UNSTILLED LIFE: Artist Animations 1980-2020
Animation is an increasingly vibrant – indeed, animated – medium for artists, and enlivens a virtual platform. For Unstilled Life, the exhibition’s curators Paul Carey Kent and Emma Cousin selected 13 films that can relate to each other in a space that is activated, immediate and intimate – into people’s phones, screens and living rooms – even at a time of distancing.
More fundamentally, digitalisation, post-production and simulation have thoroughly undermined the indexical relationship of film to its origin in time, as a succession of moments preserved. Animation might be seen as more honest. There’s no disguising its source in imagination. Artists can create worlds which stem not from representation, but from freely extending their particular languages and concerns. It follows that these are not technically-driven films: the art comes first, and that’s often served best by quite simple approaches. We have chosen films in which artists bring their interests to life in this way, allowing them to add movement, time, words and sound to what is conventionally available to, for example, the painter or sculptor.
A considerable formal variety stems from the artists’ different underlying languages. Film has its relevance – Zbigniew Rybczynski trained as a painter first but went on to study cinematography at the world-renowned Lodz Film School, and Hans op de Beeck’s paintings are knowingly cinematic. Yet we may see the primary influences as painting (Jacco Olivier), drawing (Edwina Ashton, Erkka Nissinen, Markus Vater) or the interaction of painting and drawing in watercolour or illustration (Emma Talbot, Hans op de Beeck, Run Wrake). And sculpture (Djurberg & Berg, Levi van Veluw), theatre (Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley) and cartoons (Andy Holden, Rä di Martino) are also in play.
The content of the animations is equally varied, but the themes of time’s passage, possible futures, and the contrast between the visceral and the cerebral can be traced. Moreover, the artists do typically use humour as a means to address serious issues. The two oldest films – whose creators were not primarily positioning themselves as artists, but whose work is relevant to current art production – set the tone: Rybczynski pushes farce to an extreme which captures how people may not connect in life, and Wrake comically conjoins objects with their words in a gleefully dark version of a children’s reading book. Social norms are questioned through di Martino’s exploration of the cinematic language of love, Nissinen’s satire on how reality is depicted in the media and Kelley & Kelley’s jarringly rhymed examination of suicide. Vater, Ashton, Holden and Djurberg take a more quizzical approach. Others may seem to play it straighter, but there’s an ingenious wit to how the material is marshalled by Van Veluw, Op de Beeck, Olivier and Talbot, even though their films are more sublime than comic.
Animation feels particularly appropriate in our current oddly stilled circumstances. Only Talbot’s work was made during the coronavirus lockdown, but the crisis has pointed up various underlying tendencies – so it’s not surprising that several of the films can be related to it. Rybczynski’s 36 characters are distanced even as they occupy the same small room. Travel serves only to make Ashton’s Mr Panz wonder if he should have stayed in his own garden. Night is a time of melancholically tinged isolation in Op de Beeck’s film. Following serial bifurcations, Vater’s worm only ever meets itself. Nissinen’s question ‘What is Community?’ takes on a different infection in a virtual context. Covid-19 has challenged the cohesion, echoing van Veluw, of our systems. And many of the artists ask – as we all do so urgently in 2020 – where should the world go next?
Why this show, here and now?
British artist-curator Emma Cousin and writer-curator Paul Carey-Kent recently pulled together a choice of artist animations, thinking that the increasingly vibrant medium is especially suited to the online emphasis of the locked down art world of 2020. Three of them turned out to be represented by Galerie Ron Mandos, making the Amsterdam gallery ideal hosts. The cast is international, and to reflect that Tintype Gallery in London and Hamburg’s Blinkvideo have joined in with variations on the programme. You can see 13 films, each accompanied by a concise text explaining the appeal. In addition, Emma has a growing following for her lively Podcast Artists in Lockdown – and each week during August she will chat with one of the participating artists, adding to the material linked to the films.
Run Wrake (1965-2012) had a wide-ranging career using animation for commercials and in collaborations with leading bands on music videos, designing album covers and tour visuals. Rabbit, though, is a bizarre animation made using his signature combination of collage with a solid looping soundtrack.
Wrake found a series of 1950’s learn-to-read stickers illustrated by Geoffrey Higham in the naively idealistic style he brought to the Dick and Jane books. He disorientates them to make a tale in which the children take disturbingly easily to violence, slicing open a rabbit in which they find an idol with the super-power of turning flies into jewels. Greed gets the better of them, and it ends badly. The key, said Wrake, was the idol sticker. He thought that ‘was an odd choice to illustrate the letter ‘i’ for children, it stuck out from the rest… I wanted to incorporate some drawn morphs into the film, and this led to the idea of the idol having magical powers of transformation’. That triggers the darkly surreal clash between the innocent simple world which Higham depicts and the truer realities of human nature.
