PRINT January 2006


MARTIN HERBERT surveys the artist’s films in which coolly hypnotic, oblique narratives—haunted by the afterimages of ’60s avant-garde auteurs—straddle the borders between cinema and sculpture, art house and art gallery.

I CAN’T HELP IT: I know the female character in Runa Islam’s five-minute 16 mm film Dead Time, 2000, is merely a cipher, a manipulated integer in a calculus of cinematic affectivity—but my heart goes out to her anyway. There she is in the first shot, framed against a blank sky, nearly expressionless yet radiating a sense of the kind of authentic interior life it often takes a nonactor to convey. Still, Islam seems to be trying to tell me not to care too much. In short order, the artist underscores the medium’s materiality with a couple of Godardian edits, slicing unknowable segments of time away from the film so the woman’s movements are repeatedly stopped in midstream, and interjecting overexposed cutaways to a smog-laden cityscape that seems far removed from her position and point of view.

Suddenly, we’re indoors, where we find the woman dejectedly spinning a silver ring around a tabletop, cranking up its gyroscopic solo dance over and over. The air of unrelieved ennui adds Michelangelo Antonioni, pioneering theorist of temps mort, to the film’s parade of art-house shout-outs, while the sound of plashing water, intermittently seeping into the sound track of dismal pizzicato strings and industrial hum, recalls Robert Bresson’s maxim (from his Notes on the Cinematographer [1975]) that “image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.” In fact, the ring’s metallic whirr eventually slips wholly out of sync with the images. At the fade to black, after the object has fallen still, its spinning remains audible, echoing the clicks of the film projector’s tirelessly turning reel—soon to loop over to the start of the “story”—and cuing memory to linger over something indefinable, now gone.

Runa Islam, Dead Time, 2000, still from a color film in 16 mm, 5 minutes.

Dead Time, in the midst of its abundant referentiality, pared-back beauty, and syntactical gamesmanship, suggests a kind of relationship interrupted, whose perpetuation is longed for but refused. But is that connection between the female character and someone she’s lost or awaits—the missing owner of the ring, say—or is it, more abstractly, between her and the viewer, or even between structural elements within the work itself? Such questions arise often in Islam’s icily formal yet essentially humanist films. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and raised in Great Britain, Islam became a cineaste in her teens, drawn particularly to those European auteurs who masterminded film’s burgeoning consciousness of itself. She subsequently studied art history and philosophy prior to pursuing studio practice at Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie. Given this background, with its blend of youthful fandom and scholarly rigor, it’s hardly surprising she ended up with both an enduring fascination for the empathetic mechanisms of filmic narrative—their shadowing, compressing, and tilting of the real—and an analytic bent that leads her to pull apart cinema’s tropes, isolating in the process some of the contingencies of movie-trained vision. The result of these dual affinities is an approach that seems equally at home with Antonioni and Jack Goldstein, Alain Resnais and Catherine Sullivan. Indeed, Islam’s work evinces an awareness that the stylistics of ’60s European cinema, however revolutionary in their time, are now merely another orthodoxy on which to build, recalibrated for the different emphases of the gallery environment and used as a launchpad into more emotive territory. Yet such emotiveness does not mean the pleasures of uncomplicated sentiment: In her densely koanlike works, poignancy continually gets snarled up in a multiplicity of implicated authors, a derailed narrative drive, and an aesthetic that straddles the distinctions between film and sculpture, art and cinema.

Less explicable than Islam’s twin inclinations toward deconstruction and enchantment is how mutually reinforcing these parallel impulses have proven to be. The crux of this seemingly contradictory dynamic may lie in the fact that Islam rarely lets viewers forget their own status as subjective observers and interpreters. One of her earliest films, Stare Out (Blink), 1998, for instance, inveigles the audience into seeing more than is actually present on the screen. After an archetypal numbers-in-circles leader that (along with the heavily scratched 16 mm film) makes clear that the magical stuff of celluloid itself is at least partly the subject of the work, a woman’s face—again expressionless, and facing the viewer—flashes up in gray negative. It holds for some seconds, then flips off again, leaving a white screen onto which one’s retina fleetingly projects the face in positive: an apparition that comes up smoky and faintly sepia, like one of Gerhard Richter’s monochrome portraits. The girl is delicately pretty, a sister to the other New Wave–style sylphs Islam routinely deployed as leads in her early films, reminding us that the self-consciousness of that movement’s (male) architects did not necessarily extend to undermining cinema’s objectification of women. But Islam is evidently less interested in rehashing theories of the male gaze here than in demonstrating how the human eye and memory together form an unsurpassable cine-projector, endlessly creating a desire for identification or connection that can never be quelled since time does not stand still. Invariably, as her microcosms of nostalgia remind us, we apprehend reality at the moment of its disappearance.

