Mediamatic Magazine 3#4 Steven Bode 1 Jan 1989

The Apple of Your Eye

In the Beginning - by which, of course, we mean the beginning of the '80s - avant-garde film looked out on the world with an austere gaze: clear, unstinting, unblinking, committed to the shibboleths of duration and stillness; minimalist, maybe, but without mannerism, without mystification; aspiring to a kind of formalist film-making degree zero (even if, to many, such a project was fast becoming a kind of closed loop.)


CERYTH WYN EVANS - Degrees of Blindness 1989,detail from still

We all know what happened next. Old heads talk of how, after a while, the serpent of Visual Pleasure came onto the scene; of how artists first flirted with popular imagery and then became seduced; of how the concept of an avant-garde began to collapse in a subsequent babel of styles, where in the play of mirroring and mimicking of the media that came to characterise '80s art, it was almost impossible to tell, at the surface, the thrust, or lack of it, of an image's critical intent. Once bitten, there was no turning back.
When CERITH WYN EVANS put on an exhibition of super-8 works called A Certain Sensibility at the INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ARTS in London in June 1981, such a preoccupation with visual pleasure was not so much a taboo, exactly, but certainly a secondary consideration as far as serious film -making was concerned. A Certain Sensibility could not have been more of a reaction to the, then still dominant, notions of structuralist-materialist film. After the finely-honed asceticism of artists like MIKE SNOW and PETER GIDAL, came a flaunted, full-blown aestheticism: rich and rococo in conception, exotic in texture and theme, full of decadent, exquisite imagery, polymorphous sex and a heady immersion in high-fashion style. The fact of their being made on the then lowly-regarded super-8 lent a rawness and an underground immediacy to these films as well as a kind of throwaway quality that contrasted with the disciplined focus of - 16 or 35 mm - formalist work. The title of EVANS' Beauty is Only Screen Deep seemed to say it all.
Since then, EVANS' film -making has moved in parallel and converging paths with that of his friend and mentor DEREK JARMAN, with whom he shares a particular fine-art sensibility (revealed in lush compositional tableaux and art-historical allusion) and a circle of actors and technicians on which he regularly draws. Later - 16 mm films like Epiphany and The Miracle of the Rose saw EVANS building on the visionary elements of his work in ways that sometimes specifically parodied the icons of contemporary consumer culture yet also shared a lyrical affinity with figures like COCTEAU, GENET and the Symbolists.
Like JARMAN, as well, EVANS' work mixes different forms; his new Degrees of Blindness, for instance, combines 35 mm film with lavish digital post-production (in possibly its most striking application so far in British art film.) In a similar way to the video experiments of directors like PETER GREENAWAY in A TV Dante, it also uses state of-the-art technology to elaborate an old - mythic - text: in EVANS' case the story of the Fall itself - as much our exile from Eden as our retreat from a world of total, immediate experience; in which our visual relation to objects progressively lapses into varying degrees of blindness.
Opening on a reproduction of MASSACCIO'S painting of ADAM and EVE expelled from PARADISE and moving into a shot of a camera-eye squinting in the light of a forest glade, the tape might almost be read as a parable of that fact; the recurring theme of our being distanced from the natural world around us being definitively established in scene where the camera tracks back from an apple, a map, a globe, then on through a studio set and finally out into a keyed-in landscape in one seamless take. From then on, the video builds into a swirling sensoria of images, in which the likes of LEIGH BOWERY and MICHAEL CLARK don ever more grotesque and extravagant masks in a spiralling carnivalesque sequence worthy of HIERONYMUS BOSCH. Early views of arcadia are constrasted with video arcade games; icons of religious deities with latter-day consumerist gods. The sequence ends on an apocalyptic climax and then returns in a lyrical coda featuring TILDA SWINTON at what seems like the Gates of Heaven.
For many, the various effects machines of post-production technology are a bit like PANDORA'S Box - distracting, dazzling, disorientating, sumptuous and seductive yet, at the same time, difficult to see clearly for what they are. Where television uses the tricks of digital technology- in titles, trailers and commercials - simply to keep us watching, EVANS in Degrees of Blindness, finds a way of using them to keep us looking, infusing his multi-layered scenes with a depth and finesse that comes out of his background in painting. It is this particular horizon for the experimental artist that Degrees of Blindness focuses on so well; the symbolic, mythic structure of the piece bringing out the desire that exists at the root of vision (the pleasure of seeing and being seen); its assured and evocative use of new video technology (in its sometimes delicate, sometimes startling way), bringing back a level of sensuality to the gaze.