A trainspotter and a shipping enthusiast are the unlikely stars of this year's Beck's Futures show. Adrian Searle reports
Tuesday March 30, 2004
On track: video still from Foreign Power (Part 1,2,3), by Andrew Cross
The fifth Beck's Futures exhibition is the most interesting so far. It is also quieter and perhaps more serious than before, a show less hyped. Then again, it all depends on what you mean by serious and on your definition of quiet. Are fluff-ball rabbits serious? How quiet can a pair of Cilla Black impersonators be? Is trainspotting interesting? The questions dangle.
Andrew Cross has been a trainspotter since childhood. His digital video Foreign Power is shot beside the tracks of the US rail network. We wait. The camera doesn't move. The day passes. We are at the mouth of the longest tunnel in the US rail network. Birds sing, insects bat the lens. The black tunnel entrance fogs with smoke. No train comes. Somehow, this is interesting; all the waiting and expectation, all that time suspended. In the second scene, the track zooms to a distant vanishing point. The clouds are high, the trees in full summer flush. Eventually something comes along - and it is certainly unexpected. The final section is a stalled image, two white wagons frozen on the screen, a second train passing behind.
Watching all this I thought about stucturalist film-making of the 1960s and 1970s, and of early cinema - specifically the Lumi¨¨re brothers' 1895 The Arrival of the Train, which had film's first audience panicking and climbing over their seats in a bid to escape the approaching engine. I also recalled composer Steve Reich's Different Trains, which, like Cross's Foreign Power, is intended as a kind of meditation about where the tracks go and what cargo they carry. In Reich's work they lead across America, and on, in a cattle truck, to that terrible vanishing point at Auschwitz. As much as waiting for trains in Foreign Power, we are waiting on an event both banal and whose magnitude we cannot grasp. The pictorial qualities of Cross's work are important too - our place beside the tracks, the blackness of the tunnel's mouth, where the perspectives lead and mislead us.
Like Cross's work, Ergin Cavusoglu's four-screen video installation is meant to make us think about cargo, traffic, distances. It is night, and silhouetted ships cross the screens, against the city lights, making their way through the Bosphorus at Istanbul, Europe's crossing into Asia. The backwash slops rhythmically against the shore, and a pilot's radio conversations murmur quietly. The spotlit mosques, the anonymous passage of the shipping, the winking lights of the hillsides are all mesmerising. We are caught between the screens, as though in our own straits. We think about the man on one bank, looking towards the other with his camera. He can record only what is visible - and yet he is also recording something else. Now living in London, Cavusoglu is an ethnic Turk, born and bought up in Bulgaria. Downward Straits, then, can be seen as a journey through his own life, his own crossings, his own place between places. It is an extremely beautiful work.
There are dozens of artists working like Cross and Cavusoglu now, their cameras aimed at the everyday, a place, an event. This work is less documentary than poetic description, a restaging of the world, homing in on details, places and moments. It matters what is filmed, the ways things are edited and projected, the viewpoint itself. This is why these two artists stand out. In the wrong hands, such a method of enquiry can be anecdotal and dull.
So it seems to me in a video by Susan Philipsz of strollers in a park in Berlin. They wander near the memorial dedicated to Karl Liebknecht, who was murdered along with Rosa Luxemburg. As with most memorials, the people in the park ignore it. Philipsz doesn't make you linger, much less wonder. In another sound work, which echoes up the ICA stairwell, she noodles about on the piano, fitfully playing the theme from the movie Don't Look Now with one finger. What Philipsz's work aims for, I think, is a feeling of poignancy and ennui, but it ends up being boring.
This is something Hayley Tompkins risks, too. Her tiny one-shot watercolours on scraps of lined notebook paper, or a configuration of a few lines drawn on the wall, are so ephemeral as to go almost unnoticed. A number of her "paintings" are stuck, unframed, to the wall in the ICA's attic; those who make the effort to see them tend not to stay long. Get up very close, however, and the skill is evident, the sensitivity of her touch.
Tonico Lemos Auad's work is inconsequential but also funny. He has discovered that you can tattoo images on to bananas by sticking pins through their skins, and as the fruit ripens the pricked images darken. We might refer the faces and human skeletons he has drawn on the bananas to still life, the rotting fruit and decaying flowers of memento mori painting. He has also had a carpet lain in the gallery, and scraped the fluff into mounds, which he "sculpts" into the form of animals - a monkey, rabbits, other creatures. It's all so silly as to be thoroughly engaging, though I don't usually have time for this sort of whimsy.
I certainly don't have time for Simon Bedwell's adulterated posters in the ICA's concourse. Bedwell used to be in the collective Bank, where his humour and his bile had a context. Now Bank has disbanded, it looks tiresome. One poster, featuring a publicity photo of the Spice Girls, tells us that they are to perform at the Freud Museum; others announce shows at Buckingham Palace. This rage against the nasty corrupt art world, of which Bedwell is a fully paid-up member, is impotent. I feel like doing a bit of sloganising of my own: Come off it, Bedwell!
On my visit, lots of uniformed security guards from different companies were milling about, perhaps to stall the revolution. They eyed each other up and didn't know what to protect. This project, by Nicoline Van Harskamp, is more a sociological exercise than art. We critics are here for your comfort and security, too, so perhaps I should buy a reflective vest and perform a citizen's arrest on Simon Bedwell.
I should arrest Imogen Stidworthy, too, for her recordings of two Cilla Black impersonators. We see and hear them belting out Anyone Who Had a Heart in an anechoic chamber, where the soundproofing kills any echo or reverb. All this is meant as metaphoric - of Cilla's early life in the Liverpool slums, of song as an escape, of the existential necessity of finding an echo. But it's irritating, and the sound leakage of the voices is hugely distracting for viewers of Lemos Auad's work, and of Saskia Olde Wolbers' work screened nearby.
One needs to hear Olde Wolbers' narrator, a man adrift in an anaesthetic hallucination in the hospital where he is now a patient, but for many years practised as a doctor without the necessary qualifications. It's a long and complicated story, and you want more of it - just as you want to see more of Haluk Akakce's digital video work. Here, abstracted leaves of grass, cascading stalks, tulip-like bomblets, all flipping from positive to negative, colour to black and white, slew across the wall. Moholy-Nagy's abstract photography meets ambient abstraction, dissolving in clusters of Erik Satie-like notes and chords. The world goes blurry and Richterish, then tinkles with silvery forests of buds.
Akakce is playing with the history of abstract cinema, and so long as one doesn't look for anything deep in his work it is satisfying enough. Technical sophistication, however, is no guarantee of anything; nor are pretentions or clever ideas. The 10 artists will all share ¡ê40,000 of the Beck's Futures prize money, with another ¡ê20,000 for the overall winner. I'd split that, too, between Cross and Cavusoglu.
¡¤ Beck's Futures 2004 is at the ICA, London SW1, until May 16. Details: 020-7930 0493.