Islam’s art insistently locates this phenomenological kicker where the ongoing disconnect and desire for perceptual stability tend to bother us most keenly: human bonds. Abortive or imprecise communions between people, misfires for which language is also partly responsible, recur throughout her oeuvre, often featured onscreen while also being analogized on the level of the tryst between viewer and artist. For example, Tuin, 1998, unpacks and amplifies a (literally) pivotal scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s desolate view of marriage as sadomasochism, Martha (1974). In that film, a 360-degree tracking shot is used to introduce a man who will later marry Martha. By mirroring his movements as he encircles her, the shot, with its suggestion of ensnarement and confinement, prefigures his reducing her to a state of utter subjection. Islam blows up this scene into a triple-screen projection, the planes set at angles to each other: Audiences see her version of the full rotating shot in sensuous, color 16 mm, but also—simultaneously, in black and white, filmed on video—each actor’s point of view, so that the eclipsed personality gets to look back, her objectification slightly lessened. The woman’s point of view as she approaches the man also reveals the little railway track used for creating the circular shot, along with the film crew responsible for directing our view of events in this way. This laying bare of behind-the-scenes machinations creates a Brechtian distance, holding the viewer at arm’s length by insisting on filmic artifice, and preventing identification or suspension of disbelief from taking place—a frustration of intimacy that mimics the gulf between the characters on screen.

As Islam’s career has progressed, this kind of manifold parallax (which adds to its bundling of perspectives the viewer’s own subjective and uncertain take on the event) has been revealed as so much preliminary throat-clearing. In later works, such as 2001’s Director’s Cut (Fool for Love), which feels like a volatile expansion of the film-within-a-film-that-knows-it’s-a-film structure of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), the artist handled a dense proliferation of framing devices for encounters both onscreen and between the subjects and ourselves. Director’s Cut’s double-screen projection appears to have been shot at a theater rehearsal of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, another story about a relationship gone to hell, but there is more than one social dynamic to unpack here. While trying to parse the play’s messy central relationship through nonchronological snatches of storyline, one also watches the director onscreen attempting to use that blunt tool—language—to convey to his actors exactly how they should represent the faulty communication of his characters. All of this is refracted through the Cubist prism of Islam’s discontinuous film syntax: Footage of the actors going through their paces onstage is juxtaposed, via the use of split screens, with shots of them presenting similar but slightly different versions of a scene, lapsing into moments of silence, or practicing offstage with understudies, the dialogue shifting in and out of sync. Between scenes, a smiling figure appears with a clapboard, a cinematic device whose incongruous presence makes one wonder if one is watching a documentary or whether these scenes (and scenes within scenes) are being staged for Islam’s film. More recursively still, Director’s Cut is just one element in a semitheatrical presentation, for the artist has the telecined video projection placed within a gallery installation featuring scenery from the theater set, whose own two-dimensionality and general lack of verisimilitude smoothes the transition from prop to sculpture. Director’s Cut is not a work that explains itself with repeated viewings. All there is to see, finally, is the nest of artificial structures and the organic chaos at its heart.

Runa Islam, Be the First to See What You See as You See It, 2004, still from a color film in 16 mm, 7 minutes 30 seconds.

