Monthly Archives: August 2013

Swiss musical documentaries

This report from the Wroclaw film festival appeared on the Sight & Sound blog:

Inland (2001)

If the words ‘Swiss’ and ‘musical’ make you think of Alpine meadows and hills alive with the sound of music, think again. Made between 1989 and 2012, the 14 films in this year’s Musical Documentaries from Switzerland strand at Wroclaw’s New Horizons film festival – which has made films about music and contemporary art its signature since it was established in 2001 – attempted to steer clear of stereotypes by showing the different guises of what’s evidently a flourishing documentary genre in Switzerland, judging by the sheer volume as well as the quality of the films.

True, native sounds like yodelling and peculiar traditional instruments like the alphorn or the diminutive Jew’s harp do feature in Iwan Schumacher’s 1999 Trümpi – Anton Bruhin – Der Maultrommler (Anton Bruhin – the Jew’s Harp Player), in Pierre-Yves Bourgeaud’s Inland (2001), about the experimental duo Stimmhorn, and in Stefan Schwietert’s 2007 Heimatklänge (Echoes of Home), in which Stimmhorn’s Christian Zehdner also appears. When asked in the latter, “What’s the sound of Switzerland?”, Zehdner responds that to him it’s the sound of trains, cow bells and milking machines; the day he heard one of the latter, he realised it had a groove.

So far, so clichéd. But genre specialists like Bourgeaud and Schwietert, who each have ten or so music documentaries to their name, tackle the clichés head on. In Heimatklänge, Zehdner acknowledges that yodelling – a voice modulation technique devised by herders to carry their calls far across valleys – initially put him off because of its associations with men wearing Appenzell costumes or Tyrolese hats. In that vein, Anka Schmid’s Yello (2005), a colourful hour-long documentary about the wacky Swiss electro pop band which weaves original Yello video clips into its fabric, shows grinning band members Boris Blank and Dieter Meier (who attended the festival) riding funicular railways against a backdrop of Swiss chalets and snow-covered slopes.

Yello (2005)

Whether classical, jazz, folk, experimental or free improvised, music in these documentaries is strongly connected to place. But that place needn’t be Switzerland. The 14 selected films are Swiss musical documentaries to the extent that they’ve been made by Swiss filmmakers. A Swiss-French production, jointly directed by Luc Peter and Stéphanie Barbey, Magic Radio (2007) well conveys the vital role radio still plays in Nigerian society as an educational, recreational and political tool. Liquid Land (2012)

Liquid Land (2012), Michelle Ettlin’s directorial debut, focuses on New Orleans’ free-improvised music scene, much less well known than the city’s jazz, blues and heavy metal. In a series of compelling interviews, Ettlin elicits intimate revelations from local improvisers about what it is that makes them stay in the city against all (climactic) odds, and takes the pulse of the place five years after Hurricane Katrina. The impulse behind the film came from a Swiss and a Dutch experimental musician who travelled to New Orleans to meet fellow improvisers working there.

Like Liquid Land, a number of these films take encounters between musicians as their starting point. Erich Busslinger’s 2011 Fritz Hauser – Klangwerker (Fritz Hauser – Sound Explorer) stages a meeting between the eponymous avant-garde percussionist and composer and the improviser Fred Frith.


Balkan Melodie (2012)

Schwietert’s Balkan Melodie (Balkan Melody, 2012) meanwhile charts ethnomusicologist and producer Marcel Cellier and his wife Catherine’s life-long passion for folk music from the Balkan region where they travelled when it was still off-bounds for Western visitors. Cellier is credited with discovering such talents as Romanian flute virtuoso Gheorghe Zamfir and the Bulgarian female choir behind the bestselling Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares albums. The film raises such thorny issues as author’s rights in folk music, since Zamfir accused Cellier of exploiting his music to commercial ends and eventually broke off all relations with the Swiss couple.