Levi van Veluw | The Collapse of Cohesion, Archive (2014)
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam
The large charcoal drawings in Levi van Veluw’s series ‘The Collapse of Cohesion’ depict hundreds of symmetrical shapes – which he traced back to a childhood urge for order and fear of losing control – including an image of an archive room, filled with shelving containing more than 1,500 neatly arranged icosahedrons. Van Veluw then found an indirect – you might even say faked – means of animating his drawings.
He replicated their elements in wood, covered by charcoal powder to retain the same look, and then triggered the loss of cohesion: desks collapse, cupboards fall, cabinets explode. Archive, one of three such films, is also a performance of sorts: eight assistants pushed over the shelving. We see four seconds, which could not themselves be fully controlled, slowed to eight minutes at intensely high resolution. The fall might stand for the failure of attempts to impose order on our feelings or on the world, and the suggestion of molecular geometry might link it to the ‘Big Crunch’ which will be the ultimate end of times. Yet the slowing brings serenity and silent grace – and hope? – to what was a heavy and cacophonous crash.
Rä di Martino | Poor Poor Jerry (2017)
Courtesy of the artist and Cøpperfield, London & Snaporazverein, CH
Italian artist and film-maker Rä di Martino, who deals principally with our perceptions of reality and fiction, sets the iconic American cartoon mouse on the stripped-back stage of Lanzarote. She imagines ‘an old and tired version of Jerry… a sort of angel lost in a limbo’ who mopes around and gyrates somewhat arthritically.
When Jerry speaks, we hear cinematic lines, from ‘I hate the way I don’t hate you’ to ‘so you want to go back to your wife you don’t love’. He becomes the conduit for quotations which set up a loop which intrigues di Martino: ‘how much all these films and TV shows inform us, but also how similar the lines and things we say when we are in love are—and still they seem original when we feel them.’ As Davide Giannella has put it, the association of such memories may equally become ‘an instrument to better arrange emotions and build personal maps with which to move inside reality’ or else ‘a burden from which it’s impossible to get free, a dead weight hindering new thoughts and original visions.’
Zbigniew Rybczynski | Tango (1981)
Courtesy of the artist
Tango is an Oscar-winning film, which was shot on 35 mm film, color. It’s an experimental short film categorized by The Academy as an “animation”. The fun fact is, that based on Tango, The Academy defined the category of Animated Films. It was for movies that were shot using stop-motion photography. In Tango real actors, set and props are filmed. To achieve what we see in Tango, Zbigniew Rybczynski experimented with time relations between individual frames. He never considered himself as an animator though.
“It’s an experimental short film where thirty-six characters from different stages of life – representations of different times – interact in one room, moving in loops, observed by a static camera. I had to draw and paint about 16.000 cell-mattes, and make several hundred thousand exposures on an optical printer. It took a full seven months, sixteen hours per day, to make the piece. The miracle is that the negative got through the process with only minor damage, and I made less than one hundred mathematical mistakes out of several hundred thousand possibilities. In the final result, there are plenty of flaws – black lines are visible around humans, jitters caused by the instability of film material resulting from film perforation and elasticity of celluloid, changes of colour caused by the fluctuation in the temperature of the projector bulb and, inevitably, dirt, grain and scratches.”— Zbigniew Rybczynski
Currently, Zbigniew Rybczynski is working on his action-thriller feature film, co-written with his wife, director, and producer Dorota Zglobicka. Click here for more information.
Shop Limited Collectible DVD Collection with Zbigniew Rybczynski’s major works in addition to Zbig’s autograph by clicking here.
Erkka Nissinen | What is Community? (2016)
Courtesy of the artist and Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam
Existentialism meets reality TV as Erkka Nissinen starts by questioning whether his own hand is connected to his body when his arm is behind a tree, then draws himself – literally – into an imaginary community in which truth and fiction no longer seem distinguishable. Immediately there is trouble as the typical resident he selects demands considerable cash to have his home life filmed, but proves so dull the artist hires an actor to kill him to spice up the footage.
Soon enough, as the wry voice-over explains in an attractively thick Finish accent, another resident has fallen in love with a pothole – a tent is built over it to afford them some privacy – and a meatmaster finds it necessary to impersonate the newly-dead cheesemaster who was his business and sparring partner, only to fall out with both wives as he takes on fresh conjugal duties for the sake of authenticity. All four, we are told, are played by the same actor… As matters conclude in naked rituals and an all-consuming fire, we’re left none the wiser about just what community is, but considerably entertained.
