1. The West (Australia, 58 mins, 1986)
Consider two events in the abstract. A sound event: a telephone that rings, and then two voices that speak, one repeating in English what the other says in German. An image event: a person on a ship, another on a dock with his or her hand raised.
Both events are model instances of what could be called, in communications terms, a sender/receiver relation: a message is sent and received in the first event; a body is sent off and deposited in the second. Both events are journeys from a here to a there, and they involve an entire barrage of presumptions concerning who exactly is here and there, what they’re sending, in which direction, the sureness (or not) of a safe arrival …
Geoffrey Weary’s The West is a woven series of such abstract events, in which none of the usual bearings are kept. It sets about problematising every point and relation in the sender/receiver model – a model that underlies most of our social situations of exchange ad communication. There is nothing here that can be assumed as immediately read within the terms of the model, for that certainty is at once (or eventually) dislocated, displaced, undermined, made strange: the gesture of the woman on shore (for example) could as easily be hello as goodbye – or it could be a pure gesture, vacated altogether of its meaning. And the image of the ship, back-projected, could be from another film, another time-space entirely. I’m reminded of the similarly ambiguous, back-projected, ship-and-dock imagery floating behind the actors in a section of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ingenious telefilm Bremen Freedom (1972).
The West insists fiercely on the separateness and heterogeneity of its materials – black-and-white, colour, stills, motion, silence, speech, German language, English language – and never ceases to violently dislodge every one of these elements across the different registers. In this regard, it’s reminiscent of Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980); indeed, Journeys from Berlin would serve as a title for Weary’s film as deliberately ironic as The West is deliberately treacherous. For the work sets up a Berlin/Sydney relation which is never a single movement to or from; nor a simple juxtaposition of these place-terms.
Weary constructs, moodily and hypnotically, a single “invisible city” (après Calvino), an imaginary city from fragments (representations and accounts) of both sites. This construction is then extended and distended: at one moment, flattened into the pure surfaces of maps, facades or images without translatable referents; at the next moment, deepened into a cluster of signs saturated with historical and social significance – to the extent that any attempt at fixing places, identities or even directions (west of what, exactly?) becomes almost a joke, an elaborate delusion.
The West seems (sometimes too much so) like the gathering together of all Weary’s previous works and researches: the maps, cities and non-corresponding language-differences of the Pictures for Cities project (1982-1984), plus the fruity, saturated, ominous pieces of music colliding with cooled-out images in Young Guy, Young Gal (1984), not forgetting the dislocations of psychology and character-codes arising from the treatment of conventions of portraiture and gesture in the photographic series Germany.
We can certainly detect a note of academic formalism in the strenuous and studied linguistic and semiotic shifters of The West – watching it is a bit like reading all extant issues of the art theory magazine October in one sitting – but the result is, nonetheless, admirable in its breadth, sophistication and bravery. For better and worse, it arrives hot on the heels of Laleen Jayamanne’s A Song of Ceylon (1985) – a project on which he worked – in making a precarious but courageous move out of the mutual-support circle of very small-scale, avant-garde film/video practice, and into a somewhat larger framework of Creative Development Branch (of the Australian Film Commission) grants; meaning (slightly) more money, resources, and (potentially at least) greater public distribution and visibility.
In this context, The West, like A Song of Ceylon, needs to be defended – at the very least, for the sake of keeping a road open to the future. And so this reviewer is prepared to grin and bear some of the more curious and questionable parameters of a highly identifiable mid-‘80s avant-garde “Sydney style”: a general humourlessness; an occasional lack of rhythm or an electric current to snap the ensemble together; those longed-for – but not always achieved – “intensities”, libidinal and political, that are presumed to attend such rigorously held slowness and stillness (think of Marguerite Duras’ India Song ); the much ado about displacement delivered to a (predominantly) artsy audience that is perfectly and securely in place for this kind of experimentation (see the cheeky polemics of Ted Colless on this point); the somewhat precious attitude to performers and performance which scores A to gesture/stereotype/body and F to behaviour/emotion/character.
Perhaps it is churlish, or simply irrelevant, to criticise The West for what it’s not, or does not wish to be; the only important thing, right now, is that it exists. It’s the fleeting, precious actualisation of some of our fragile dreams – and slender hopes – for dear old Australian Film Culture; you can’t ask for more than that.
2. “Who By Fire”: Launch Speech for the exhibition Recent Video Works 1994-1996 (RMIT Gallery, May 1997)
(I often listen to music as I write, and often that music somehow fuses with, or outrightly becomes, the subject that I’m dealing with. I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits  as I wrote this tribute to a video exhibition by Geoffrey Weary, and so I have titled it “Who By Fire”.)
When I reflect upon the video work of Geoffrey Weary, I immediately remember two key statements in this century’s history of thought about moving images. The first statement is a still very modern manifesto from the 1940s by Alexandre Astruc, who called for the birth of what he dubbed a caméra-stylo – a camera-pen. It was, in the first place, a technical dream or wish: he longed for a camera that was lightweight, mobile, usable in any condition of illumination, something far freer and more immediate than the bulky, ponderous machinery of commercial film production in that time. And the history of cinema and of TV came fairly quickly to begin answering this part of his dream, with the cameras invented for war and for documentary reportage, cameras adopted by the generation of young filmmakers that followed on from Astruc and heeded his vision – the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague.
But there was another, more idealistic, less tangible side to Astruc’s dream, an aspect that is still today futuristic, a gamble on a fabulous future. The camera-pen was a conceptual vision; it was a magic camera, one that, in some sense, could never possibly exist. In this vision, the caméra-stylo would be the instant conduit to a form of writing in images – and maybe in sounds, too: an audio-visual writing. This writing would be born, materialised, at the speed of thought, the speed of a hand’s flicking movement – the hand that held the camera. It would trace and capture not just the visible and audible traces of the world, but also every fleeting sensation, every quiver of feeling in that hand, that eye, that head and heart of the holistically wired filmmaker, hardwired virtually to what Robert Bresson called grandly the cinematograph. Like a phonograph or polygraph (or, as Philip Brophy suggests, a pornograph): a cinema-writing instrument.
And, once again, the history of cinema made its attempts, intense and heroic, to fulfill this aspect of Astruc’s dream. Experimental, avant-garde filmmakers used the small, lightweight cameras; they nailed them as well as they could to their bionic eyes, and shook, ran, rolled in the grass, jumped off buildings and into the air. Film materials became more and more light-sensitive, and filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard to Stan Brakhage started shooting with candles, with the last slivers of available window light, sometimes even in the gloomy thick of darkness itself. There were Super-8 cameras, smaller still; and then there were video cameras, ever more compact, able to run on for much longer periods of time – hand-held video cameras like the French invention of the paluche, and a little later the Hi-8 and digital video cameras of today. Every breakthrough and invention not only made image-gathering faster, simpler and easier; it also brought the art of the moving camera closer to the painter’s brush, the sculptor’s hand, to the instruments of musicians, or the enabling tools of a writer.
But, in every case, in every art and every medium, there is an element of romance attached to such blazing immediacy – as if the material labour of shaping and working, selecting and throwing-out the bad bits, just suddenly went away, disappeared in favour of an instantly, perfectly expressive artistic impulse.
Caught between the dreariness of hard work and the magic impulse or dream of a free art, writers and theorists of the moving image, before and after Astruc, have span themselves silly like whirling dervishes, run themselves ragged trying to come up with metaphors to encapsulate the affect, the phenomenology, of moving screen images: these pulsing and squeaking, illuminating and absorbing images. Cinema is the art of speed, they say, the art of time – even the cultural bureaucrats, bless their souls, now call it a “time-based art”; the art of the ephemeral and the effervescent. The art of oblivion, of all the things that must pass, and yet are imprisoned, fragilely, within the film frame, and/or between two cuts. And so it’s a paradoxical art, held between movement and stasis, between what stays and what goes, what is lost in a blur and what is grasped eternally in a look of deep recognition.
This, at last, brings me to the second key statement about screen images that Weary’s videotapes make me ponder. Pier Paolo Pasolini once described the cinema as an art written on a kind of paper: a burning paper, catching alight the merest second after you have witnessed its action. I suspect that video, maybe even more than film, is this art written on burning paper.
There are images of fire, of burning, everywhere in Weary’s work. Images of things that pass, such as the fleeting images of travel taken from a train window; and images of things that are being lost to us at every second. Things like the monuments, forms and institutions of state history; like the ephemeral beauty of a human body. And alongside the fire and the loss, there are images of water, too – like some necessary cooling-off counter-balance, a gesture to restore equilibrium to this mad, lost world and the deranged vision-perception that it promotes: the calmness of the sea, an infinite expanse all the way to a the blurry horizon, snow and ice that freeze, encase and preserve some of the fading traces of past events.
And I am reminded now of two other images: the petrified lovers frozen in their embrace by volcanic lava in Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953); and Serge Gainsbourg’s song “Marilou Under the Snow”, in which the sad narrator is compelled to burn the too-convulsively-beautiful erotic pictures drawn by a little girl, and then smother them eternally with the snow from his fire extinguisher. Within the static, picturesque serenity of Weary’s work, drama and violence still tremble.