Family ties of a more or less conventional kind were another recurrent theme. In Family Music (2004), the second of his films shown as part of the programme, Borgeaud combines interviews with Austrian jazz musicians Christian and Wolfgang Muthspiel, footage from their concerts and homemade videos shot in super 8 by their father, who instilled family values in his sons, to show how the connection between the two brothers plays out in their music.

Equally composite but far less earnest, Stéphanie Argerich’s Bloody Daughter (2012), a filmic portrait of the temperamental Argentinian concert pianist Martha Argerich by the youngest of her three daughters (each from a different father), depicts the foibles and the vulnerable side of her ageing mother, as well as her own attempts at asserting her creative independence.


Les Reines Prochaines (2012)

What ageing means to a female performer is also touched on in Claudia Wilke’s Les Reines Prochaines (2012), a comical group-portrait of the Dada-inspired feminist Swiss girl band of the same name.

For all the broad range of trends and genres covered in this festival strand (curated by Jan Topolski, editor of the Polish music magazine Glissando, which last year ran a special issue on Swiss music), the music in these films tends to be of the experimental variety. Yet the way of filming this kind of music seldom breaks new ground.


Kick that Habit (1989)

As a result, the rare films that shun a traditional interview-based, narrative-led approach to documentary filmmaking stand out. In both Inland and Peter Liechti’s Kick that Habit (1989), an early collage portrait of electroacoustic pioneers Voice Crack by the director of the acclaimed 2009 documentary The Sound of Insects – Record of a Mummy, dialogue is done away with altogether, which may be why the viewer’s attention is firmly focused on sound and its visual source. In these films, vision and hearing appear to be on an even footing; if anything, sight follows sound for a change.



Up in the Air

This report from the Sokolovsko ephemeral art festival appeared on

Joanna Rajkowska, Forcing a Miracle, 2012, at the Contexts 2013 Festival in Sokolovsko, Poland. Photo: Marcin Polak.

THE AIR, this year’s chosen theme for Contexts 2013, the third Sokolovsko Festival of Ephemeral Art, could not be more appropriate. Set amid the wooded hills of the Stone Mountains, close to the Polish-Czech border, the health resort of Sokolovsko boasts a microclimate uniquely suited for the treatment of lung diseases. Consumptive patients have been employed over the years to carve out the unusual, childlike motifs adorning the concrete grey facades of local buildings. In Situ, the contemporary art foundation that runs the festival, has set out to restore these buildings, along with the ruined neo-Gothic Brehmer sanatorium (the world’s first dedicated to treating tuberculosis, and to people both the buildings and the sanatorium with artists.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more evocative setting for an ephemeral art festival—an original mix of performance, experimental music, and site-specific installations emphasizing the “live” element. In their respective offerings, the invited artists responded to the genius loci as much as to the chosen theme. Though many of the events took place in a musty cinema acting as the festival hub, some of the more memorable ones took advantage of public and outdoor spaces dotted around the village and the sanatorium grounds. In this vein, large candlelit cubes were aligned to gradually reveal the words granice (borders) or gra o nic (play for nothing)—summing up the place and our collective pastime—in a spectacular and well-attended performance staged in the main square by the Polish collective Akademia Ruchu.

The theme proved a versatile one, allowing for as many different inflections as there were artists. In a piece that brought together the four elements, Norwegian artist Rita Marhaug swam around an overgrown pond, releasing helium-filled blue balloons that climbed into the air until they disappeared from view before she lit a torch by blowing on it. Lisbon-based artist Marta Wengorovius, who felt the need to apologize for the poetic nature of her work, asked a group of us to “observe the wind and the movement that it unleashes in everything that it touches” through a circle cut out of a paper drawing. Fueled by an air pump, Czech sound artist Martin Janicek’s heaving installation consisted of branches laid out on a piece of canvas, which rhythmically rose and fell to form a Breathing Landscape.

Marilyn Arsem, The Cure, 2013, at Contexts 2013 Festival in Sokolovsko, Poland. Photo: Marcin Polak.