Edwina Ashton | Mr Panz at Lake Leman, notes on m, (notes on mammals and habitats) (2010)
Courtesy of the artist and Tintype Gallery, London
This oblique film follows the daily habits and explores the memories of a removed, particular gentleman elephant living in a hotel on Lake Geneva. His diffidence is matched by the sensitive, almost hesitant style of Edwina Ashton’s collaged drawings, which include a remarkably economical differentiation of an elephant and a mole.
“I’d been doing masses of drawings, and films about things and creatures moving in very particular ways and they often had stories. I suppose animation was obvious, but I hadn’t realised. And because it involves so much time and someone who can make animations, being asked by Animate and The Drawing Room to make the work for Shudder gave me the possibility. And now I like animation practically the best out of everything I do.”— Edwina Ashton
Mr Panz at Lake Leman, notes on m, (notes on mammals and habitats) (still), 2010 | 6 min
Mr Panz meditates on his childhood tutor, continental travels and his love for nature – all of which rather interfere with his current concerns, such as attempting to catch a butterfly (it isn’t clear whether he succeeds). Life is negotiated not on an epic scale, but through accumulated minor actions. In art, as in life, Ashton may be suggesting with appropriate gentleness, there should be room for the idiosyncratic exploration of small worlds. We are surely intended to be reminded of another privately educated memory-obsessed lepidopterist living in exile on a Swiss lake: in Vladimir Nabokov’s words ‘human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.’
Emma Talbot | All that is buried (2020)
Courtesy of the artist
Emma Talbot’s first film takes ideas from her core practice of watercolour drawing, cutting figures out digitally and animating them over painted backdrops. This year’s Max Mara prize winner also transports her use of text to the new medium, allowing her to combine her words with an electronic soundscape. A woman walks through a city, surrounded by whirling rubbish, and we get a picture of a dysfunctional society overshadowed by pollution, all-consuming communications and limited options.
“I’d had an idea, for a long time, that my work would suit animation. If a drawing is a static image extracted from the imaginary world in my mind, then animation offers the opportunity for the viewer to walk around in that world a little bit. It also allows narratives to be extended a bit more, in a sequential way. As such, it’s literally a case of the drawings I make being part of a bigger scene, like a still from an event, and the animations being an extended version. I’d never pursued the animation idea, because I thought it would take too long to learn the software. But in lockdown, when I couldn’t get to my studio and my other projects were suspended, I found the ideal time to concentrate on making this kind of work.”— Emma Talbot
But hope arrives from connections to wider, ancient and intrinsic sources of power and energy (‘all that is buried is not lost’) and within (‘your being, thinking’), suggesting that system change is possible. ‘What is denied can become apparent’, as the woman emerges from alternative experiences accessed through several womb-like spaces, passages and portals. Talbot has said the animation emerged from ‘a preoccupation with turning things over’ during her lockdown – fruitfully examining the bigger picture during a period when the world’s long term concerns were in artificial abeyance.
Jacco Olivier | Terra Incognita (2019)
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam
Jacco Olivier is a painter who has made an artistic journey to the new world of animating his practice. Just so, perhaps, Terra Incognita enacts a journey to an unknown land: to the sounds of water, wind, creaking ropes, then birds and insects, we sail to the coast and over hills and meadows until we arrive at the spectacular statues which indicate that Olivier’s inspiration is the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen.
Three hundred years ago, Roggeveen set out to find the South Land – only to discover instead the mysterious unknown territory of Easter Island. Olivier photographs each iteration and brushstroke, combining and layering the various compositional stages so that, at times, we seem to be looking more at the paint than at what it represents. We end up halfway between figuration and abstraction, halfway between a story and a painting. Like Roggeveen, we don’t know quite where we’ve arrived, but are drawn into the epiphany of a new land which takes on a life beyond what we can rationally explain.
Hans Op de Beeck | Night Time (2015)
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam
The Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck’s ‘day job’ may be sculpture, but here we see the suitably nocturnal fruit of his ‘night job’: painting oneiric black watercolours. Breathing the tenebrous atmosphere of film noir, they are freighted with spectacular detail, facilitated by them being some three metres wide. No wonder Op de Beeck says he likes to work on one ‘for about twelve hours on end. So around eight in the morning, the essence of the watercolour is already there’.
Animation heightens the impact through accumulation, sequencing and the deftly rendered movement of smoke, snow, water, ships and flames. Tom Pintens’ gently haunting soundtrack adds to the mood. Intimate close-ups – often of sleepers – segue into panoramic images as, in the artist’s words, ‘classic and distinctly contemporary subjects follow one another: the dream, the sleep, the underworld, the exploding postmodern metropolis…’ A multiplicity of possible stories awaits, but when night is this beautiful, do we want dawn to interrupt?
