Monday, January 21, 2008

Darren Almond, "THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL" by Adrian Searle


Darren Almond's images depict hellish toil and
uneasy cultural change, but they never tell us
how to feel. Adrian Searle admires his complex,
brooding work

Thursday January 17, 2008

A man labours in hell. He is harvesting sulphur
from inside the crater of a volcano, breathing in
the acid smoke swirling up from the ground. All
he has to break up the sulphur is a metal rod.
All he has to carry the chunks are two baskets
slung from a pole balanced on one shoulder. His
only protection is a bit of cloth, which he
intermittently stuffs in his mouth to suck air
through. His eyes are bloodshot, his teeth are
eroded, his breathing is wheezy, and his knees
are ruined from carrying his loads - maybe 100kg
- over the crater rim and down to the weighing

Darren Almond walks with him, a camera on his
shoulder. The Indonesian worker's journey, down
the side of Kawah Ijen in Java, is filmed in an
almost continuous take. Other human mules are
making this same journey, in both directions. We
hear rather than see them - a sudden yell, the
sound of someone retching in the fog, stones
dislodged as feet scrabble for balance. For much
of this grim descent, Almond focuses on the man's
face. There are frequent pauses as the worker
tries to catch his breath. He looks stunned by
the work, the poisonous air, the rattle of his
wrecked lungs. The man spits, grimaces and
trudges on.

Bearing, Almond's 35-minute video, is not the
first time this exploitative, appalling job has
been exposed to a wider audience. Tourists have
often been here, posting snapshots on the web.
There are films on YouTube. But it is still
overwhelming. Bearing is fascinating, shocking,
uncomfortable. But what is our discomfort
compared to the plight of the workers? What is
Almond asking us to think about it? We might talk
about how the video takes us from the collection
of the sulphur to its weighing and unloading. Yet
what is made clear is that this is simply a
single turn of an endlessly repeated cycle. As
soon as the camera stops recording, the man will
turn round and walk up the volcano again, and
pause with a new load on the way down, hawk and
spit and stuff the cloth in his mouth and
grimace, again and again.

This does not tell us what to think or feel.
There is no Michael Palin here to offer a cheery
encouragement or to scratch his head at the gross
injustice of the world. Filmed without comment,
Bearing escapes voyeurism. It bears witness and
is at its most painful in the periods when the
camera waits with the man as he rests, labouring
over his breath, the crippling weight, the
inhuman conditions.

Bearing is Almond's newest work in Fire Under
Snow, opening this week at London's Parasol Unit.
The show's title echoes that of the autobiography
of Tibetan dissident Palden Gyatso, who spent 33
years in Chinese prisons and work camps. In
Almond's work, one thing always leads to another.
The second film in the show is In the Between, a
three-screen work shot in Tibet. For most of its
14 minutes, the central image shows Buddhist
monks chanting, eating and meditating in the
oldest monastery in Lhasa, capital of Tibet. On
the screens to either side, we watch the new
bullet train speeding across the arid plain of
the world's highest plateau. Sometimes the camera
is on board, looking out at the bare landscape,
the intense blue sky, the distant Himalayas. The
train speeds through empty stations and a blank
green landscape, taking its tourists and
businessmen to Lhasa, to a soundtrack of cymbals
and chanting.

Some 1.5 million passengers came to Tibet by this
train alone last year. China is opening up the
country, swamping the Tibetans. "Almond is an
artist, and artists are connoisseurs and
articulators of the ambiguous, the ambivalent,
the cognitively dissonant," writes the Buddhist
philosopher and academic Robert Thurman in his
pungent and often angry essay in Index, an
accompanying new primer on Almond's work.

Thurman is angry about China's continuing
presence in Tibet. He is also right about
artists, and we do well to remember the
importance of ambivalence and ambiguity in
creative works. Art isn't meant just to press a
happy button, pull the tragedy lever, turn the
prettiness dial or ring the relevance bell. And
it should do more than tick issues or be
well-meaning. If it is any good, art deals with
the complexity of being in the world. Artworks
mean more than one thing, often more than the
artist knows. There's more to it than a message,
a slogan or a sentiment. Often, artists don't
know what they mean, or only find out later.
Sometimes they intend one thing and end up with
another. They work in between meanings and reason.

Thurman sees the train as a phallic instrument in
China's rape of Tibet. But it is hard not to fall
for the train a little, the way it squeezes time
and geography. Part of Almond also loves the
train (he was a trainspotter growing up in
Wigan). In the Between is the final part of a
trilogy of films about train journeys. Mobility
changes the world, and goes on changing it - that
is one reason why In the Between is so
exhilarating and awful.

One thing I have grown to like about Almond's
work over the years is its complexity. It is
about all sorts of things: time, places,
journeys, the telling and retelling of lives,
memory, nostalgia, private lives and public
histories. Working with video, photography,
installation and objects, Almond goes his own
way, mostly avoiding the cliche of universal
statements and the mawkishness of the overly
personal. In the same show, there is a room of
photographs of dead trees, their trunks like
black drawings against the blank snow and the
steely sky. It is almost impossible to imagine
colour here, or even life itself. Yet the images
have a final, calligraphic beauty. They are a
sort of writing of the end of the world.

There were taken in Monchegorsk and Norilsk in
northern Siberia, above the Arctic Circle, where,
between 1935 and 1953, a third of a million
prisoners toiled in the Soviet gulag, mining and
processing some of the biggest deposits of
nickel, platinum, cobalt and copper on the
planet. It is one of the most polluted places on
earth, a blunt fact that the whiteness of the
snow cannot conceal. Almond's photographs are
titled Night & Fog, in reference to Alain
Resnais' 1955 film about Auschwitz, Night and Fog.

Resnais focused primarily on the abandoned
buldings at the concentration camp. Almond
himself has made several works about Auschwitz,
using the old bus shelters from the road which
runs past the camp, which is now a museum.
Instead of showing us something overtly dramatic,
he points to the quotidian, the echoes of the
terrible resonating in the everyday. This is why,
perhaps, he quotes the exiled Russian poet Joseph
Brodsky, in two aluminium relief plates, the kind
bolted to the sides of locomotives bearing
commemorative names. "Only sound needs echo and
dreads its lack," reads one. The other: "A glance
is accustomed to no glance back."

There is no one looking back from Almond's
photographs at Moons of the Iapetus Ocean, his
concurrent show at White Cube in London's Hoxton
Square. Though these colour images are full of
historical echoes, they have a brooding,
inexplicable silence about them. Shot at night,
with long exposure times under the full moon,
they show British beauty spots: Flatford Mill,
where Constable painted; the Yorkshire limestone
ravine Gordale Scar; Cader Idris; St Abb's Head.
Because of the long exposures, waves have become
a soft-focus mushy whiteness about the coast; a
waterfall is a leaden blur; a river's surface
molten and deathly by moonlight. There's not even
a fox, just the yellow trace of the night mail
train crossing a viaduct.

This isn't cinema's day-for-night so much as
night-for-day. The effect is quite unlike human
night vision, and closer to the way the world
appears in old tinted postcards, in dreams and in
memories of childhood. The world is slowed down,
but this only serves to quicken the senses.
Everything is impending.




. Fire Under Snow is at Parasol Unit, London,
from Friday to March 30. Moons of the Iapetus
Ocean is at White Cube Hoxton Square, London,
from Friday to February 23.

Guardian Unlimited C Guardian News and Media Limited 2008


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home