rate. Obviously not the big trees, they were gone, but …
… but it wasn’t completely dead?
Not completely dead, and so it kind of ends in a completely different place to where it began. It was my metaphor, again, written as a concept, but it is going to be an emotive film. I just hope that the transformational part of it comes through very strongly.
Do you think that’s a shift from the early work?
I suppose because I’ve been making work for twenty or more years, you kind of feel like a moral obligation to have hope, or to want to have hope, or maybe this is also because you feel the necessity for hope right now. I’m not saying I find it easy to do. I’m also not sure, because these are works-in-progress, how it’s finally going to come across in the finished artwork.
But even the process of going from black and white to colour, or capturing something that’s burnt and then something that’s growing, and also in The Heart of a Tree with the planting in a mandala …
What keeps us moving forward is hope and hope in a way is the seed of creation too. If you had no hope, you’d give up. But I think that’s it – maybe not quite knowing where things are going, but knowing you’re going to keep up this reinvention, this regeneration.