Andy Holden | Wouldn’t Dream of It (2017)
Courtesy of the artist
Andy Holden’s most famous work, the hour-long animation Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape, 2011-16, posits that the capitalism has reached a state in which an equivalent of the illogical physics of the cartoon world can be held to apply. Taking its cue from that migration from cartoon to real, the ten minutes of Wouldn’t Dream of It see the animated Holden wandering through Scooby Doo’s haunted house.
We hear ‘the real Holden’ discussing the occurrence of dreams with his partner, while his on-screen avatar explains matters using Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams as a guide. How, for example, can disagreeable dreams be explained as wish fulfilment? Art is not mentioned, but we come to suspect that its making is the real subject: one thing stands for another, memory feeds in unpredictably, interpretation is uncertain and, as the animated Holden concludes, ‘that which is central to the dream thought need not be represented at all’.
Markus Vater | Worlds don’t come easy (2020)
Courtesy of the artist
It comes as no surprise to learn that the German artist Markus Vater studied Philosophy and Art History at the University of Trier: his knowingly-informed painting and drawing style feeds into the metaphysical wit of ‘Worlds don’t come easy’.
“I came to animation through drawing. Some drawings continued like some kind of story board . There was no timeline, but an order. An idea that lived in the succession of images or sentences. The last image was always an unexpected surprise. A logical new solution for a known story. It goes back to my interest in disrupting systems, in milking their wealth for possibilities. Animation is a great milking tool.”— Markus Vater
A tear finds happiness in the first of nine film vignettes packed into ten minutes: a mountain top rescue has an unexpected outcome; a chameleon gets confused matching its own reflection; God loses an eye; dandelion fairies commit mass suicide; a gun barrel proves a sub-optimal choice of home… There’s a dark twist to many of these tales, but belied by the jaunty and diverse range of accompanying music, candy colour combinations and absurd humour. Vaterland operates through its own paradoxical rules – its generator recently gave a talk entitled ‘Things that are there because they are not there, like a shadow, or death…’ – and although worlds may not come easy, Vater’s films certainly go down readily enough.
Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley | This is Offal (2019)
Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias gallery, London
Mary Reid Kelley plays all the roles in the tragic-comic versified films devised together with her husband, Patrick Kelley, using multiple green screen shots, layering and animation. This is Offal takes its cues from Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem The Bridge of Sighs, which speculates on a young woman drowned in the Thames; and Artaud’s influential concept of a ‘body without organs’ as one which will set us free of automatic reactions.
A pathologist uncovers and examines the body of a woman, whose own organs try to ‘solve’ the mystery of the suicide of the woman to whom they belong. The leg complains that ‘the frontal cortex shared a wish / A conspiracy to feed the fish / With me!’ According to Reid Kelley, ‘the liver, stomach, intestines and other organs signify the ‘offal’ of the film’s title and the ‘awful’ irrevocability of the act, which they protest’. This, she says, enacts Camus’ philosophy of the absurd as a counter to suicide, yet as the corpse’s own organs ‘argue over what happened, they also deny the hope of a rational, scientific explanation for the most tragic and motivationally complex of human actions’.
Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg | This is Heaven (2019)
Courtesy of the artists and Lisson Gallery, London / New York
Djurberg and Berg’s combinations of narrative Claymation tableaus and surreal soundscapes tend to explore the dark side of human sub-consciousness with a relish which reflects Djurberg’s view that emotions shouldn’t be controlled, but ‘felt and looked at. It’s when they’re hidden that they are a problem’. Recently they’ve spent a lot of time in the underworld, but this is their vision of a paradise – up to a point.
— Nathalie Djurberg‘Claymation… allows you to watch and face something without the same amount of resistance as you would if you watch a movie or photographs, because it is obvious that this is not real. Even though the problematics are real in the world.’
A hairily monstrous figure is in charge, and his main concern is to relieve those arriving of any valuable possessions: non-spiritual value seems to be what matters in this upper world, much as on earth, and God’s natural creations receive little respect. Our host pulls piglets way from their mother to suckle himself on the sow’s milk – a typically subversive Djurberg and Berg scenario which could go either way: does it now seem disgusting to drink cow’s milk, or illogical that we don’t make the most of what pigs can provide? By the end, though, the signs are that, Midas-style and even in heaven, the acquisition of wealth fails to make you happy.
Emma Cousin | Wash Your Hands (2020)
Painter-curator Emma Cousin’s coda provides a chance for even a virtual audience to wash their hands for the recommended period after visiting Unstilled Life: her sequence of drawings is set to a soundtrack by multidisciplinary artist Rebecca Glover.