Art reviews: Alchemy Festival | Peter Howson | Ken Currie | David Osbaldeston

Bringing together some 75 artists’ films from all over the world, this year’s Alchemy festival transported audiences in both time and space, writes Susan Mansfield

Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, Various venues, Hawick ****

Peter Howson: O tempora!, Billcliffe Gallery, Glasgow ****

Ken Currie: A Bestiary, Glasgow Print Studio ****

A still from Action Potential, by Sonya DyerA still from Action Potential, by Sonya Dyer
A still from Action Potential, by Sonya Dyer

David Osbaldeston: A Pastiche of Different Techniques, Glasgow Print Studio ***

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The Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, the largest festival of experimental film in the UK, is now well established in the Borders town of Hawick. Founded by Richard Ashrowan in 2010, it gives an important cultural boost to a town depleted by the decline of the textile industry, and made its mark on the international map when Ashrowan curated Rachel Maclean’s show for Scotland + Venice in 2017.

For its 14th iteration, directors Rachael Disbury and Michael Pattison and their team have brought together a programme of 75 films from all over the world, and continue the festival’s inclusive, non-hierarchical ethos: no competitions, no red carpets, no work excluded because it premiered elsewhere.

It does host some premieres, however, such as the UK premiere of Background, a feature by Germany-based Syrian artist Khaled Abdulwahed, about his attempts to trace the footsteps of his father, Sadallah, who came to East Germany as an engineering student in the 1950s. Poignant telephone conversations between father and son try to bridge the distance between them as Sadallah shares his memories and Khaled photographs the places he talks about. Background explosions remind us of the still perilous situation in Aleppo which is ever-present in this story of absence, loss and what it means to hold on to a golden thread of memory.

Labuntur Et Imputantur 2024, by Peter HowsonLabuntur Et Imputantur 2024, by Peter Howson
Labuntur Et Imputantur 2024, by Peter Howson

On Saturday night, Alchemy presented three films by Palestinian filmmaker Noor Abed, including a new work, A Night We Held Between, which remind us of film’s ability to transport the viewer in time and space. Working in 16mm and Super8 in the vivid rocky landscape near her home village, Abed made these films with family, friends and neighbours. Rituals, movement and haunting soundtracks speak to deep connections between culture and place. Although the current situation is never mentioned overtly, this passionate portrayal of a land and its traditions can’t help but gain a political edge.

Abed’s cans of film bear witness to her circumstances, degraded every time they are scanned at an Israeli checkpoint. She was one of many filmmakers choosing analogue practices. Catriona Gallagher’s film, Daphne was a torso ending in leaves, about the transformation of the character from Greek myth into a bay tree, was partially developed using an infusion of bay leaves. Lilan Yang’s Everything Comes Full Circle, in which she filmed the locations used in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, was made by an analogue process which degrades a little with each loop of its projection, a poignant metaphor for memory.

Collaging of found and archival footage is also ubiquitous. Chris Paul Daniels’ Is There Anybody There? mixes found footage of carnivals, processions and parades with a rich poetic text which plays off the images. Where is Marie Anne? by Yaela Gottlieb stitches together snippets of Argentinian films and advertisements to ask questions about model Marie Anne Eriza Tisseau, one of the thousands “disappeared” by the government during Argentina’s Dirty War.

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Nariman Massoumi, in Pouring Water on Troubled Oil, brings out the fascinating story of Dylan Thomas’ trip to Iran in 1951, when the poet was commissioned to write a promotional film about the country’s oil industry. He did not complete the project, but his letters home describing what he witnessed are beautifully voiced by Michael Sheen. Matthew Burdis’ Zipped Up Blues uses the engaging voice of his father, Alan, who helped comb the Northumberland Fells for wreckage from Flight Pan-Am 103 which exploded over Lockerbie in 1988.

The Disparates (Us-Them) 2022 by David OsbaldestonThe Disparates (Us-Them) 2022 by David Osbaldeston
The Disparates (Us-Them) 2022 by David Osbaldeston

Lost voices and recovered stories are an ongoing theme at the festival: Niyaz Saghari’s poetic Ripple Effect remembers an Iranian activist executed for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit. Katarzyna Łukasik delves into the erasure of the culture of Ukrainian immigrants in Poland between the wars, and Emily Jacir’s We Are The Wind looks at the fate of Switzerland’s foreign post-war workforce. Frank Sweeney’s ambitious film Few Can See recovers voices who were unjustly silenced in Northern Ireland due to broadcasting bans brought in during the conflict.

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Mitchell Stafiej’s These Streets Will Never Look The Same, one of the exhibition films, is particularly compelling. Using the visual language of the phantom ride, a staple of early cinema which fixed a camera to the front of a moving vehicle, Canadian Stafiej takes his dashboard camera across contemporary America. As strip malls, neon lights, abandoned suburbs and Black Lives Matter graffiti scroll slowly past we become mesmerised voyeurs of a country in crisis.

Meanwhile, new work by Peter Howson at the Billcliffe Gallery in Glasgow continues the artist’s apocalyptic take on the present moment. This selection of small-scale works shows a range of approaches: the colourful mixed media drawings he began to make during the pandemic; chiaroscuro portraits which conjure faces with a glimmer of light; groups of figures created with dotted brushstrokes, more suggestion than definition.

While the figure is central to almost all Howson’s paintings, Post Nubila, Phoebus (After Clouds, the Sun) foregrounds a landscape of uprooted trees and toppled statues and a motorway bridge with buildings on it, not unlike the one at Glasgow’s Charing Cross. As always, there are flashes of allegory, and politics: a group of derelicts outside a theatre called The Empire trample on a torn Union Jack; St George flags flash in the eyes of a beast.

The groups of walking figures, their faces and clothes undefined, are timeless, perhaps refugees from an unspecified war, or all wars. But the colour palette of these pictures is softer, the sky shot through with gold, even occasionally blue. They plod on, resolutely, and have titles like Spes non factra (but hope is not broken). There is something in them of resilience and perhaps even tentative hope.

The artists known as the New Glasgow Boys have long gone their separate ways, but Ken Currie, like Howson, is a superb, intuitive draftsman. His new series of seven etchings, A Bestiary, made over several years at Glasgow Print Studio, draws inspiration from the poems of Ted Hughes, which he first encountered at school, and was drawn by their unsentimental, sometimes brutal, take on nature.

Currie, too, is a master of light, or lack of it. The forms seem to come at us out of the dark as a sliver of light catches the crow’s beak, the sparrowhawk’s chest. This is “nature red in tooth and claw”: the creeping menace of a pike, the bear on its hind legs, dark against a starry forest, a femur in its mouth (whose, one decides not to wonder).

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Upstairs, David Osbaldeston inhabits firmly the realm of ideas. Two large-scale multi-layered etchings, Artforum Car Share and A World Apart Almanac, are emblazoned with phrases picked from Artforum magazine, placed over landscapes snapped from the train between Scotland and Manchester on which Osbaldeston often travels.

The majority of the other works are from two new “Word Props” series. Screenprints on raw and oil-primed linen, the works are in pairs, one featuring a patterned measuring strip, the other with the same strip folded or twisted. Each pair is associated with a pair of ideas: Believer/Sceptic, Liberal/Fundamentalist, Outsider/Insider, Us/Them. The printmaking is immaculate and the conceptualism rigorous. Is he also mocking such binary thinking which puts ideas into boxes? As part of his grist is a critique of criticism, I think I’ll watch my step.

Alchemy Festival now ended; Peter Howson until 18 May; Ken Currie until 1 June; David Osbaldestone until 25 May.