art
 and 
context
Mission: finale
October 2015

The installation of Declan Clarke’s film trilogy at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane is in its effect a passage from the space of cinema to the gallery. The first two films, We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, are shown together; the projection fills a wall in a relatively small dark room. The experience recalls picture houses of a previous era where the film stock is in black and white and 4:3 ratio. More particularly the experience is that of the front row where the viewer is so close to the screen as to be absorbed into moving, grey parts. Here, in the gallery space, the viewer is likewise in close proximity to the large-scale projection in black and white and 4:3 ratio. The third part of the film trilogy, Wreckage in May, constitutes a very different experience. Entrance to the film is via a room with three framed works: two nineteenth century paintings and the front cover of a journal from 1871 dominated by a graphic image. These are intrinsic to Wreckage in May which is projected in an adjacent room, in colour, and in much wider ratio than the two earlier films of the trilogy. In scale the projection of this third part is comparatively small, much less encompassing.

In one sense this shift may be seen as a shift from the public space of cinema and its visceral pleasures to the more private or contemplative space of easel painting; from film for the mass audience to painting for the private patron. This, however, is contradicted when one considers the second of the senses that cinema engages with after that of vision: sound. The first film in the trilogy, We are not like them, is silent; in the second, The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, a very occasional muffled noise is discernible. The sound in Wreckage in May is a little more constant, and a little louder. Not remotely enough to encourage anything approaching dialogue, but in its illegibility enough to let the viewer know that language, narrative, that which conventionally drives the plot, are at issue. At a point in the latter half of Wreckage in May the male protagonist, (Declan Clarke), in pursuit of his muse attends a lecture on art. The muffled voice of the lecturer becomes static in the agent’s hearing system. He falls asleep. He wakes up to his normal world of silence only to find that the woman has gone. Whatever the implications of this deployment of sound for the ‘plot’ of Wreckage in May, the viewer is left to consider reasons for the reversal: why has the purely visual art of painting around which this film plays out acquired these packets of sound? What is for sure is that the path from cinema to gallery is a path from the popular art of the twentieth century to the prevalent visual form of the upper classes and bourgeoisie of the nineteenth.

Wreckage in May is much more emphatically constructed into sections than the earlier films of the trilogy. Language (in French) is used to mark these divisions; language is thus seen in an organizational role. Section titles are set in blue against an off-white ground in sequence as follows: La Gallerie, La Bibliothèque, La Ville, La Conferénce, L’Effraction, and Dénouement. The film begins with the painting by Gustave Courbet, the painting featured in the adjacent room and part of the Hugh Lane Bequest, here titled, The Omnibus in the Snow. It depicts a coach, the occupants and animals tethered to it in severe difficulties during a snowstorm. The first section of Wreckage in May involves the agent tracking a woman through the rooms and corridors of the Hugh Lane Gallery as she studies the paintings. The second section shows the agent observing the woman as she studies in a library (the location is Pearse Street Library). In the next section the agent follows the woman through the Place Vendôme in Paris to the cemetery with the plaque commemorating the dead of the Paris Commune in May 1871. The fourth section shows the agent observing the woman at a lecture back in the gallery before he loses her. Next is an interlude in which the agent accesses a house as an interloper; he watches a DVD containing film of pro-democracy protests at Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Turkey in 2013. He is interrupted by an unseen unknown entering the house and he makes his escape. The last section is a return to the Hugh Lane Gallery and the Courbet painting. The agent searches; he looks at paintings—the Courbet and Impressionist works including the Berthe Morisot painting of two women at leisure which is included with the Courbet before the entrance to Wreckage in May. Suddenly tables are turned when the foreground is occupied; this time it is not the agent in his voyeur’s position, but a female hand. The hand holds a gun; the agent is shot. The final sequences are of a dying agent with blood seeping in the direction of his red tie. Seemingly overlooking the event are female faces, close-ups of women in the paintings. Their expressions are thus edited from their original context to suggest a strong sense of control acquired as the pursued has just ended the pursuit.

Unlike We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses the agent of this film is not seen receiving instructions from a non-identified authority. We do not know what motivates the agent’s pursuit of the woman. However, the film maker’s pursuit of his chosen subjects are indelibly linked to his politics: the film is in large measure a homage to the Paris Communards of 1871, to Courbet’s contribution to the Commune and to the destruction of the Vendôme Column, dedicated as it was to Napoleon’s autocratic rule. Clarke makes a conscious analogy between then and now in the film within a film of protest in Turkey. The red flag of the revolutions of nineteenth century France is replicated in Clarke’s record of several parties active in Turkey in 2013 who have adapted the red flag. In making these choices Clarke poses the relations between art and society. By definition revolt involves the disruption of the status quo. In the opening sentence of his book on Courbet, TJ Clark described the period of the 1848 Revolution in France as a time ‘when art and politics could not escape one another.’[1] A significant element of Clark’s analysis is that Courbet’s major paintings during the brief period of time after 1848 (his great period according to Clark) are an ‘ensemble’ (Courbet’s term) of many things including aspects of contemporary life, most especially of popular culture. This is the artist’s legacy. After Courbet, Clark argues, artists ‘wanted the popular as an adjunct to Art itself—as a blood transfusion, an act of nostalgia…. Courbet had tried something different; to dislodge the hierarchy, to put an end to the connoisseur. He had come very close: close enough to enrage one public and invent another….’[2] Crucial to Clark’s analysis is that at this time capital has not yet taken over the popular idioms which Courbet adapted. While there is no reason to suggest that Declan Clarke’s interests in Courbet are identical to TJ Clark’s there is the niggling question as to the underlying implications of the former’s shift from the popular genre of mid-twentieth century film employed in parts one and two of his trilogy to the more contemporary look of Wreckage in May and to the foregrounding of nineteenth century art. In this, more might be said on Courbet’s decline in popularity and Impressionism’s rise as a popular and commodified notion of art and its subject-matter as symptomatic of broader shifts.

Also important to Wreckage in May is the position of women. The graphic before the entrance to the installation is of the execution of a female communard, a reminder of the role of feminists in French revolutions in the nineteenth century; a photograph of Rosa Luxemburg hangs on a wall of the house the agent accesses. The linchpin of the film is the woman, dressed in variations of red in each of the six sections, as object of the male protagonist’s gaze. The denouement sees his death, the destruction of a male ego that has dominated the trilogy. He dies surrounded by women—that these women’s existence is in works of art is not Clarke’s point. If this much is obvious it might be noted also that where in the first two parts of the trilogy the agent is central to the action, here the woman leads the action. That action is largely contemplative—the study of paintings, study in the library, attending a lecture—it is not of action man, or woman. Of course both man and woman in this trilogy are generalized, fictions, ideologies, but as motifs for Clarke’s trilogy they represent a fascinating take on gender, politics, and modernity.

References:

[1] TJ Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, Berkeley, CA and London: California University Press, 1999, p. 9.

[2] Ibid, p. 161.