PRINT May 2008


James Nares

IN HIS 1977–78 SOLO PERFORMANCE Desirium Probe, James Nares became a television transmitter. The piece was performed twice, in downtown New York: once at Joan Jonas’s Mercer Street loft, in 1977, and once at the Kitchen, on Wooster Street, in early 1978. Wearing headphones and white coveralls, Nares stood in a white room facing a television screen, with the audience seated behind it. In his hand was a remote control. For about four hours, he switched from station to station, channeling the words and sounds he heard through the headphones, which only he could hear. He stammered, muttered, sang, and occasionally shouted in a mad mimicry of news reports, sitcoms, dramas, commercials, theme music, as the flickering light from the screen bounced off his pale face and white-sheathed body, bathing the room in a radioactive glow. A physical and mental test of concentration and endurance, a sci-fi twist on “sampling” that predated the rise of the artist-DJ/VJ, an emotionally restrained version of speaking in tongues, a human physiological index of everything aired on TV during a particular evening before lower Manhattan was wired for cable, the seductively titled Desirium Probe was for many of the roughly two hundred people who saw it, including this writer, one of the most memorable performances of the decade. It was never documented on video, and the audiotape that Nares recorded during the performance disappeared years ago. All that remains is a single photograph.

At the time, Nares, who left London for New York in 1974 at age twenty-one, was best known as a filmmaker and as a musician. A member of James Chance’s No Wave band the Contortions, and, slightly later, with Jim Jarmusch, Phil Kline, and Philippe Hagen, of the Del-Byzanteens, he was also part of the downtown artists’ collective Colab and a cofounder of the short-lived New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, where artist-filmmakers employed one of the earliest video projectors to show work shot and edited on Super 8 mm and then transferred to video (Super 8 being extremely difficult to project). Reviewing the series for the SoHo Weekly News in 1979, I wrote that the projector turned all the movies into a garish pink soup. Nares’s contribution was Rome ’78, in which various habitués of the Mudd Club (Eric Mitchell, Lydia Lunch, David McDermott III), garbed in togas and clanking armor or, anachronistically, in lacy skivvies, camped their way through a Fall of Rome script for seventy-five tedious minutes.

An anomaly among the thirty-four films screening this month in “James Nares: Motion Pictures,” a retrospective view of the artist’s work on celluloid and video at Anthology Film Archives in New York, Rome ’78 is Nares’s only narrative feature and probably his only dulling project in any medium. More’s the pity, it’s his best-known film. Last year, however, Nares restored roughly three dozen of the movies he made between 1975 and 2007, transferring the Super 8 films to 16 mm and the early video to more stable, DV formats. Since most of these pieces have never been publicly screened, it is understandable that those who became aware of Nares’s work after 1981, when he turned his energies almost entirely to painting, don’t know that he makes movies, just as those who knew him as a filmmaker and musician in the ’70s were largely unaware that he was also painting and making sculpture.

Nares is going public with his “motion pictures” at a moment when installations are hot and it seems as if every second gallery has videos running in a back room. His approach, however, to the relationships among various mediums of expression could not be further from the contemporary tendency toward multimedia mash-ups and circuslike spectacle. Indeed, purity is the term most typically invoked in discussions of his painting. What Nares has done for more than thirty years is repeatedly run a few potent, related ideas—about movement and stillness, ritual and improvisation, interior and exterior—through multiple media to define the particularities of each. His paintings, movies, photographic and sculptural objects, and performances (musical and otherwise) are related—often paradoxically—to one another through these issues, as well as by certain recurrent images and by the traces left within each work of the performance involved in its making. Coming of age as an artist in the early ’70s, he was influenced by the inscription of process in Minimal and Conceptual art. As his work developed, process was codified as performance.

Among the most haunting of Nares’s films is the seventeen-minute, black-and-white Pendulum (1976). Suspended on a wire strung from a footbridge traversing a deserted Tribeca street, a heavy metal sphere swings back and forth, almost touching the pavement at the lowest point of its arc. Using a Super 8 camera, Nares filmed this jury-rigged, site-specific work, whose purpose was to transform a few city blocks into a movie set, from multiple angles, at both street level and above (looking down from the footbridge and from an enclosed bridge above it). At one point, he attached the camera to the sphere, thus switching from an “objective” to a “subjective” view—as if to depict what the sphere itself was “seeing.” The tension in the cable, straining under the weight of the ball, produced a groaning sound, which Nares amplified by attaching a microphone at a “harmonic point” on the wire, thus transforming the pendulum into a single-string musical instrument.

