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Drivers of Obscurity

by Andera Lissoni_Curator of Tate Modern

 Phillip Warnell_The Flying Proletarian _2017

What is Phillip Warnell’s film and video practice about?

Warnell’s work is all about singularity, difference and invention. If one was looking for a straightforward definition, then it could be easily said Phillip Warnell’s cinema is pensive.


Pensive means that it triggers thinking when being experienced, as well as it thinks itself when unfolding. I’m purposely writing “cinema” because despite of appearing occasionally in galleries’ spaces, Phillip Warnell’s works do require by definition obscurity. In fact, and more precisely, they do need to manifest themselves in the dark because their real space is the mind. More precisely the viewer’s mind. Albeit such statement wouldn’t be obviously enough to frame a moving image practice within the field of cinema, in the end it’s cinema and the cinematic that Phillip Warnell really questions in his works.


No doubts that his films bridge the fields of philosophy, ethology and sociology, generating knowledge across several disciplinary areas and indeed deeply questioning the status of reality and fiction. However, I wouldn’t define Warnell’s works typical film-essays, rather brilliant unconventional floating objects. Unlike much work of its time, his films from The Girl with X-Rays (2008) onwards, does not require a paratextual accompaniment, or other essential descriptive information. On the contrary, they build their own narrative not exclusively relying on the device of the voice over but through clever and inventive linguistic gestures, placed both in the shooting and in the editing process. Needless to say, the scripts are original.

What The Girl with X-Rays, Outlandish (2009), Ming of Harlem (2013) and The Flying Proletarian (2017) do really have in common then? I wouldn’t say it’s the subject matter at all (even though the relation between human body, perception of the outside world, presence of the magic, the animal - the latter appearing in all works). Warnell makes specific linguistic choices in shooting and pacing shots through editing that have clear repercussions on the suspenseful nature of the film: the juggling of doubt and certainty, science and superstition, reality and fiction intertwine to form an intriguing, marvellous, sometimes disturbing audiovisual representation.


Following a strict personal rule - a rule that one might attribute to the tradition of field research in ethnography but is generally speaking a golden rule of film authors - Warnell always designates a field, within  and around which everything takes place. Regardless of that field being inhabited by one or more animals (Outlandish, Ming) or a divine/demonic/supernatural creature (The Flying Proletarian), it is a circumscribed space crisscrossed by unequivocal markers representing boundaries, guidelines and conventions that can be symbolic, real and or initiatory.


In such field an alien always appears, as if he/she/it was the inhabitant or the driver of the actual unidentifiable floating object which is the film itself. Alien is the octopus protagonist of Outlandish, as well as the elements inhabiting the body which is the actual subject of the work (the body of the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, any human body), as aliens are apparently the animals in Ming of Harlem (the crocodile, the tiger. Or is rather Antoine Yeats - the animals’ owner - the alien?). Alien is also the beak masked half-animal half-human being appearing sporadically in The Flying Proletarian, whose presence is strengthen by a scent of lavender slowly spreading secretly by the artist himself throughout the room during the screening.


Belief and its suspension are at the centre of Warnell’s cinematic apparatus, but no doubts that the way he shapes such apparatus is in the lineage of visionary authors’ in modern cinema.

Phillip Warnell _ Ming of Harlem _ 2013


Phillip Warnell _ Ming of Harlem _2013


His “cinema” interrogates vision, belief and truth, setting a unique sense of intimacy between we/the spectator and he-them/the protagonists on screen. Such reciprocity reveals a rare capacity for determining and as a consequence also examining, ‘thought in action’.


It is not a coincidence if Warnell’s three last works host the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy as a non-intrusive guest, whose thoughts manifest themselves as readings, sentences, songs, murmurs, animalesque sounds.


So, what environment can welcome Phillip Warnell’s work? Everything but white. Nor complete darkness. Obscurity rather.


White is the canonical space framing the experience of the modern artwork in the western modernistic tradition. White triggers pure perception, sharp thinking or clear positions. Blackness instead is that dark interval that helps viewers let go, without too much perceptual trauma, of the world that is bustling around outside the movie theatre. With regard to the moving image, blackness is that magical condition - first spatial, then temporal - that throws open the doors of the imagination: a black room is fundamental to the very existence of the cinematic moving image.


