London

T.J. Wilcox

Sadie Coles HQ | Balfour Mews

The mechanism by which T.J. Wilcox’s imagery comes to us is familiar. Shot in Super 8, either as original footage or from preexisting film playing on a video monitor, it is transferred to video for editing, and then onto 16 mm film for presentation. The visual noise necessarily introduced at each of these stages adds character and interest. There is no danger of us succumbing to the illusion of transparency, of believing that we are sharing any kind of simple present, either with the characters on the screen or the subject matter in general. Instead, the sequence of successive transfers between formats and technologies gives the imagery a sort of patina. It suggests not only temporal distance, the weight of history, but also a shift in the equilibrium of the senses. Blurring and de-definition excite both visual and mental exertion, and while the sound of the 16 mm projector is commanding within the gallery space, the silence of the subtitled film itself indexes the impossibility of hearing the implied voices. They are muffled by layers of possible meaning, inaudible because too far away or too long ago.

The films Wilcox showed here were titled The Little Elephant and Hadrian and Antinous, both 2000. Each conjures a world in which gender is ambiguous or irrelevant and eroticism is polymorphous. Concocted from the tale of Babar, footage from The Elephant Man and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and other sources, The Little Elephant narrates the story of an orphaned pachyderm who travels to a big city and conceives the wish to become sophisticated like its other inhabitants: He wants his own suit. Fortunately, a kindly old lady (Wendy Hiller) who has “always been fond of little elephants.” sees him and “understands right away that he is longing for a fine suit.” She gives him her purse, for which patronage he is suitably grateful: “Thank you, madam,” he says. It is as bleak as it is beautiful. Although not explicitly present, Babar’s imperialist literary counterpart, Kipling’s Elephant’s Child, seems to stalk the narrative, as does (courtesy of Bowie’s version) Iggy Pop’s China Girl, who is given blue-eyed children by her smacked-up colonizer. The editing of the subtitled text enhances the icy prettiness of this little story that apparently concludes so satisfactorily for all concerned. Broken, as subtitles always are, into a sequence of clauses or short sentences, the narrative reads as a slow pulse in a manner reminiscent of the simplicity and page-turning structure of children’s books.

Drawn from Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian, Hadrian and Antinous is about another youngster, a Greek boy of legendary beauty loved by the Roman emperor. Their story, we are told, has withstood eighteen centuries of “misunderstanding, controversy, and Christian polemic.” Using both original sequences and excerpts from Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra, Wilcox’s film describes how Antinous willingly sacrificed himself, plunging to his death in the Nile in order to save the sick Hadrian’s life. Later, Hadrian would discover a new star in the firmament and name it after his dead beloved. A star that continues to she today in witness to the abiding purity of their attachment. The scenes of pomp culled from Cleopatra remind one of William Carlos Williams’s poem addressed to Mark Antony, who, the poet writes, if he acted for love rather than any baser motive, must surely be in heaven. Wilcox’s film, likewise, reasserts the abiding power of the ideal of selflessness.

Michael Archer