Pendulum, like several other of Nares’s mid-’70s movies—Hand Notes #2 (1975) and Ramp, Steel Rod, and Poles (all 1976)—was influenced by the films Richard Serra made in the late ’60s, primarily Hand Catching Lead (1968). Both films depict a single, repeated action involving the effect of gravity on a heavy metal object. But the comparison stops there. Pendulum has a haunted lyricism, which has nothing to do with Serra’s interests. The film evokes an anxiety dream: The entropic movement of the groaning pendulum, the claustrophobic effect of the industrial buildings lining the site on three sides, the slivers of sunlight penetrating the dust-laden air, even the occasionally glimpsed shadow of the filmmaker, suggest that something terrible has taken or is about to take place on this desolate street. Although Pendulum, like all of Nares’s moving-image work, is best located within the history of avant-garde film, it also recalls one of the earliest great horror films, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), with its looming shadows and climactic sound of a mill wheel grinding the flour that buries the vampire’s henchman.

A similar sense of dread suffuses Waiting for the Wind (1982), a Super 8 color movie that compresses a three-act psychodrama into some seven minutes. The film opens with the camera careening up a winding stairway and through hallways that lead to an apartment door. We then see Nares on a bed, his attenuated, naked body restlessly stretching and contracting as if warding off bad dreams. The sheets begin to billow and twist, buffeted by invisible currents of energy whose source seems at once cosmic and psychical. Soon, objects begin to fall from the shelves, the furniture is hurled around the room, the walls shake and buckle. The film ends with a series of fast, repeated zooms from the open window toward the full moon. In Waiting for the Wind, the crisis manifested is existential—the meeting of inner and outer forces that elude the control of the subject (Nares), thereby wrecking his mind and body and trashing his life.

It’s not irrelevant that the film was made right around the time that Nares began to devote most of his energies to painting. One can see, in all his paintings, the attempt to find within the tumult a still point. As his painting developed, the still point became an extended moment of equilibrium, reflected in a single undulating, sometimes twisting brushstroke stretched nearly the length of the canvas on which it is made. Nares, who refers to himself as a mad gadgeteer, makes his brushes himself, just as he made the riggings for Pendulum and even devised a special lens for his 2007 video Globe. He also designed a painting table that enables him to immediately “erase” a brushstroke and start anew on the same canvas. Most of the paintings are the result of multiple successive attempts, just as Hollywood movies involve multiple takes of almost every shot. When he works on very large paintings, Nares suspends himself over the canvas using a stuntman’s harness. The details of this ritualized performance are not apparent in the paintings—you would have to know about them to find their traces. What is evidenced, however, is duration. The ribbons of paint are ribbons of time, and one “reads” them from top to bottom or left to right as one reads a movie from beginning to end. And in certain of the paintings, something else is indexed as well. One sees not only the shape of the gesture made by body/arm/brush but, more mysteriously, something that resembles a photogram or multiple photograms of an arm—specifically, the forearm that is the “star” of two of Nares’s most sensuous and tactile films, Block (1976) and Cloth (1998). What confluence of movement, brush, and paint could have imprinted not only the gesture but also an image of the body that made it onto the canvas? Nares has remarked that movies are not the thing they represent—they are haunted by the reality that is absent on the screen—whereas paintings are what they are. But if one spends enough time with Nares’s paintings to get beyond their elegance and presence, one sees that they are haunted in ways that are even more complicated.

In 2001, the artist suffered a severe aneurysm. During his recovery, he became familiar with various tests used to assess brain function. He reproduced one of them in Primary Function (2007), a movie as torturous, absurd, and revelatory of one’s own desire for “wholeness” as Desirium Probe. Nares’s “Motion Pictures” will tear you apart and put you back together all at once.

“James Nares: Motion Pictures” will be on view at Anthology Film Archives in New York from May 16 through May 22.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.