Dogs Devouring Horses - catalogue essay on Runa Islam's work at Hamle/the Move, Arter, curated by Başak Şenova
A young woman begins to knock china objects off plinths, in a detached manner but not without consideration, as though she is testing an inner hypothesis.
Setting aside the aesthetic, narrative, or museological readings possible in Be The First To See What You See As You See It, it’s equally worth dwelling on what is explored through Islam’s editing. Repetitions, short cuts, and slow-motion moments confirm yes, you are genuinely seeing that china smash. It firstly can be a reference to the way in which consciousness of time, and our thoughts and actions within it, slows right down when we’re implicated in rapid and violent situations – a matter exploited spectacularly and to the point of banality in the editing of action movies. But the title of the work (a quote of Robert Bresson) emphasises an inadequacy of seeing on a much more mundane level. Even with a fairly meaningless event like the breaking of a china cup, through this title we’re troubled by a break in the connection between what we saw and what happened, as if seeing reality in real time was not quite enough. It is never quite resolvable without additional confirmation, and the pleasure and authority in witnessing cannot be fully taken on without a kind of struggle. Cinema directing tends to take on that struggle on our behalf in films, but this quote of Bresson’s also seems to highlight the need for an act of authorship even in looking.
In Cabinet of Prototypes the camera roves over shelves of objects, almost as if it is searching for something for you to look at. There is almost no clue in either the material nor the form as to what these tangled, leggy, sinuous and awkward frameworks in brass and plastic and wood, are for. But they are display stands for museum objects, with small, illegible string tags referring presumably to what they support rather than anything intrinsic. Support structures rarely have a legible form because they are never given to be seen as themselves. As with Be The First… there is a direct reference to the conventions of museological display; but what is also worth commenting on is how these films address time and the moment of looking. A Prototype is a ‘first’ or ‘primitive’ form, but not in the sense of the Platonic ideal - how can there be a Platonic ideal of any object whose form depends on that of another? Instead, it seems like the prototype is an object that approaches the possibility of existing before the object. After their homunculus-like appeal doesn’t discourage sympathy for this predicament.
Emergence is a very simple film. Filmed from directly above, bathed in the red light and chemical solution of a darkroom process, a black and white image develops on a sheet of blank photographic paper, before becoming overexposed and eventually, completely black. It is destroyed by its process of creation.
The two difficulties I encounter with describing this work provide a way in to its particularities. Firstly, despite the directness of the unmoving frame, there is something of a disjuncture between what we see and what we know we are seeing. (Our general unfamiliarity with analogue photo processes doesn’t help this; this film might have been more matter-of-fact had it been made thirty years ago.) This is most obvious in my description above of a ‘black-and-white’ image, something I can only claim once I know I’m watching a darkroom process: what we actually see is a black-and-red image. The same obviously goes for the photographic paper, which the inattentive eye could initially take for a field of red digital space.
The second difficulty has already appeared in the writing of the above paragraph. What ‘the image’ is has been irrevocably complicated by what I started out telling you is a very simple film. Runa Islam tends to signal the presence of multiple images – not in the linear sequencing of narrative cinema – but the numerous surfaces layered in the same moment each qualifying simultaneously as images. The rectangle of paper; the picture that develops within its bounds; the analogue film that captures the process; the projected image in the exhibition space; and finally the image that forms on our retinas. The filmed birth and death of an image exposes all this a little more clearly.
I haven’t even told you what the picture is of. It’s a slightly inscrutable scene, of dogs feasting on horse carcasses, with one dog looking up at the camera. It was photographed in Iran in an open square sometime during the constitutional revolution between 1905-1907. There’s a wall in the background on the far right, but otherwise it’s a fairly empty space. In contrast to the stratified degrees of separation presented by the image’s processing, there is a direct and immediate contact when we meet the dog’s eyes. This newfound closeness to the scavenging dog and its poor dead horsey meal is enough to make me also ask, absurdly: How does the photo paper feel, watching the horse being eaten? How does the filming camera feel, watching the image consume itself? Here I don’t want to flatten these factors into anthropomorphic equivalence, but this reaction is a symptom of Islam’s mediation of this glance, which has produced a sort of wormhole, a sudden telescopic proximity across time, space, and medium. In essence, it makes me care a little more. This is a function of all photographic documentation, and in fact as Islam points out: only the last sentient recipient of the image can actually feel. But nowadays, as this feeling gets lost in the sheer plethora of documentary images, this renewal of proximity is incredibly important.
As the structure of the text above evidences, there’s a great deal to be known about Emergence beyond the content of the image it depicts. While it is a truism that the current day avalanche of images we experience renders them less meaningful at the point of reception, it could then be proposed that more and more often, images are a mask for everything but their own content. By this I mean that the sidelining of the means and time and material of production of the image, in favour of what it depicts. Eventually, of course, proliferation can cause even the depicted subject to lose significance. Islam refers to this effect as a kind of blindness, prompting her retreat, in recent works, from images that function through semiotics.
All those leftovers – time and material and production of the image – are privileged in This Much Is Uncertain. As with Emergence, the filmic material produces a basic confusion of surface with subject. The first shot is a speckled black surface, which is easily misread as the 16mm filmic surface announcing itself (contemporary art’s modish return to the textures of film as a pleasure in itself has a hand in this misdirection). A moment later, we’re treated to a black-and-white image: the surface of a black rock. As the film alternates between grainy black film and rock surface, the camera begins moving, and our attention is rewarded with the realization that we were looking at images all along: the black scenes are in fact an image of the sand, in darkness; the moving flecks were sparks of light, not flaws in the film surface.
The point of all this sleight of hand between image and surface is not just intellectual pleasure, the reward for those who locate the visual pun between grain of sand and grain of film. Settling on that idea would imply that everything is readable, and places us back in the realm of straightforward semiotics, making the blind image subject to narrative again (‘actually, it was rock’). Instead, this is a work that becomes known to you in its fullness only through the observing of this combination of time, material and image, a process of self-revelation that cannot be replicated by description of depicted content (another reason, incidentally, why this text is so hard to write).
I prefer to think of these gently exposed aspects of the work as a kind of knowledge that is withheld, but exists in becoming known – that is, a secret. This Much Is Uncertain was filmed on Stromboli, a volcanic island famous for its black sand. Every time it erupts, it spills out its own secrets, because what causes this spectacular black sand to glisten is the high content of semi-precious material. Does the volcano know that it is an engine of spectacular wealth? Islam presents us with layers of value; the abstract value laden in gemstones, just as the abstract knowledge value of the black segments of the film was there also, waiting to be discovered.
The film begins to move faster, the camera sliding over the sparkling black rock and producing streaks of white light, and the cuts become shorter, until the initially quiet film becomes frenetic. For urgency, the position of the camera, and the frequency of its cuts, replaces on-screen action. Even when the film moves offshore and bobs around in a boat, it is now less as if the waves are moving, and more that the filmic surface is sliding around over the image of the waves. It is similar to the confusion you get when seated in a moving train carriage next to another one; you’re never sure what is moving in relation to what.
None of these works perform much in the way of narrative, or pictorial identification. What we saw in Be The First… and Cabinet of Prototypes was a complication of the moments of looking, but also a commentary of value. What is given to be seen is invested with value, something as immaterial, intrinsic and as powerful as self-knowledge. In Emergence and This Much … the contact of the medium, surface and images produce a sort of internal reciprocity, a self-recognition that emerges before us. Against all analytical thought, I can’t help but begin to imagine that these images that are not entirely images – the picture of the dog and the black sparkling rock and sand, gain a kind of knowledge of what they are.