New York

Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes’s six-minute forty-five-second Super-16 film Long After Tonight, 2005, may have won him the now-defunct Beck’s Futures Prize last year in Britain, but it doesn’t follow any of the current trends in American contemporary art. There’s no conceptual code to crack, no extreme or particularly innovative formal gestures, no wry political critique. And as if to evince the artist’s own sincere unselfconsciousness, there’s even a shirtless man with a braided ponytail, whirling to music like a dervish.

All reason enough, perhaps, to like the work, which was shown at Stokes’s recent New York solo debut. Long After Tonight was shot at a Gothic Revival church in Dundee, Scotland, where the artist staged an homage to and a re-creation of a famous weekly northern-soul night that ran for years in the adjoining social hall during the ’70s. The film (presumably named after Jimmy Radcliffe’s soulful version of the Burt Bacharach song) is antididactic, an object lesson in the pure scopophilic joy of watching people dance.

Opening with a bleak exterior view of the church at dusk, the scene shifts to the building’s baroque interior, lingering on an incense holder and sundry Christian iconography. The sound track comprises two obscure northern-soul instrumentals, both imparted by local “soulies”: The first is a song called “The World Again,” by Honey Townsend, while the second—a dramatic tone poem called “Sidra’s Theme,” by Ronnie & Robyn—is the film’s musical cynosure. As the cathartic strings of the first song begin, the camera trains on a twirling skirt; a series of deftly orchestrated edits follow, cutting quickly from tracking shots of sweating bodies to close-ups of hard shoes and acrobatic splits on the church’s parquet floor. Long After Tonight frequently switches in and out of slow motion, syncopating the dancers’ gestures to the music’s crashes and crescendos. The film closes simply and elegantly, with another exterior view of the church at dawn accompanied by a harp’s crisp glissando.

On the other hand, Sacred Selections, 2005–, also showcased here, is a broader endeavor comprising public recitals organized by Stokes, in which songs from musical subgenres—black metal, happy hardcore, and northern soul—are played on a pipe organ. Stokes’s practice of staging and translating fragments from musical subcultures (Real Arcadia, 2003–, a project not included here, documents and re-creates ephemera from defunct British rave organizers Out House Promotions) has often been called anthropological, situating it vaguely in the lineage of relational aesthetics. Considered as such, Stokes’s work perhaps bears greater resemblance to the more ludic happenings of Fluxus than to compatriot Jeremy Deller’s politically charged restaging The Battle of Orgreave, 2001. Still, comparisons will inevitably be made to Deller’s Acid Brass, 1997—a dead ringer for Sacred Selections—in which the artist hired a brass band to perform acid-house anthems.

The recent show included several glossy color stills from Long After Tonight, which largely highlighted the film’s more bathetic imagery: a statue of the Virgin Mary, a man shouting in ecstasy, a gracefully posed, sweaty torso. They miss Long After Tonight’s finer—often awkward—moments: a woman’s quiet smile as she concludes a spin or the dancers’ occasional clumsiness in executing a move. In sharp contrast to the slick stills, Stokes also included individual portraits, taken during the warm-up to the film, of four of the dancers. Distinctly less noble-looking in the cruel, flattening glare of the flash, their appearance is refreshingly jarring, creating a sense of displacement that serves as a simple foil to the film’s nostalgic mien.

David Velasco