By Bill Clarke
Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art
To September 6, 2010
Runa Islam is a Bangladesh-born artist who emigrated to the U.K. when she was three. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2008, she works predominantly in film, and most often seems concerned with bringing the technical of the film medium to the fore, and examining how cameras are used to control viewers’ experience of a filmed space or object. This small survey of mainly recent works includes five 16-mm film installations, including the premiere of a new work commissioned by the MACM and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sidney, Australia. These works seem to show the artist moving away from the suggested narratives found in her early films and into the realm of pure visual abstraction.
Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are, literally, confronted by the installation Assault (2008), which features a series of close-up, static shots of a man’s face as he attempts to stare into the camera while multicoloured lights are shone into his eyes. At times, the bright flashes of light cause him to wince, or close his eyes completely. The effect of this rather simple set up is hypnotic and prompts a subtly visceral response in viewers; the periodic physical discomfort felt by Islam’s sitter comes across quite palpably. Sharing this room is an untitled film from the same year, in which the camera moves over the surface of an Edwardian-era photograph, revealing it in abstract fragments. The entire image, showing three smiling women standing over the carcass of a deer, isn’t revealed until the end. While Islam’s camera has probed the surface of this image, meaning remains elusive. The final reveal of this intriguing image raises questions about the circumstances under which it was originally taken, but provides no clues.
Also showing in the survey is one of Islam’s most overtly political films. This House Belongs to Those Who Inhabit It (2008) was first shown at Manifesta 7, and depicts a camera’s movements through an abandoned building that is covered with political graffiti. The camera’s increasingly rapid movements through the space appear to serve as a metaphor for the anarchic sentiments expressed in the graffiti before it comes to rest on the spray-painting writing that gives the piece its title.
The newly commissioned work, Magical Consciousness (2010) is, unlike the rest of the films, shot in black and white, and is silent. It presents a series of abstract images that look like the façade of a stark Modernist building but turns out to be the back of a folding Japanese screen. Of all the films on view, this one seems the most influenced by the history of experimental film. (Stan Brakhage comes to mind.) While Islam’s approach here may be most interesting from a formalist perspective, it’s a dry viewing experience, lacking some of the visual frisson of the other works in the exhibition.
This makes the true high point of this brief survey, then, the earliest work on view: Be the First to See What You See As You See It (2004). Here, a young woman moves among a museum-like display of objects — fine china teapots, cups and saucers, and hand-held bells of the kind one would shake to summon a servant. The young woman fingers the objects gingerly, as if she’d never seen anything like them before, a look of vague bafflement on her face. And then, with a blank expression, she slowly tips them off the edges of the plinths and tables. The fall and shattering of the teapots and cups is filmed in slow motion. While Islam is most concerned with capturing that moment when the object transforms from wholeness to fragments, it feels like there is more going on. As traditional symbols of British gentility, Islam’s choice of teapots and cups to smash can’t be coincidental. Perhaps, the young woman in the film is a stand-in for the foreign-born Islam, smashing these objects as a way of critiquing England’s colonial past and persisting class system.