In Absentia

(James Clayden, Australia, 2007)


In Absentia (not to be confused with the Quay Brothers’ film of the same title from 2000) is – at least on the surface – not among James Clayden’s feverish, traumatised pieces. But it certainly creates the air of a memory-work, inspired by the experience of international travel; places, times, moments and affective states are gathered elsewhere at a later time, “in their absence”. On this level, the piece recalls a rich tradition of avant-garde travel-diary films: a vast, a genre that includes such landmarks as Gérard Courant’s À propos de Grèce (1983-1985) and much of the career of Jonas Mekas – not to mention the somewhat more above-ground work of Chris Marker.


In around 60 shots (the rapidity and obscurity of certain images deliberately makes it hard to count the cuts with any precision) over four and a half minutes, In Absentia conjures a blur of foreign streets, tourist sites (such as religious frescoes), and briefly occupied hotel rooms. There is no anchoring information to locate the images in one precise country or another, although every viewer will project his or her own guesses and associations: Paris? Buenos Aires? Barcelona? Amsterdam? Lisbon?


The sound works in a similar way: with a more minimal mix than usual for Clayden (albeit delivered with extreme technical precision), carefully rendered snippets of direct or live sound (presumably also recorded during travels, but not always in sync with the images) are isolated, suspended between the quick fades to silence that accompany the visual fads to black. We hear, in a crisp, hyperreal manner, footsteps, church bells, passing trains, words whispered seemingly just off-camera.


Clayden’s increasing sophistication with his soundtracks, and the minutely calibrated image-sound relations, testify to the same situation that David Lynch has enjoyed since the end of the 1990s: digital sound recording and mixing, alongside audiovisual montage, happens largely in a home-studio setting, which in Clayden’s case is also a painting studio and a performance rehearsal space. It is little wonder then that, emerging (quite literally) from such a space, his works obsessively cross-reference each other: indeed, in recent years, his paintings, frequently abstract in previous decades, have begun to work over representational fragments of movie images (from himself and other filmmakers), such as in his “Several Masterpieces” exhibition of 2006.


In Absentia presents itself to lucky cinema audiences in the splendour of 35 millimetre. This grandness can seem almost perverse at first glance, since so many of the images (akin to Philippe Grandrieux) are presented at a perilous threshold of invisibility: night photography, digital glimpses in low-light interiors, murky still frames drained of all colour. But it is precisely at this crossing of forms and gauges that the piece works its subtle magic. Eventually, an aura of disquiet (so characteristic of the artist) enters in obscure flashes: shots (originally generated on colour-altered video or sixteen millimetre film stock, and thus bearing the trace of pastness in their very texture) appear, of bodies wrapped in plastic (it could almost be an off-cut from a contemporary torture-porn horror movie), bearing distorted faces, glances and gestures – often accompanied by an unidentifiable ambient drone. A final image, held longer than all the others, shows a group of ants busily trying to get at some slithering slug.


As always in Clayden’s work, the connection between these disparate images is not easy to grasp – beyond, that is, the compelling mood connection that unifies the diverse materials in their audiovisual montage and rhythmic sequencing. Overt symbolic meanings tend to vanish with the relentless forward movement of the cinematic apparatus itself – a reflexive theme made explicit in the sections of his The Marey Project (2005) devoted to filmmaking.


Evil in all its dimensions (personal, social, national, historical) would appear to be an overriding concern for Clayden – his as-yet-unfilmed Splendour project began in the 1990s under the title Escape From Evil – but something else, something tender also comes into play when he (in one of his rare explicatory statements, itself a palimpsest of personal writing and gathered quotation) speaks of the place of Étienne-Jules Marey in his work.


Out of his attempts to render visible forces that are not themselves visible, a world arose that could not be grasped by looking. He simplified, halted and emerged; things were made uniform and blurred. The tumultuous, abrupt and multiple would be unleashed on all sides by his instruments: capturing forces as their universe trembled in the throes of love.

MORE Clayden: The Ghost Paintings, With Time to Kill, HAMLET X

© Adrian Martin December 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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