Sally O’Reilly Essay for ‘Return of the Black Tower’


Catalogue essay by Sally O’Reilly for the publication accompanying the show at PEER ‘Return of The Black Tower [after John Smith]’ By Jennet Thomas 2007

The filmmaker is both god and devil of the universe of their making, controlling its physics and metaphysics, the fate of its inhabitants as well as their drive to influence their own destiny. Jennet Thomas is a zealous god–devil, who constructs bizarre narrative worlds in which we can recognise the pull of gravity, the attraction of belief or the logic of causality, but these forces are somehow reconfigured to describe a place that is way off the map of normality, perhaps with one foot in the realm of the paranormal. And yet Thomas suggests the near-feasibility of the absurd by expressing messages from alternative dimensions, bizarre social codes and accounts of recent cultural history through everyday means. Sausages, sporting trophies, lengths of string and packages sent through the post are the tools with which normal looking people conduct their peculiar activities in community halls, supermarket car parks, back gardens and nicely kept living rooms. The bizarre, Thomas seems to suggest, is a close relative of the ordinary.

Return of The Black Tower (2007) is just such a reconfiguration of the known. Two characters, John and Jennifer, attempt to recount and demonstrate the mystery of what has touched them, and yet the entity or force they wish to understand or harness or communicate with is never quite revealed. Instead, Thomas sustains an inventive stream of irrationalities, which suggests sensibilities shared with writers of theatre of the absurd, such as Eugene Ionesco and Antonin Artaud, yet her starting point is much more curious and unexpected than this. Her eponymous tower finds its origins in John Smith’s The Black Tower (1985–7). Smith’s film is a narrative inflection on structural materialism, which, during the 1970s and ’80s, employed editing, looping and allusions to the materiality of film itself to undercut its tendency to absorb the viewer in illusionistic, transportative storytelling. In true piratical fashion, Thomas has detoured some of Smith’s methods and motifs to construct a new piece whose path crosses and diverges from its origins on many points, not least of all towards the unashamedly narrative.

If it is widely accepted as impossible to make art that in no way references or has been influenced by other artworks, what does it mean to overtly make a claim to be working ‘after’ a predecessor? Everyone references and appropriates, but perhaps an artist wishes to explicitly pay homage to or prompt the re-evaluation of someone of a previous generation; or she might be intrigued to see what other direction a particular subject matter or technique might be taken in. She may be remaking an artwork in order to update it, re-expose it to a new light, or perhaps to hold it up and look at it from another angle. Thomas’s video sets out to investigate the very process of revisiting an existing film, squaring up to the risks involved in taking on a celebrated forebear. Her project leans neither towards the neutrality of a remake nor the emotiveness of homage, but instead attempts a transposition of certain concerns from a formal to a narrative-driven practice, relocating elements from Smith’s minimal aesthetic into her hyper-embellished one.

Smith’s film is an essay of economic means that withholds visual information for the sake of a minimal formal agenda. In fact Smith talks of his surprise when, on the film’s initial release, some people overlooked the film’s structural play, latching instead on to the specifics of the story, which he had intended merely as a pastiche of the mystery genre, as a hanger on which to hitch his core formalism. Smith’s real intention was to show how, just as the real black tower near his home could be seen from many different angles in apparently different settings – a housing estate, a prison, a churchyard – so language can construct any number of backdrops to a phenomenon, thereby altering atmosphere and interpretation. Smith applies the subjectivity of language to the objecthood of the black tower, converting it from a banal piece of industrial architecture to a cipher of paranormal potential. By simply filming the tower in all its different settings and applying a monologue over the top that mystifies this process, we are led to believe that the tower is beleaguering the protagonist, following him, or, at least, that he is deluded into believing that he is being followed. Although we know that this illusion is down to the power of editing alone, we happily half-abandon this knowledge for the thrill of the subterfuge.

Thomas was drawn to Smith’s structuralist approach to the problem of real-life subjectivity. Whereas she has, in previous videos, made baroque attempts to represent the unrepresentable – the fog of singular experience, for instance, or inexplicable occurrences or the implausibility of the imagination – she was intrigued by Smith’s minimal approach to the matter. And so Return of the Black Tower becomes a means to make her work less hermetic, both by explicitly providing an external narrative impetus and a methodological template.

Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two films is their evocation of supernatural phenomena. Smith’s tower is a building with animus or a paranoid delusion of such; the perceptual anomaly in Thomas’s video, on the other hand, is never as conclusively identified. John and Jennifer are on stage telling a hidden audience about their experiences: they describe ‘it’ as a stain, or a pattern stuck in the visible world; they wonder if it is a perceptual problem or the effect of a brain tumour, and eventually identify it as ‘meaning embedded in the relation of things. A kind of shape.’ In contrast to Smith’s ploy, whereby he never attempts to truly confound us, the ontological confusion of Thomas’s main character/force – the ‘kind of shape’ – is an ongoing intangible frustration. Whereas Smith’s main method of mystery is to withhold visual information, rendering images unidentifiable through close-up framing, often obliterating the screen with block colour or total blackout, Thomas’s strategy is to obfuscate through over-description, piling up details until we can no longer disentangle sense from nonsense – a marked difference played out in literary form through the coherence of Smith’s monologue in contrast to the discontinuities of Thomas’s self-contradictory script.

This layering of images, sound, symbolism and non-sequiturs is how one imagines it might be to temporarily plunge into the synesthetic’s world, with its jumble of sensory information that makes the letter ‘a’ polka-dotted or Tuesday rendered in orange corduroy. This could offer some clues as to the speakers’ predicament. Marked out with gold-painted faces they are certainly special in some way, speaking to a room of like-minded supporters who, it would seem by the down-at-heel surroundings, are also in the minority. Perhaps they are relating a profound case of Stendhal Syndrome – the psychosomatic illness that causes dizziness, fainting or hallucination before an artwork – in some hitherto unencountered parallel universe where these are the first individuals to have undergone an aesthetic experience. The ‘meaning embedded in the relation of the things’ might be the first twitchings of a cult of aesthetics in a society that has yet to give it a name.

There is something appalling about the way in which these people try to make the inexpressible tangible with string, coax it into imposing itself on balls thrown into the air or seek it out in the shapes of their three-piece suites. The dumbness with they externalise their ‘shapes’ could be read as a whimsical expression of the universal struggle to communicate at even basic levels – to agree on the colour green, for instance, or describe what it was like to be at a party or convey grief. To anthropomorphise or identify patterns is emblematic of our impulse to represent the flux of the universe as image, object or nugget of fact. The internet is teaming with sightings seeking corroboration and technology has long applied itself to the recording of or communication with spirits. Even language, our most elementary, complex and taken-for-granted technology, hinges on the illusion of consensus (do we all really know what we mean by ‘hot’ or ‘delighted’ or even ‘door handle’?). Thomas’s metaphors of legibility can also be applied to the viewing of the film itself, as we struggle to impose narrative sense. Thomas confounds this, though, by constructing ambiguous causal relationships between an action on screen and the audio: does the organ drone describe or actually sustain the tension in the string we see being pulled taut? The musical score certainly doesn’t coddle the viewer or signpost the correct emotion for each scene. So, although Thomas may be making a straightforward point about subjectivity, her text and imagery is littered with so many red herrings and over embellishments that we can never be quite sure of identifying it – a dizzying turn in which Thomas problematises the identification of the problem of subjective identification.

Art invariably courts failure, anticlimax and crapness. It eschews traditional notions of beauty and correctness, it avoids the epic and embraces pathos, the underdog and the everyday, and it just loves to simply fizzle out. That Thomas enlists these ploys sets her apart from mainstream film and television. No big-bucks moviemaker would describe a life-changing force in such low-fi terms or withhold the epiphanic denouement and generally befuddle the audience. And yet, if we consider our conversational detournements, our internal flights of fancy and the farcical episodes that pepper the quotidian drudge, surely it is the neatly packaged narrative that is the absurdity. That Thomas’s cultish avatar is eventually manifest as a rotating shape, a turd-like lump, is a satire on the urge to represent, compare and contrast. Is your god a grandee with a long beard and robes or an amorphous morsel? Then again, does it matter how you represent this entity so long as we all acknowledge that all representations are valid? Might we say that harmony comes not from all agreeing, but all agreeing to disagree?

Sally O’Reilly 2007

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