Phil Collins

Temple Bar Gallery + Studios / Meeting House Square / Kerlin Gallery

These three separate presentations were dispatches from an artist on the move. Currently based at P.S. in New York, the English-born Collins has lived and worked in Belfast for some years while spending increasing amounts of time in various parts of the former Yugoslavia. Mislim Ne Znam (I mean I don’t know), 2002, a twenty-three-minute video shown at Meeting House Square, opens with Collins in a Belgrade barbershop warily scrutinizing his new haircut and cheekily asking, “Does it make me look more srpski?” This sets up a collection of informal interviews with a number of young Serbs on a range of topics from subjectivity in the age of globalization to the perils of translating Hustler magazine into Serbo-Croatian. These are intercut with shorter sequences offering glimpses of camera-shy acquaintances and snowy streetscapes. The use of a split screen allows for a number of deft juxtapositions belying the rough-and-ready feel of a work shot, edited, and publicly screened within a matter of weeks. The melancholic political philosopher with his tortured English is confined to a stationary van, while the cheerfully fluent porn translator is filmed on a clanking commuter train; a hard-pressed doctor bemoaning his hospital’s antiquated equipment gives way to a soldier extolling the virtues of regular target practice as a psychosocial safety valve. If “distance means nothing in powerful relations” according to the philosopher (who clearly means “power relations”) the camera’s cordial but undeniable intrusiveness suggests that this intimacy is also embattled.

Becoming More Like Us, 2001, the title image of a series of photographs presented at Temple Bar Gallery that also charts the “changing face of Serbia,” featured a camera crew setting up a commercial shoot of four Serbian scooter kids in American clothing and baseball caps. We might expect the patently manufactured nature of this scenario to contrast sharply with the genuinely American images on display in Collins’s Kerlin Gallery show, “Enduring Freedom.” Yet, presented in a long, packed row of metal-framed light boxes of various sizes, these photographs of disparate groups gathered at the street stalls that now surround Ground Zero seemed equally unreal and theatrical. Often shot from a low angle, the subjects mostly gaze beyond us or above us in curiosity, sadness, or awe at the spectacle that has temporarily drawn them here and drawn them together.

These photographs were accompanied by Collins’s most audacious video work to date, Hero, 2002, a studio interview with a young unnamed New York journalist in a button-down white shirt whom an off-screen Collins plied with cigarettes and whiskey for just over an hour. The original raw footage evidently began with the journalist’s attempted reconstruction of his working day on 9/11 and then proceeded to a commentary on various related topics including media coverage of the atrocity, US foreign policy, race relations in New York, and the death of a close relative. This footage has, however, been chopped into short, internally coherent segments from which the interviewer’s questions have been excised, with interstices of silent black screen. The order of these segments was then reversed and an additional sound track provided, consisting solely of the intermittent repetition of Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” As a result we seem to witness a thoughtful and sympathetic person addressing the unspeakable in a monologue that moves from drunkenly inarticulate catharsis to a casual response to the interviewer’s (unheard) opening gambit (“You mean, like, that morning? Well, I was late for work”) rather than the other way round. Meanwhile a saccharine voice croons such timeless lyrics as “Then a hero comes along / With the strength to carry on.” It is a testament to the disarming but never irresponsible charm of Collins’s work that something so outrageously manipulative should also be genuinely moving.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith