Phil Collins, Delete Beach, 2016, HD animation (color, sound, 21 minutes), mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Simon Mills.

Phil Collins, Delete Beach, 2016, HD animation (color, sound, 21 minutes), mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Simon Mills.

Phil Collins

the MAC

Phil Collins, Delete Beach, 2016, HD animation (color, sound, 21 minutes), mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Simon Mills.

Phil Collins is an uncommonly committed world traveler, a global citizen with a gift for making strong, surprising connections wherever he goes. His films offer jubilantly perverse perspectives on life in diverse locations, with people bonding, performing for each other, telling their stories, or indulging in their obsessions. At times, the works’ sly artifice and searing candor could bring the brazen spectacle of reality TV to mind—if the creators of such spectacles actually cared about their short-term stars.Aptly, Collins’s project for the 2006 Turner Prize exhibition, the return of the real, invited former reality-show participants to air grievances about their experiences. 

Throughout Collins’s peripatetic career, the meeting points of pop culture and politics have been consistent inspirations. He is smitten with pop’s ambiguous, exuberant power to kindle subcultural passions and create occasions of subversive solidarity. And as he travels, he tracks how cultural forms travel, too, gathering and losing meanings as they globally migrate. In the world won’t listen, 2004–2007, Collins celebrated the music of the Smiths—a band whose wry, rueful songs flowered from deep Manchester, UK, roots—by hosting karaoke sessions for superfans in Colombia, Turkey, and Indonesia. For they shoot horses, 2004, he staged a dance marathon in Ramallah, Palestine, adapting the format—and the work’s title—from a Depression-era US novel by Horace McCoy (and its 1969 film adaptation by Sydney Pollack). The resulting documentwas an uneasily upbeat portrait of exhilarated and exhausted Palestinian youths dancing for hours on end to Western hits: a protracted disco-drama of enjoyment and endurance at a remove from everyday concerns. Such artworks evince critical fascination with the capricious circulation of pop-cultural styles, but their truest achievement is capturing irruptive bursts of unburdened public joy. 

Though born in England, Collins spent his formative years in Northern Ireland, attending art school and later working with the locally influential Catalyst Arts collective. Belfast, like other troubled places worldwide, is mostly known to outsiders for its divisions and conflicts. But Collins credits the city’s lesser-known plurality of vibrant underground scenes as a vital influence on what he calls his “ongoing political education.” Recollections of this under-the-radar cultural complexity prompted the selection of four key works from the past decade for “This Is The Day,” his first solo show here since 2003. In the meaning of style, 2011, for instance, a gang of Malaysian skinheads drifted from one serene setting to another through the urban landscape of Penang. Their bomber jackets and bovver boots match the British skinhead styles of the 1960s and 1980s, but these Malaysian boys seem out of time altogether: detached from historical and spatial specificity, free in their subcultural dreamworld. The amateur photographs that composed free fotolab, 2009, introduce characters who are differently at ease—or at odds—with their world. Gathered via public calls for undeveloped analogue film (which the artist issued in Switzerland, Serbia, and elsewhere), these informal, authorless images came together as a slideshow of quotidian marvels: a raw, intimate compendium of accidental Egglestons and mute, inglorious Goldins.   

By contrast, Delete Beach, 2016, was an elaborate anime production: a dystopian sci-fi tale of anti-capitalist dissent, developed in collaboration with Japanese animators Studio 4°C and soundtracked with atmospheric menace by composer Mica Levi, also known as the experimental pop musician Micachu. It’s an ambitious adventure in the virtual realm—but it lacks the lancing perceptive acuity of Collins’s best work. His art’s greatest virtue remains its astute, affectionate mediation of the real. Ceremony, 2017, was a much richer, more compelling piece. The film documents a trip through Eastern Europe to source a decommissioned statue of socialist icon Friedrich Engels—and the subsequent delivery of the monument to Manchester, Engels’s home for many years. Despite its centrality to the multifaceted tale, and its prominence at a dedicated public celebration in Manchester, the stone statue is, surely, Ceremony’s MacGuffin. A motionless, mute presence, it contrasts sharply with what matters most to Phil Collins’s journeys: the people he meets along the way. Warehouse workers, street-dancing teenagers, an exam-skipping schoolkid, a homeless young mother: Unsentimentally portrayed but vividly memorable, this cast of real-life characters is Ceremony’s actual, animating subject.