Obscurity, or the in-betweenness, is Phillip Warnell’s statutory environment. One could analyse his work and find them either inhabited by a grey-ish light (The Girl with X-Rays, Outlandish) or alternating dramatically between full light and night, featuring the main characters as inhabitants of the dusk (as for Ming of Harlem or The Flying Proletarian) and push-and-pulling the viewer in zones of high visual stimulation, between shiny light and darkness. This push-and-pull, belief-disbelief, reality-fiction dialogues variously forged, constitute Phillip Warnell’s singular take on cinema.


The question his work asks is one of sight, visions, and indeed of thinking: seeing beyond images and representations, listening openly to the wider spectrum of frequencies, welcoming animal and alien apparitions and last but not least deeply imagining. Never forgetting to always leave room for loosing yourselves whilst cocooning in those unconventional objects floating in a formless glimpsing obscurity.

Objects that - perhaps obstinately - we still call films.


Phillip Warnell is an artist-filmmaker, academic and Londoner. He produces cinematic works exploring a range of philosophical, poetic and sensorial thematics: ideas on human-animal relations, screen-politics, the presence of those with extraordinary attributes and poetics of bodily and life-world circumstances. His most recent three film works have been made in collaboration with philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and he currently has a project in development in collaboration with writer and poet Jean-Christophe Bailly. His films are often performative, establishing elements for a film shoot as (part) event, resulting in an interplay between scripted, documented and (sometimes) precarious filming circumstances.


His film work has screened internationally in festivals and exhibited in galleries including: Copenhagen(CPH-Dox: 2009, 2014, 2017); Sheffield Docfest(2017); Mumbai (MFF, 2016); ICA London (2016); CCA Glasgow (2016); Tate Modern(2015), Mexico City (Ficunam, 2015); Buenos Aires (BAFICI, 2015); Lisbon(IndieLisboa, 2015); Brazil (Curitiba, 2015); Poland (New Horizons, 2015); New York (NYFF, 2014); Vancouver (VIFF, 2015); Vienna (Viennale, 2014).


Warnell’s writings to date on cinema, animality and philosophy have been distributed in a range of publications, including a book chapter 'Fearful Symmetry' for: Ethical Materialities in Art and Moving Image (Bloomsbury, New York 2017); an essay for a compendium on filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk (The Beast with Two Backs: L'Ile d'Amour, Berghahn, 2015); an article/guest edited issue of Journal of Performance Research ('Life-like: an Organ Without a Body', Routledge Press, 2010); a chapter interview in Zoo & Screen Media; Images of Exhibition and Encounter ('The Wild Inside', Palgrave, 2016).

Andrea Lissoni, PhD, is Senior Curator, International Art (Film) at Tate Modern, London. He is a formerly curator at HangarBicocca, Milan, the co-founder of the independent artistic network Xing and co-director of the international festival Netmage in Bologna (Live Arts Week since 2011). He has lectured at Bocconi University, Milan, since 2007 and at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera, Milan, since 2001. He is the editor of "Cujo" magazine and contributes regularly to "Mousse Magazine". In 2012 he co-founded Vdrome, an online screening programme for artists and filmmakers, which he co-curates since then. Among hid recent curated solo exhibitions: Susan Hiller (2011, Fondazione Antonio Ratti, Como); Angela Ricci Lucchi & Yervant Gianikian (2012, retrospective), Wilfredo Prieto (2012), Carsten Nicolai (2012), Tomàs Saraceno (2012), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2013), Mike Kelley (2013), Ragnar Kjartansson (2013), Micol Assael (2014) and Joan Jonas (retrospective, travelling to Malmö Konsthalle, 2014-15) at HangarBicocca in Milan. At Tate Modern Andrea is responsible for exhibitions, acquisitions and displays of moving image and soundworks. With Catherine Wood he co-curated the display and the live programme at the opening of the new Tate Modern as well as the BMW Live Exhibition Ten Days Six Nights. His last project is the Hyundai Turbine Hall Commission 2016 Anywhen, by Philippe Parreno.

Posted by EYEBALL_Media Arts Webzine

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