Belfast

Johanna Billing, I’m gonna live anyhow until I die, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 29 seconds.

Johanna Billing, I’m gonna live anyhow until I die, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 29 seconds.

Johanna Billing

MAC

Johanna Billing, I’m gonna live anyhow until I die, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 29 seconds.

The MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) is an important new architectural presence in Belfast, standing out starkly against the undistinguished design of other recent additions to the city’s fabric. While parts of the building pay redbrick tribute to Belfast’s Victorian heritage, the imposing granite-and-glass facade is ardently alien, staging an exciting contrast with the pallid neoclassical pastiche of surrounding developments. Will the appearance of such an architecturally bold exhibition venue in this city center in transition prompt artists to ask how the complex particularity of a place might be best addressed? The building’s anxious relationship to its site—deferential without being submissive—certainly dramatizes enduring questions about how to respond to what’s “there” in a city—and about how to point to alternative directions.

These inevitably difficult considerations also offer a way of framing the insistently and eccentrically located endeavors of Swedish film-maker Johanna Billing, the subject of the MAC’s first substantial survey of a contemporary artist. Her work has been characterized by efforts to find idiosyncratic means of exploring the ways in which a location’s distinctive character might be apprehended, captured, or even escaped. Generally, for Billing, this investigation has involved embarking on curious collaborative enterprises. The resulting situations, variously choreographed and improvised, often appear to be genuinely enjoyable gatherings—a rare distinction in participatory art. A typical project is the touring musical You Don’t Love Me Yet, 2002–12, in which bands from cities across Europe and America have been recruited to cover a 1984 song by Roky Erickson—each band in each place directed to “make the song their own” (as an X Factor judge might say). The multiple videos of prior performances, presented here as an interactive archive (more versions of the song were recorded during the MAC exhibition), show each consecutive iteration of the piece opening up the venerated, lovelorn original to further unanticipated, vernacular inflection.

Corresponding interests were clear in the other examples of Billing’s affecting encounters with diverse communities compiled in this exhibition. Another Album, 2006, for instance, recalls a precise period when local popular music took on profound meaning during traumatic historical shifts. Billing shot semistaged scenes of a relaxed, boozy gathering on a Croatian island, during which a group of friends attempted to sing New Wave classics from the former Yugoslavia. These half-remembered anthems nostalgically invoke the youthful solidarity and subcultural dissent of the era before the country’s breakup. If this work, like others in the show, suggests comparison with key place-and-pop-music projects by fellow filmmaker Phil Collins—pieces that similarly use song as an enlivening alternative means of voicing the problems and potentials of specific places—Billing’s setups are at times much more self-
consciously ludic. Her art can be defiantly, disconcertingly light in tone—never more so than in I’m gonna live anyhow until I die, 2012, a video specially commissioned (in partnership with Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy) for this exhibition. This beautifully ebullient piece follows five children straying unsupervised through the streets of Rome, racing through parks and skipping across scrappy, undeveloped land before sneaking into a locked school, where they begin to make their own untutored art—a selection of which was displayed in combination with the film—imagining an entirely undisciplined way of seeing and experiencing the city. Throughout, an upbeat sound track by the popular Italian singer-songwriter Franco Battiato enhances the atmosphere of innocent liberation. This is music that was first formed in response to the tensions in Italian politics—and like Billing’s generous, joyful art, its affirmative lightness disguises a deeply serious intent.

Declan Long