As if to offset the specter of death and disease hovering about the place, air as a life force was explored in a number of artworks. Staged near what used to be a morgue, Marilyn Arsem’s poignant durational performance saw the artist, eyes shut and stretched out on a hospital bed, beckon observers from the crowd gathered round her to come forth and engage in a brief, whispered exchange about the future with a dying woman. Joanna Rajkowska’s breathtaking installation Forcing a Miracle, commissioned as a 2012 Frieze Project in London, took place in a grassy field surrounded by woodland, which filled with incense smoke emanating from hundreds of hidden sources. An accompanying film documented a Kabbalistic ritual involving incense, designed to cure an eye disease of Rajkowska’s daughter, and was projected on a dilapidated wall of the nearby Brehmer sanatorium.

At night the woodland, with the ruins of the sanatorium as a backdrop, became the SoundPark. Daily concerts gave emerging experimental musicians such as Paulina Zielińska, whose compositions draw on a traditional form of throat singing known as “white voice” still practiced on Poland’s eastern borders, the chance to play alongside punk rock legend David Thomas in free, improvised music sessions. On one evening, the rain had us all retreat to the Villa Rosa, the festival hearth, where Thomas presided over musicians and artists who took turns extemporizing until dawn. Somewhat ironically for an ephemeral art festival, a great deal of effort was expended on documenting all the events, which were transmitted live on the festival website. But no recording can truly render an atmosphere. As the old ditty goes: You simply had to be there.

Oscar Murillo

This review appeared in frieze:


Oscar Murillo, ‘Dinner at the members club? Yes! i’ll have a black americano first pls’, installation views, 2013

The title of Oscar Murillo’s first London solo show was a mouthful: ‘Dinner at the members club? Yes! i’ll have a black americano first pls’. The titular ‘black americano’ in this case was – by his own admission – none other than the young London-based artist himself, whose Colombian origins are often emphasized in his painterly and performance-based practice (though there were also packs of ground coffee at the gallery, which visitors were welcome to take home). ‘The members club’ was apparently a reference to the ICA committee who had invited Murillo to rustle up something nice and performative for their annual fundraising dinner. He was happy to oblige: his debut exhibition at Carlos/Ishikawa became the setting for a champagne lunch, prepared by the artist with his relatives and served on grimy tablecloths made of ornate fabrics that had been gathering dirt for the occasion.

Welcome to the members club (all works 2013) is also the title of a 42-minute video, which documents the making of lollipops at the factory that employs most people in Murillo’s hometown, La Paila, in the southeast of Colombia. (Packed into boxes on one of the two platforms in the main space, the freely available sweets inevitably recalled Félix González-Torres’s candy piles.) But the artist doesn’t consider rough-and-ready, handheld videos such as this one to be art works in their own right; rather, he uses them to set his practice in context. A similar role is assigned to the social gatherings – such as dinners, yoga sessions, games or dances – that Murillo refuses to call ‘performances’ (though others do that for him), because they strike him as a natural, spontaneous outgrowth of his work, as opposed to an exercise in relational aesthetics of the kind practiced by, say, Rirkrit Tiravanija and his peers.

When it comes to Murillo’s broader output, it’s not always easy to determine what is ‘work’ proper and what is mere support. In a sense, everything at Carlos/Ishikawa was folded into his work’s sociable sphere for the duration of the show, and most of the things on display could be bought when they were not freely given. Yet not all of the objects had the same status. For example, one of the exhibition’s most distinctive features – the reflective copper sheets laid over a low plywood structure – were not art as such, according to the artist, but rather work-in-the-making (to be shown at a later date in a different gallery). Three weeks after the opening, these had lost some of their sheen and were looking tarnished – precisely the effect Murillo strives for. Instead of presenting a finished product, the artist wanted this exhibition to reflect some of the processes that inform his studio practice.