Weary’s video art is written on the burning paper of history – of bodies, of visual perception and the traces these processes leave behind. In his tape “Museum”, Weary offers us a busy, Cubistic account, an entire sensorium of what it is for people to look at great, classic paintings in a museum of art. The way the bodies move toward, away from and across the lines of the paintings; the way people shift their weight as they stand, the way they blink and shut their eyes for some respite; the diverse spatial, geometric, architectural arrangements everyone spontaneously forms, as if they are on vast, invisible conveyor belts at a department store, but not quite managing to stay on the tracks or in check – all of this tiny but decisive action is part of what burns in the story of art for Weary.
The two other tapes in this exhibition explicitly evoke the human eye and its capacities – one of them is even called, trickily, “An Eye for An I”. Video speaks to a certain modernist pathos: the eye which sees and the I that is the self, these two things never quite coalesce as we imagine they maybe once did, in simpler and happier times. The weighty images of the world that assault the fragile, trembling, blurry human figures in these tapes could never be contained by a single eye; they could never proceed from an act of vision, however god-like. The world is in pieces, it comes at us in pieces, and our only hope, our only grace, resides in the poetic gesture of composing these fragments, and searching in that composition for some fleeting echo or shadow of ourselves.
Weary’s work here, unique among all Australian artists in any medium, joins that of Godard or Chantal Akerman in their films, videos and installations of the 1980s and beyond: splintered but elegiac audiovisual poems in which the material world is seized for a moment as it implacably passes by, lit by the twilight of a late 20th century history so brusquely reassembled in new world disorder, like a quivering house of cards.
Weary is a video artist, a video-installation artist. Video artist, I have to say, already has a charmingly nostalgic, old-fashioned, almost anachronistic ring to it. Video art has been a victim of recent history. It found itself sandwiched between, and muscled out by, two giants: on one flank, the grand history of experimental cinema, and on the other, the carnivorous, bright, new-fangled machine of computerised, digital, multi-media art. It is already hard to remember what video art was, in the 1970s and ‘80s, and who its exponents were. In a fashion magazine of the 1970s, the Australian movie producer Margaret Fink once proclaimed to Edmund Capon: “Painting is dead, video is the thing”. Tell us another one, Maggie! Nowadays, it is hard to even find a video playback deck, and a decent TV monitor, in the storerooms of art galleries. And in fact, even in its heyday, video never sat too well in the gallery space – any gallery space. Too small or too big, too noisy or too quiet, too mobile or too static. This medium on burning paper always needed some other kind of venue, channel or setting – but didn’t manage to find it before the juggernaut of the computer age rolled on in.
For now, in the 1990s, Weary holds the fort of video art. It is interesting to observe that his tapes use very few of the most modern, hi-tech, post-production tricks afforded by this medium. There is a highly controlled use of slow-motion, superimposition, rocking or shuttling an image back and forth – all of these quite recognisably cinematic effects – and, every so often, some optical video device that twists an image into a vortex, or spins it, or brings one image forth from the suddenly squashed-up remnant of a previous one. Weary’s videos size up – cautiously, poetically, ironically and strategically – those audiovisual giants all around him: cinema history, the multi-media empire, MTV, avant-garde film.
Weary’s way of editing, in particular, marks the mix or flux of his position. Sometimes the editing is dreamy, associative, like the lyrical experiments in impressionist films of the 1920s. Sometimes it is aggressive, metronomic, like Eisenstein’s Soviet montage – complete with clips from the master. At other times, it follows the precision-clockwork, audiovisual logic of our own era, since it is able to match a cascade of hard-cut textures and traces to the slightest millisecond, the exact frame-line, of a single note of piano music as it moves from the point of aural attack to its dying disintegration.
Weary’s tapes rove backwards in time, too, as not much video art (beyond the ponderous Bill Viola canon) has done, into the Book of Art History, its classical and modernist chapters alike. Books of art history literally abound in his work, like the indispensable pocketbook or aide-mémoire of the contemporary image-plunderer. Ways of rendering the landscape and the human figure, the portraiture of a face, the still-life rendering of a room in which someone recently slept, dwelt and breathed – such things still matter to this artist.
But the medium on which all this visual and sonic research is to be inscribed is always unstable and fleeting, close to the white blankness of oblivion. The paper is burning, and it will keep on burning, until its ghostly video images have burnt themselves into our minds, like faint, agnostic prayers.
Note: for another 1980s Sydney-based project involving Geoffrey Weary – and me – see section 1 of the memoir/essay Phantom Europe.
© Adrian Martin September 1986 / May 1997