In Islam’s 2003 double-screen projection Scale (1/16 Inch = 1 Foot), which brought to the fore her latent interest in architecture, the nested structure is organized differently, with theatricality hidden close to its center. The film was shot in Owen Luder’s 1969 Brutalist multistory parking lot in Gateshead, England—a structure first made famous with an appearance in an appearance in Mike Hodge’s Get Carter (1971), and then, due to its unpopularity with local residents, by never being used. Luder’s architectural white elephant was going to feature an eatery on its top floor, exploiting the fantastic views over the region, and it is in this minimalist restaurant that Islam’s elliptical narrative unwinds itself. Two waiters attentively polish cutlery; a couple of elderly businessmen arrive and, while enacting an indistinct mutual antagonism of significant glances, wait for lunch (which never comes, though they declare themselves satisfied). A vintage car—the same one featured in Hodges’s film—purrs around downstairs; later, the characters switch roles so that the older men serve the younger. The camera pulls back to reveal that the swish restaurant is actually a mock-up in the midst of the crumbling building; subsequently, as the actors freeze in place in the roof garden, footage on the other screen pans over the architect’s model of the building, complete with figurines of the young men, one older man, and the car positioned on a lower level of the parking lot. The core issue here is clearly that one’s viewing position (including how much anterior information one has about the subject) determines one’s interpretation—quite literally so, since one screen is smaller than the other and hung in front of it, such that one can never view the totality at a sitting. Yet while the deconstructive propensity and deployment of lost modernist ideals are useful handholds within Scale, they don’t explain it. A big part of what’s seen and heard appears to elaborate the familiar notion that architecture (or the manmade object in general) emblematizes and encodes human thought. In fact, the film, with its fluid, sweeping camerawork and unerringly suspenseful score, seems to propose Luder’s building as a character in itself—as if it had been packed so full of human thought it had become sentient, filled with yearning, and lost in a reverie of what might have been.

Thus the architecture might be said to figure a notion of the self, pegged to the Lacanian view of the subject as predicated on lack, on an absence of and desire for unity. This concept, as film theorists have long noted, was often rehearsed in structural terms by the self-aware ’60s cinema that provides a starting point for Islam’s practice. It can also be detected in more recent endeavors such as David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive (a film Islam has singled out as an influence), where the fundamental lack or incompleteness is expressed not only via formal gestures but in the split, fragmented, or disassociated personalities of the characters. Islam’s twist, in Scale, is to make the incomplete subject a building, and its apparent lack—filled in when the film gives life to the structure’s disused spaces—might be its most human quality of all. Such a pseudo-animist conception of man-made design is an ongoing interest for the artist, as her recent film Time Lines, 2005, demonstrates. Here a 1920s Barcelona cable car, its intricate construction a monument to the defunct dream of man and machine working in perfect harmony, becomes a kind of time machine, successively populated by appositely dressed journeyers from various eras as it glides back and forth over the city’s harbor.

The idea that an object may function as a screen for projected subjectivity and meaning—and thus may double for individuals or constituencies—also provides a reference point within the stylish ontological conundrum of 2004’s single-screen projection Be the First to See What You See as You See It. The title is another borrowing from Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, though Islam’s coolly oblique, slow-motion production owes as much to Resnais, while revisiting the iconography of a famous early slo-mo test film, featuring a jug being broken. Here, again, significance is predicated on a kind of rupture. A young woman perambulates around a neutral space, peering intently at pieces of expensive-looking crockery positioned on plain plinths like objets d’art. Then, casually, she begins to push them to the ground, where they shatter. End; repeat. This sliver of charged narrative begs at first for an explication hinged on what the crockery might represent, some unsatisfying examples of which you can probably think of without even seeing the film. It feels, once again, like the end of something. But ultimately the specificity of the thing is—to throw yet another director’s influence into the mix—a MacGuffin of sorts. You have no idea whether the splintering cups and teapots were actually valuable or, say, picked up in a thrift shop. Only Islam’s framing devices and your own easily led mind have turned them into items of worth, spurs to another relationship, albeit one which the film’s inexorable drive to dissolution refuses to let you hold onto. Under these coercive circumstances, then, the title is an injunction that can’t be fulfilled while watching. Be the First . . . , which dominated the opening passage of Rosa Martínez’s Arsenale show in last year’s Venice Biennale, is probably the most economical yet effective example of Islam’s hitching of the fragmented-and-lacking self to our easily activated nostalgia for what we’ve perceived as valuable, and to our oft-thwarted desire for connection with others. In her art, you can’t see what you see as you see it because Islam is in your path, slanting the view of whatever it might be—unloved crockery, discredited architectural ideals, a girl’s face—while knowing that she can make you care enough to miss it when, as always, it goes away.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.