Painting forms the backbone of Murillo’s artistic practice, though rather than a brush he often uses a broom stick and a sizeable oil paint pad, in a sort of rudimentary mono-printing technique. Roughly hewn, stitched-up canvases in two or three different sizes – mostly large – and as many varieties (he calls them ‘banners’, ‘stack paintings’ and ‘bingos’) were hung on, leaned or stacked up against all available walls. Before the mark-making process begins, these are left lying about for a month or two to wear them in and let them gather ‘information’ (what the artist has referred to as the ‘DNA of the studio’). Murillo, who sees mess as a generative force, makes it a point never to tidy up his work environment. There is an archival element to much of the artist’s production, which retains traces of former activities, whether in the shape of single, underscored words and numbers (‘work’, ‘yoga’, ‘poker’, ‘maiz’, ‘3’) that feature prominently on his canvases, or condensed into solid dirt balls made up of studio débris (pulped drawings, thread, cement dye, copper, dust) dotted around the gallery.

‘Dirt’, and sometimes ‘dirt on canvas’, is insistently listed among the artistic media in Murillo’s works. More than just a widely available material, dirt for the artist has a levelling effect: we all experience it, black and white, rich and poor alike. In his eyes, that’s what makes it ‘democratic’. It’s easy to dispute this claim. Dirt is, after all, socially stratified; it belongs to the streets, to some more than others, and grows more scarce the higher one climbs. In some quarters (the art world among them), dirt can be exotic, a rarefied commodity, the mark of originality.

Murillo evidently sees himself as a mediator between different demographics, facilitating encounters between two worlds that would not normally meet – namely the art crowd and the Latin American immigrant community – through the events that he organizes. And yet, at the rehearsal fundraising lunch at Carlos/Ishikawa, the artist’s relatives who cooked tamales for us sat at their own table. The event may well have been intended as a critical comment on the exclusivity of the artist’s dinner, but the message it ultimately put across was as confusing as the exhibition’s title.

Moyra Davey

This piece appeared on

Moyra Davey, Copperheads 101–200, 2013, C-print adhesive tape, stamps, ink, 20 x 12”.

The outcome of a reconnaissance-cum-research trip to Liverpool and Manchester earlier this year, this exhibition takes its somewhat macabre title, “Hangmen of England,” from a scholarly volume Moyra Davey discovered while taking photographs at the Liverpool Central Library. Focused on small-scale photographic works, which are pinned to the walls and showcased in two antique walnut-framed vitrines (the only adornment in an otherwise bare room), this beautifully spare solo show styles itself as an archival display.

The exhibition’s centerpiece is a new iteration of the artist’s ongoing “Copperhead” series; here, the work is in the form of gridded mailers consisting of one hundred photographs of Abraham Lincoln’s barely distinguishable likeness on patina-coated and variously degraded US pennies that the artist has collected over the years as illustrations of the entropy of value. Like the pennies themselves, the chromogenic prints show signs of wear and tear. Each print has been folded, sealed with bright orange, pink, and green adhesive labels, addressed by hand, stamped, and mailed in batches from New York to Tate Liverpool. Unlike some of their predecessors, none went missing on this particular occasion.

The handling of used objects, namely LPs at record fairs, is the theme of Kevin Ayers, 2013, named after the English singer-songwriter associated with psychedelic 1960s bands like Soft Machine. Davey happened to read Ayers’s obituary on her plane journey to Liverpool, and, on her return flight to New York, came across a piece coauthored by Valerie Plame, who lends her name to another artwork on view that obliquely alludes to her “public hanging.” The titles testify to Davey’s abiding interest in the part chance plays in the creative process. Drawing on American and British references alike, the show as a whole exemplifies a transatlantic traffic of ideas, matching that of the works themselves on their journey from the artist’s studio to their destination.


Artur Zmijewski

This review appeared in frieze:


Artur Żmijewski, ‘Democracies’, 2009–12, video installation

‘Working’, Artur Z˙mijewski’s first show since the much-maligned 7th Berlin Biennale he co-curated in 2012, saw the artist revert to a more traditional exhibition format, which he not long ago claimed to have lost interest in. (This is perhaps understandable, given the biennial’s less than enthusiastic reception.) Yet, judging by the results, this kind of straight­forward presentation is what most benefits his work. Consisting of two series of short documentary films made between 2007 and 2012 as part of his ‘Selected Works’ and ‘Democracies’ cycles (made up of 18 and 30 videos, respectively), along with three discrete films, each around 20-minutes long, this formally and thematically varied exhibition proved more effective for playing by the rules.

The first pieces one sees in the exhibition are hung from the ceiling in a brightly lit area running alongside the five gallery spaces, each dedicated to a separate project. These vast expanses of paper covered in paint splotches, child-like scribbles and finger marks were made by blind people in the course of workshops that Z˙mijewski initiated and filmed for Blindly (2010). The film makes for painful yet fascinating viewing. Tasked with painting a self-portrait, a landscape or an animal, the participants in Z˙mijewski’s assignment gradually reveal their stories as they comment on their creations. One woman, who lost her sight following an accident, confides that it felt as though someone had locked her in a coffin. A man conjures the memory of how a dead fly felt between his fingers, as he struggles to depict it. Z˙mijewski has a long-standing interest in maimed, disabled or paralytic bodies, which are seldom portrayed in contemporary visual culture.

Drawings made by people who can see, but equally childlike in appearance, were presented together with My Neighbours (2009), a series of interviews Z˙mijewski conducted with his neighbours in Holon, where he had been staying, in the wake of particularly destructive Israeli attacks carried out in Gaza as part of Operation Cast Lead. In the situations set up by the artist, the act of drawing serves as a catalyst for conversation and effectively disarms his interlocutors. In his recent interview-based projects, Z˙mijewski has increasingly turned to this method as a means of provoking an exchange. The visual and verbal responses to his questions in My Neighbours, such as ‘What are the reasons for the last conflict in Gaza?’, are all the more chilling because of their candour.

Whereas in Blindly and My Neighbours we catch glimpses of the artist asking questions, directing proceedings and operating the camera, Z˙mijewski is absent from The Mass (2011). Recording yet another constructed situation, the film re-enacts the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass, blow by blow, on the stage of Warsaw’s Dramatyczny Theatre, with professional actors cast in the lead roles. Far from innocent, the setting in which the mass is thus ‘performed’ acts as a powerful metaphor for the theatricality and elements of illusion that underlie the Catholic ritual; the event’s organizers were at pains to explain how this was not an act of profanation or, at the very least, provocation. Placed at the heart of the exhibition, this standalone film owed much of its visual impact to being the only one projected in a darkened room on a large screen with benches placed in front of it, like in a church pew, inviting sustained, cinema-like viewing.

The 50-odd short films that comprise ‘Democracies’ and ‘Selected Works’ were all selected by Z˙mijewski himself, as if to illustrate a remark in his 2007 manifesto, ‘The Applied Social Arts’: ‘today the camera is the artist’s best friend’. Thirty films included in ‘Democracies’ – documenting rallies, reconstructions of historical events and protests by interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum in Poland, Germany, Israel and the West Bank – were screened simultaneously on as many monitors, calling to mind a situation room. Headphones were provided to allow visitors to tune into individual videos, as in the space dedicated to the ‘Selected Works’ series, comprising 18 films shown in a sequence, each named after a working-class protagonist whom the artist had shadowed for a day at work and in their free time. Edited down to anywhere between six and 17 minutes, the films in both cycles have in common their diaristic aesthetic, not unlike Jonas Mekas’s output, and a loose narrative structure imparted by the lifespan of an event or the day-in-the-life format. The appropriateness of the exhibition’s title, ‘Working’, may well be queried given that so many of the activities it charted – from attending political rallies and mass to painting, drawing and filming – fall somewhere between work and play. But then, as the Italian educator Maria Montessori once said, ‘play is the child’s work’.