‘Will exposure bring reason in unravelling times?’ This is the question posed towards the end of Lis Rhodes’ (b.1942) ‘Ambiguous Journeys’, a film-poem of sorts, and a searing 40-minute indictment of contemporary casualised and indentured labour around the world, a system often exploiting migrants and refugees. The artist’s cut- glass voiceover draws much of the attention, swivelling between evocative allegory (suggesting figures and moments glimpsed in passing during some leaden-footed journey across the wastelands of global capitalism) and documentary-style exposition. ‘As the words are written, explosion rips the room apart . . . every minute 20 people are moving from war and persecution . . . the evidence is that the trade in human beings has become so normal that people are being sold in public . . . ’ The visual element is mostly rough photo-collage, with snatches of sudden naturalistic clarity. Towards the end, a static shot shows an outside wall in some barren place that looks like an internment or processing facility, with low-roofed buildings in the background; the words ‘God Help Me’ are scrawled on the surface in marker pen.
Rhodes rose to prominence with films such as ‘Pictures on Pink Paper’ (1982), also included in The Hunterian’s new group show Unravelling Times, alongside works by contemporary Glasgow-based artists Anne-Marie Copestake, Francis McKee, and Iman Tajik. As outlined in Marcus Jack’s catalogue essay, this earlier composition partly traces Rhodes’ movement away from the strictures of so-called structuralist or materialist cinema, a late-modernist style which emphasised the materiality of photochemical film through various formal experiments. The 1982 piece also reflects the artist’s sense of the burgeoning significance of women’s roles in contemporary protest movements, notably at Greenham Common. The result is a curiously gothic patchwork of domestic and rural scenes and sounds – many of them typologically ‘feminine’ – over which a chorus of voices in different regional accents intones on the need to find new ways of describing and making reality: perhaps a kind of witchcraft or white magic. ‘Should I say it is still raining? Is there reason in fact? Do we do what we do, or do what we’ve seen? . . . The witch bell rings, deal the cards she sings . . . she exposed their tricks by the light of the night.’
While there remains a strong strain of defiance and hope in Rhodes’ earlier piece, the later works on display, including ‘Dissonance and Disturbance’ (2012) which runs in sequence with ‘Ambiguous Journeys’ (2019), are more gruelling and pessimistic affairs. The 2012 film has a conceptual architecture that’s a little hard to prop together, connecting Israeli attacks on a flour mill in Gaza with footage of protestors being kettled and restrained by police in London during various rallies. There’s a general sense of the insidious grip of Western or Western-backed police and military forces across the world, abetted by the media: ‘TV rolling violent facts into violent fiction.’
Rhodes’ themes of displacement and migration form effective conversations with Tajik’s ‘Bordered Miles’, photographs of the artist grappling with a golden flag in rural landscapes, and a multi-channel video-work showing his day-long walk from Glasgow to Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. Meanwhile, McKee’s ongoing photography project documenting scenes of protest and resistance, and Copestake’s beautiful film ‘A love’ (2019), which explores moments of domestic intimacy including in a ‘temporary community’, offer nooks of respite within the emotional terrain of the show.
Unravelling Times is exhibited at The Hunterian until 15th October