art
 and 
context
Mission 1 & 2
September 2015

Wreckage in May is the third part of Declan Clarke’s film trilogy, the part commissioned by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and on show there throughout the summer. Sensibly, the Gallery decided to show concurrently the first two parts of the trilogy. Wreckage in May is the only title provided for the overall installation which left the trilogy without a generic name. That said by way of introduction the response here will focus on the first two parts, respectively, We are not like them, and, The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, while I will turn to Wreckage in May later. There is some justification for this arrangement. The Hugh Lane physically separated the installation of the third from one and two and there is reason for that but, beyond mere reinforcement of the Gallery’s distinction, there are differences from the outset with the latter which might warrant separate consideration. All three films were made using a 16 mm camera, all are to all intents and purposes silent, all are politically and culturally committed. The first two are almost totally in black and white, the last is in colour; the former are expansive in their historical and geopolitical reach, while the latter is more contained in its historical referencing and its locations.

The first impression in watching We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses is that while there is an absence of dialogue both are propelled by a storyline, an implicit plot that drives the action beginning to end. In this, both films work off the audience’s preconceptions of mainstream cinema and TV drama, most specifically the spy subgenre. In these films the need for dialogue is minimized by the camera’s concentration on a solo figure in the guise of a special agent and identified as a man on a mission. The agent is played by Declan Clarke, kitted in sixties style, tight-fitted suit, slim tie and Macintosh, and topped with slicked hair in short back and sides cut. The destinations of the mission is communicated in the early part of both films when the agent, in emphatic stride, goes to a pre-arranged spot to receive instructions. In We are not like them these are in the form of coded message, slides, postcards and books—translations of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We. In The Most Cruel of all Goddesses the instructions are in the form of a Memorandum along with files containing photographs and postcards. There is no indication where these instructions come from or if there is meaningful purpose to the rendezvous he directed to. A question that will remain is whether the agent is to any extent capable of decision-making, if he is in any sense a ‘free agent’.

Another very apparent feature of both films is the prevalence of the shot of the individual set against the vista of an urban, industrialized Europe; by default the Europe built between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. In We are not like them he travels from the Tyne shipyards in North-East England, to Eisenhüttenstadt on the eastern border of Germany, to Nowa Huta on the outskirts of Kraków in Poland and, a setting of more recent origins, the Groupe Scolaire L’Octobre, a primary school in the suburbs of Paris. These trips connect with the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin who trained as an engineer and had worked at a shipyard at Newcastle prior to writing We, a critique of the totalitarian technopolis. While he was a supporter of Bolshevism, Zamyatin was disillusioned with Stalin’s regime and in the early 1930s he left the Soviets for Paris. To some extent then, the agent’s travels in We are not like them traces Zamyatin’s experience from the shipbuilding and heavy industry that created new cities in Europe, (now in decline and Clarke’s film is redolent with the remains of the buildings and monuments of the old socialism of the east alongside the trappings of western consumerism), to the architecture of the school in Paris with its echoes of the style, not to say the ideals, of Russian Constructivism. Similarly, The Most Cruel of all Goddesses sees the agent following the footsteps of Friedrich Engels from Salford in Greater Manchester, to London, to the Engels Haus in Wuppertal. The film then shifts to Munich where the agent, after a liberal quantity of Munich beer, is absorbed into a psychedelic sequence seemingly aggravated by the lights and movement of the amusements at the Oktoberfest the outcome of which is a vision of Engels. With travel to these locations at the heart of both films, Clarke is open to the accusation of creating travelogues steeped in nostalgia for the politics of the Cold War period.

There is little doubt that both We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses reimagine figures that Clarke reveres and that he sets Zamyatin and Engels within the context of the industrial revolution, the transformation of the landscape of Europe after industrialization, modernity, and, the totalizing modern state which, whether socialist or capitalist, structures all aspects of human life. The films are a visualization of these histories. This is energized by the figure of the agent whose purposeful stride takes us through city streets and over bridges and occasionally we see him on trains. The set-up is carefully designed. The camera is placed in a fixed position; the agent is viewed in a long shot walking across, or vanishes out of, the screen; these long shots allow plenty of time for the viewer to take in the surroundings. In The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, for example, the agent’s arrival in London is signified by a shot of him exiting Chalk Farm Tube Station followed by a shot of him striding across Bridge Approach, the now pedestrianized iron bridge over railway lines near Chalk Farm. He is on his way to the house that had been Engels’ lodgings where he will find further instructions. His arrival at Wuppertal is signified by shots of the overhead monorail, surely one of the great icons of the industrial revolution. Such long shots dominate both films.

There are shorter sequences generally at beginning and end where montage is employed. At the beginning these allow the audience to view in close-up slides or photographs and instructions (almost the sole use of verbal language throughout). Later montage is used to indicate emotional states, even while these are non-specific. In The Most Cruel of all Goddesses the agent pulls out a wallet size photograph of a woman. The close-up of the representation of the woman’s face is succeeded by a shot of the agent’s face as he looks at the photograph. The inference is of an emotional connection. In Zamyatin’s novel, We, the narrator, D-503, becomes obsessed with a woman, I-330. Since she is seen to be committed to freedom she is by definition a subversive: she is one of them. While it isn’t clear how ‘real’ I-330 is or to what extent she is a figment of the awakening imagination of D-503, she stands in for something that is beyond D-503’s grasp but something he is compelled to pursue. In both We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses there is no indication that the agent’s assignments are successful, that he made his rendezvous. Clarke’s point seems to be that the issues touched upon are at least as relevant now as in the twentieth century. The transformations from black and white to colour towards the end of the films—the former at the school in Paris and the latter in the vision of Engels—seem to suggest the possibility of another world. For sure it hasn’t taken shape and it remains to be seen what will transpire when the action in Wreckage in May opens up to colour.