May 2017_by Federica Tattoli
From the text of the exhibition at La Triennale Milano:
"This British artist and filmmaker’s work erases the boundaries between ethnological and documentary film, blending memory and fiction. His film essays describe unreal worlds, remote landscapes, and alien individuals from some obscure time, possibly past or future.
The artist’s work, predominantly in a 16mm format, has been presented in contemporary art centres as well as international film festivals. His language walks the line between art and cinema, exploring genres that range from thriller to noir by way of horror and science fiction.
For the exhibition at Triennale di Milano, Ben Rivers has conceived an environment that forms a reflection on memory. Three screens, each showing a film, are arranged to create an experimental narrative journey where different times and stories are interwoven. The works in the exhibition focus on the idea of collection, in both the institutional and personal context. The things we leave behind, used as guides to piece together the idea of an individual or a group.
In “Phantoms”, the figure of an “unreliable narrator” comes into play, as is often the case in Rivers’ work, suggesting voyages and shifts through distant times and places. At the entrance, the film The Shape of Things (2016) projects images of artefacts from the ethnological collections of the Harvard Art Museums: a Byzantine sculpture of a hermaphrodite and an anthropomorphic jug from Stone Age China are accompanied by the voice of American poet William Bronk reading his composition “At Tikal”. The poet’s words lead us to question the desire to create images of ourselves in an unending cycle of creation, destruction and renewal. A man’s life and memories provide the context for Phantoms of a Libertine (2012), inspired in part by Marcel Broodthaers’ Voyage on the North Sea (1974). In the film, a series of visual and textual elements extrapolated from a travel diary create an ambiguous biography made up of mysterious, dreamlike clues. In Things (2014) the narration shifts to the artist and his home. The description of elements making up his domestic environment – fragments of books, images, objects and sounds collected over the years – is at the same time a voyage through collective memory and imagination.
The narrations and stories presented in the works rhythmically articulate the exhibition, conceived as a structure open to discussion and possible misunderstandings: reality and imagination blur together, creating figures and presences that appear both tangible and dreamlike at the same time, in a carousel of voices and apparitions."
At what age and why do you decided to become a curator? Why the moving images?
I would say that it wasn’t a decision but a sort of transition made of moments, meetings, accidents, coincidences, which made me aware of this. While I was studying at Central Saint Martins in London I knocked the door to the university film archive [the Study Collection] to ask if they needed help in anything, and even if I didn't know anything of experimental filmmaking they throw me in the middle of the things... thanks to them I got the chance to see and digitalize more than 40 hours of Expanded Cinema film performances, watching them alone in a dark room. After this, I was eager to know more about this movement and David Curtis [the founder of the archive and one of the major figure related to the British experimental film scene] told me: “To understand Expanded Cinema you don’t need to read anthologies on filmmaking, you have to read poetry!” Later I moved to France looking for Giovanni Martedì, the only Italian filmmaker who was part of Expanded Cinema Festival at ICA in 1976, with whom I worked for two years. He taught me that film is closer to the universe rather than to the cinema room and so I realized the importance of filmmakers such Maya Deren, Kurt Kren and David Dye.
You curated “Phantoms” a solo show by the English artist Ben Rivers at Triennale Milano, could you tell me something about this project?
The work of Ben Rivers has a big fascination for me, partly because I think it slips out from the conventional forms of cinema even if on a first look it seems uncanny and difficult to grasp. When Edoardo Bonaspetti invited me to curate the show I thought it was a great opportunity to work on the dialogue between the space of the Impluvium, which for its nature is simple and regular and the film medium. When approaching the project our question was: “How can we relate this environment with cinema?” And it was great to realize that even if we were very concentrating on the spatial details of the exhibition, our ideas were shifting on the notion of time: the duration of the ethnological objects depicted on the very first film you see at the entrance of the show The Shape of Things; the time of two hypothetical biographies narrated in the other two films Things and Phantoms of a Libertine, which is made of still fragments extrapolated from a diary of a librarian of Time Magazine. The works in the exhibition focus on the idea of the collection, in both the institutional and personal context. The things we leave behind used as guides to piece together the idea of an individual or a group, giving shape to our quotidianly.
In which way you choose and you related yourself with the artists?
Every time is a new experience, I just let myself go with the flow of things – I spend a lot of time doing researches usually traveling to film festival and to exhibitions as well as spending hours in film archives to look for great stuff you would rarely find around. Then you have accidental moments that drive you to unexpected things: like when I stayed at Anthony McCall’ studio in Tribeca who made me realize the proximity between the film medium, the material of the celluloid and the exhibition context. Another fundamental experience that gave shape to my approach to artists and exhibition making is my work as Assistant Curator at Pirelli HangarBicocca, with the artistic direction of Vicente Todolí. Working there I learned how the exhibition space affects the show and the way you perceive works.
If you have to realize a hypothetical and ideal movie festival, which work do you chose?
I am extremely curious to see the first feature length film by Basma Alsharif, Ouroboros!
Your next project?
Another great part of my work involves writing on art and film, and I am now working on a collaboration project for the publication of a compendium related to women artists, feminism, and the moving image.