The first instalment of COLLECTIONS, a new series in which Daniel & Clara gather together thematically connected materials as they map their own path through the history of cinema and moving image art.
Sunday 29th September we awoke early and headed out into the rain, we arrived at the Whitechapel Gallery as they were opening and went upstairs to look at the exhibitions. In a room dedicated to the musical experiments of artists connected with the Fluxus movement, we watched a video of a piano being destroyed. Record covers lined shelves high up on the wall, we spotted some familiar names: BEUYS written in his signature red paint, Nam June Paik, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, John Cage, and one of our favourite albums, Yoko Ono’s FLY.
Our main reason for visiting the gallery was for V-A-C LIVE: This is not (a) cinema event, a day of screenings featuring films by Vladimir Kobrin. As we waited for the films to start, we spoke of Fluxus, creative systems, order and chaos and how throughout 20th century art much innovation and inspiration has grown from the use of everyday materials, consumer objects and the fallout of industrial society. Cubism, arte povera, underground film, happenings, punk and so many more have gathered trash and transformed it into art, have taken inspiration from the rubble and ruins of war and found beauty and inspiration in thrift store finds.
Soviet filmmaker Vladimir Kobrin was born in 1942 and worked for most of his life at CentrNauchFilm studio in Moscow where he produced over fifty scientific educational films, but as noted in the V-A-C programme text: “Despite being commissioned by scientific societies his films transcend the documentary, offering seamlessly crafted essays that testify to Kobrin’s science-infused macabre.”
When watching his films it becomes quickly clear that technical and formal experimentation is his primary concern, with the scientific subject matter coming second and decreasing as his career progressed, eventually vanishing completely from his later works.
We watched nine of his films at the Whitechapel, a few of them we’d seen before but these two, which we were seeing for the first time, absolutely stunned us.
Vladimir Kobrin, 1991=HERE AND NOW, 1991
Vladimir Kobrin, The Last Dream of Anatoli Vasilievich, 1990
The films of Kobrin brought to mind a great array of junk store visionaries and creators of wasteland epics, artists such as Jack Smith, Mike and George Kuchar, Kenneth Anger and the Buharov Brothers, and many others who with limited means created cinematic spectacles of unrestrained visions. Possibly the greatest of these is the British artist filmmaker Jeff Keen.
Born in Wiltshire in 1923, Jeff Keen was an incredible creative force who lived and worked in Brighton where he produced groundbreaking works in all manner of forms including poetry, drawing, painting, performance, assemblage, sculpture, publications, sound art, cinema and every conceivable crossover and space in between. For us he is truly one of the greats of 20th century art. We highly recommend seeking out the BFI boxset GAZWRX: The films of Jeff Keen, one of the few collections of his films in distribution.
Jeff Keen, RAYDAY FILM, 1968 – 1976
During WWII, at age 18, Keen was drafted into the national service, an experience which stuck with him for the rest of his life and to which he returns again and again in his work. He finds the energy of war inspiring and invigorating, part of the dynamic of creation itself, that’s not to say he was pro-war or a violent or aggressive man, but he understood the force of destruction as being a fascinating aspect of the human psyche and an essential ingredient in his artistic process.
When it comes to heroes in British art cinema we can’t talk about Jeff Keen without mentioning Derek Jarman. Born Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman in 1942, Jarman’s childhood was spent moving between different RAF bases where his father worked, the echoes of these military environments and the aftermath of the war lingered with him and can be traced throughout his films.
In the mid 80s, under Margaret Thatcher’s government which caused great political unrest across the country, he made the Super8 masterpiece The Last of England. Depicting a dream narrative of a shattered country, it was filmed mostly in Bankside on the river Thames on the same locations where Stanley Kubrick shot his film Full Metal Jacket. Jarman’s friend and producer James Mackay has told us about how they would climb over the fence in the evenings to sneak in and shoot.
Excerpt from Derek Jarman, The Last of England, 1987
All the filmmakers mentioned here play on the threshold between destruction and creation, order and chaos, they follow the creative spirit across a world in ruins and dare to imagine the possibilities of transformation. What they lack in budgets and resources is made up for with artistry, passion and an optimistic belief in the human spirit. To create is an optimistic act, to imagine can be the beginning of a journey towards building a new world.
“If words fail, use your teeth. If teeth fail, draw in the sand.” Jeff Keen
We leave you here with one final film, a short document of inventor, artist and performer Bruce Lacey with one his robots.