In a film in which a statue of Engels journeys across post-industrial Europe in a flat-bed truck, Phil Collins asks profound questions about inequality and wealth. By Susan Mansfield
Phil Collins: Ceremony, Cooper Gallery, Dundee ****
Cecile B Evans: Amos’ World, Tramway, Glasgow ***
Lucy Beech: Reproductive Exile, Tramway, Glasgow ***
As film-making technology becomes ever more sophisticated and ever more readily available, the ambition and quality of artists’ films continues to rise. Now it’s possible to produce, on a fraction of a Hollywood budget, a film which plays with the conventions of film and television, splicing and dicing them to create a range of effects. All three artists reviewed here use a blend of film-making genres and techniques to explore big and complex subjects.
In 2017, for the Manchester International Festival, artist Phil Collins brought a decommissioned statue of Engels from a village in the Ukraine and installed it in front of Manchester’s new arts venue, Home. Engels lived in the city, one of the first in Europe to be industrialised, for more than 20 years, and wrote his seminal book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on what he observed there. The work, part funded by 14-18 NOW, coincided with the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
Collins’ film, made after the unveiling, is now touring the UK, with the Cooper Gallery – once again punching above its weight – as the only Scottish venue. It’s part road movie (as Engels journeys across post-industrial Europe on a flatbed truck), part drama-documentary (sections reflecting working-class life in Manchester today, from classroom to the foodbank, were made with community actors), part visual record of the “ceremony” of the unveiling. There is historic footage, too, of festivals in communist East Berlin, and of Soviet statues being toppled.
It’s a lot to mix together in an hour of screen time, but the resulting mosaic is a profound, nuanced exploration of the relevance of the ideas of Engels more than a century on. Across Europe, bystanders climb on the truck to pay tribute and take selfies, embracing the stern giant like a long lost friend. In Manchester, he is welcomed with red flags, and a carnival atmosphere where banners representing local activist causes (Bolton Against the Bedroom Tax) congregate around him.
The resonances are not laboured; perhaps they don’t have to be. As the film says, the parallels with post-crash Britain are “blindingly obvious.” As the gap yawns ever wider between rich and poor, the questions Engels posed about industrialisation, capital, consumption and even nationalism have not been adequately answered. When British city centres are still largely full of statues of war heroes and colonialists, Engels makes a provocative addition, his ideas, according to one speaker on the film, representing “the best chance at human dignity” in a divided world.
Meanwhile, American-Belgian artist Cecile B Evans has created Amos’ World, a three-part drama like a TV mini-series, around the central motif of the failed ideals of modernist architecture. The three 25-minute films are being shown concurrently in Tramway 2, though to watch the first two, one must clamber inside a set of open-fronted pod-like units which resemble the rooms in the fictional building (tricky, but quite effective, once you’re settled).
The Amos of the title is the architect, the egotistical, self-absorbed visionary who doesn’t hesitate to blame the inhabitants of his apartment block for its failure. The echoes are of Le Corbusier-style post-war developments which tried to shape not only buildings but communities and social systems, usually resulting in eventual collapse.
The surreal cast of characters, represented by a combination of live action and two- and three-dimensional animation, include three talking flowers and a bacteria storm (as well as some humans). But even the techniques of filmmaking shift as the story shifts, live sets turn into models, artificial backdrops spliced with found footage of a ruined apartment block. In some cases, these changes are so subtle they risk being lost on the audience.
Architecture, I discover from reading the blurb, is intended by Evans as a metaphor for the failure of today’s top-down technological and digital structures. Knowing this, one begins to see the significance of the characters’ isolation, the fragility of their emotional states, and the desperation with which they try to connect with one another. While the films compels the emotions cleverly from one cliffhanger to the next, much as a mini-series or a soap opera does, one would need repeat viewing to appreciate fully the scope of Evans’ ideas, and at nearly 90 minutes in total, that’s a big ask.
Reproductive Exile by British artist Lucy Beech, also at Tramway, is another ambitious film, speculative fiction based on research about the cross-border fertility industry. It was filmed in the Czech Republic, a country with comparatively lax legislation on reproductive rights which is positioning itself as a major player in reproductive tourism while other countries such as Cambodia are closing their borders.
The film, however, is more impressionistic than journalistic. The setting is clinical, including rather more medical procedures than make for comfortable viewing, and a variety of abstract shots of flowing liquids. The protagonist, Anna, seems to drift episodically through a story which is happening to her, though the order of events is unclear (the 30-minute film is looped giving the impression of endless motion).
What does gradually become clear is that Anna grows fascinated (perhaps obsessed) with the invisible agents of the process – the women and horses from whom urine is taken to make fertility drugs, and Eve, short for Evatar, an artificial working model of the female reproductive system – rather than engaging with any of the human beings in white coats who prod at her insides.
Unspecific about exactly what procedures are being used, or their legality, the film does not give us a clear sense of its heroes and villains. Is Anna taking control of her own fertility, or the vulnerable victim of a system which preys on women’s desperation to conceive a child “that resembles them”? Whilst it’s intimate – sometimes uncomfortably so – it’s also strangely detached, an exploration of a pertinent subject which reaches no conclusion, either for Anna or for us.
Phil Collins until 16 February; Cecile B Evans until 17 March; Lucy Beech until 10 February