PRINT February 2015


James Richards, Raking Light, 2014, digital video, black-and-white and color, sound, 7 minutes 5 seconds. Installation view, Cabinet Gallery, London.

JAMES RICHARDS'S seven-minute video Raking Light, 2014, begins with a slow panning shot of a glass desk. Bright sunlight reflects off the camera lens and the desktop, which appears to be embossed with a pattern of fingerprints. In fact, this surface texture is neither deliberate nor decorative. It is, however, entirely bodily in its making: The pattern is the accumulation of daily life, formed not only from fingerprints but also, according to Richards, from dust, detritus, and semen. Shot in extreme close-up, the fingerprint whorls are unambiguously apparent—these are not just graphic traces but material ones, obviously corporeal, subtly carnal. Just as the camera pulls back to show the desk clearly, this intimate, visceral sequence cuts to a dramatic scene of fireworks in a forest, shot in black-and-white. It is as if the trees are raining light. A montage of fleeting, mostly black-and-white imagery follows: leaves fluttering in a pale gray sky, flat grids of fencing that evoke predigital data-plotting systems, frothy white rolling waves, a gently hunched weeping willow in a lake, a flock of birds flying over an apartment building, branches dancing in the wind, a shirtless young man.

The recurring motifs of fire, water, wind, and earth lend the work a literally elemental, archetypal quality. But such classical typologies are belied by the video—nature in Raking Light is neither stable nor orderly. Shots reappear in negative; the fireworks that were once light now appear as cascades of dark falling ash, and the trees as pale phosphorescent forms against inky backgrounds. This use of inversion creates an uncanny sense that the film is haunting itself. The eeriness is enhanced by a fractured, sometimes grating sound track composed of samples of music and sounds collected from various sources, such as the gospel singer Odetta and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s vocal compositions. Repeatedly, both the imagery and the sound track seem to move toward a form of climax, yet one that fails to reach its peak, as Richards deftly edits, rapidly shifting scenes and changing momentum. Despite this eschewal of resolution and denouement, Raking Light is an unabashedly cinematic work in its imagery and style. In this sense, it contrasts sharply with Richards’s earlier videos, which seem to take their cues more from amateur video or home movies, although this is not to suggest that they are haphazardly produced. All of his moving-image works are so painstakingly composed that he produces only about two per year, for a total, generally, of less than twenty minutes of finished footage. In the best known of his videos, Rosebud, 2013, which was included in the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale and earned Richards a 2014 Turner Prize nomination, the camera unsteadily pans across photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, and other artists. Discovered by Richards in a Tokyo library, the photos had all been censored by library staff, which is to say, the subjects’ genitalia were scratched out, replaced by white marks. Interspersed with these images of effacement are extreme close-ups of Alexander Hamilton’s face as printed on the ten-dollar bill, alongside found footage, such as starkly erotic shots of a tiny bouquet of elderflower trailing across a bare male torso and tickling an anus. Although it is also less overtly queer in its imagery and subject matter than Rosebud, Raking Light is similarly deeply sensual.

Richards is often situated in a lineage of appropriation—in particular, within a history of the usage of found material in film and video, encompassing artists working with television, such as Dara Birnbaum and the practitioners of the British genre “scratch video,” as well as earlier antecedents. In one sense this contextualization is apt. Richards does collect material from a vast multitude of sources, archiving each piece of footage until he is inspired by a particular idea or body of material. The appropriated sections of Raking Light were taken from mainstream movies both high (A Clockwork Orange) and low (Predator), though Richards chose shots that are too generic to be identified. But it is important to emphasize that the material used in Raking Light and in earlier works such as Rosebud was in part shot by Richards himself—its collection purely dependent on where he happened to be, whether the locale was Niagara Falls or New York City. This working method is comparable to that of Jonas Mekas, whose films comprise habitual recordings he makes of the world around him. However, rather than a straightforward diaristic approach such as Mekas’s, Richards’s process might be compared to that of a writer who continually records observations, collecting ideas, images, and impressions, generating something less like a diary than a synchronic personal archive. Each image is a comment, idea, or line, which later cumulatively form what could be described as visual poetry—a kind of poetry that, in its evocation of a phantasmagoric world of inversion and dreamlike tableaux, also seems a kind of fiction.

To dream is to desire. And Raking Light feels like a meditation on the act of desire: the artist’s desire to collect and record what he sees in the world, and the more universal desire to capture human experience—which, today, is increasingly conflated with the imperative to perform that experience. Social media promotes a kind of self-absorption that, however rooted in connectivity it may be, surpasses the narcissism that Rosalind Krauss famously identified in video art. This strange quest for a perfect presentation of self for every occasion (or app or platform) establishes, with unprecedented forcefulness, the status of the self as an aesthetic object that strives to achieve a kind of wholeness or seamlessness across multiple contexts—an ideal that, while dovetailing with the neoliberal paradigm of the branded self, may also mark a surprising return to modernist autonomy. Of course, as Krauss pointed out in another well-known text—“A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition—poststructuralist critique made clear decades ago that no artwork or medium, indeed nothing at all, is seamlessly self-identical. Social media’s impossibly unitary version of persona, and thus of experience, is one of the conditions in which Raking Light intervenes. Its dreamlike inversions and repetitions—its self-haunting—dramatize a process through which selves might escape their own interiority, their self-absorption, via simultaneous presence and absence. The video reiterates, in a digital context, the kind of continual oscillation that Krauss identified as inherent in film, which conjures self-difference via “the flickering irresolution of the illusion of movement . . . a phenomenological mixture of presence and absence, immediacy and distance.” Richards’s post-postmedium fictions acknowledge that there is no clear bright line between experience and mediation, just as they acknowledge that medium now is neither unified nor aggregate but disaggregated to the point of dissolution. Yet they nevertheless suggest, if only as a lost possibility, a vision of experience that is not automatically collapsed into the performance of an aestheticized self.

Raking Light is a romantically mournful work, as if an elegy to the moving image—and, perhaps, to the experiential mode the moving image has figured with such intensity, in practices ranging from Godard’s to Richards’s, wherein the world around us is a fleeting, ever-changing flux of representation and sensation, constantly eliciting our desire and our attention, mediated or not. Toward the end, Raking Light features inverted, wanly colorized footage of tourists clothed in anoraks standing in front of Niagara Falls, their bodies a pink-orange hue against the white foaming water rushing behind them, like ghosts trying to relive an experience without the light from their former lives. They seem to mostly be turned away from the roaring falls, looking at the camera, as if, as best they can recall, real experience resides in that vector alone.

Kathy Noble is a writer and independent curator based in London.