June 29, 2014

On Film: Space as antagonist, with Liam Gillick and Viviane Albertine in starring roles



Guest contributor Jonathan Stevenson / Space – for instance, the relationship between negative and positive space – has long presented compositional challenges to artists. In her slyly penetrating and  satirical film Exhibition, Joanna Hogg takes a bold step beyond from that rather bland observation and looks at how space can affect their personal lives and art practices.

The movie’s overarching theme is the emotional atrophy that occurs in long-term romantic relationships. But a digital artist (H, the man, known only by an initial, played by Sarah Morris's husband Liam Gillick and pictured above) and an installation artist (D, the woman, played by former Slits founder and guitarist Viviane Albertine) are involved, which affords the film a literal life-as-art quality that the director impishly exploits. The fact that two are middle-aged and childless and work at home means they have few distractions from each other except for their work. Accordingly, they need to use vertical space to map out the boundaries they require to function as artists. Thus, their house – a modern and very cool loft in London’s Chelsea neighborhood – becomes a virtual character, and an antagonistic one at that.


With an unconventionally flat and dispassionate tone – there is no musical soundtrack – the movie starts by directly engaging the senses, as Hogg establishes the loft's role in the lives of the protagonists via amplified sound effects and schematic shots of their day-to-day physical existence that recall neoplastic abstract paintings. Working on separate floors and communicating during working hours by intercom, D and H make telephone appointments to have sex, which has devolved into masculine self-preservation for him and wifely ordeal for her despite the strong (in fact, exhibitionist) sexual content of her work. She also fakes fainting spells to truncate tedious social engagements.

They are an annoying -- and quite amusing -- pair. D, in particular, has become so dependent on the house as an insular workspace as to be at best antisocial and at worst agoraphobic. H, for his part, is reflexively and unconstructively indignant about her peculiarities. The film’s subdued narrative pull consists in the couple’s painfully fastidious effort to sell the house: they feel the erosion of their romantic life and fear the absence of the structure – the space – that they have installed on one level to nurture their art but also perhaps, on a deeper one, to freeze their marriage in order to sustain it. Though the story is sometimes exasperatingly oblique – D and H are inarticulate by design – that very quality simulates the teeth-gnashing challenge of making sense out of art as well as life.

Exhibition, directed by Joanna Hogg. Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, New York, NY. Through July 3, 2014. The theater is also showing Hogg's two earlier features, Archipelago (2010) and Unrelated (2007).

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