ICA, London, UK
Distant worlds are the subject of legends; places as memorable for their fictions as they are for their historical facts. In his first UK exhibition T.J. Wilcox presents three films about real people - Marie Antoinette, the first Emperor of China and Stephen Tennant - but is more concerned with evocative story-telling than with the dissemination of facts.
Wilcox uses an old-fashioned medium to recount these tales: 16mm film projection. The flicker of the screen and the whir of the projector transports us to a past we could never have experienced - a time when the moving image was new.
The first film in the sequence is The Escape (of Marie Antoinette) (1996). The knowledge that her flight was futile heightens the ambiguous poignancy of the story - the tale of the tyrant/heroine whose fantastical life was so abruptly extinguished by the reality of the French Revolution. In silent footage borrowed from television (at times it is possible to see the artist’s reflection in the TV screen), plumed horses pull a carriage onto what looks like a stage set. The image is washed out, slowed down and blurred. A subtitle reads ‘Here ladies and gentlemen is the truth. The whole truth of the extraordinary life…’ but what follows is a montage of images whose provenance is not always clear. Subtitling lends the illusion of a straightforward narrative to this cinematic flânerie, providing links between one sequence of borrowed footage and another. We see a fairground scene from an old film, in which the showman’s assistant invites the crowd to peer into a peep show: ‘Look at good King Louis XVI and his Queen, and notice her sumptuous attire’. The film then cuts to an artificially anguished mode, wearing a huge crinoline skirt on the runway of a John Galliano fashion show. With its undertones of decadence and elitism, the fashion show is an apt metaphor for the French Queen, noted for her role as an arbiter of taste and naive re-creations of peasant life on her fantasy farm.
If Wilcox’s interest lies in his subjects’ highly particularised ways of life, curiously it is their deaths that have distinguished them in the popular imagination. The Death and Burial of the First Emperor of China (1997) borrows heavily from a National Geographic film about the excavation of the as-yet unopened Emperor’s tomb, which speculates about the magnificent interior that, according to legend, contains a replica of the Emperor’s personal universe. As in The Escape (of Marie Antoinette), fact and fiction blur; the ceiling of the tomb is represented by the artist’s own shots of the painted constellations on the ceiling of New York’s Grand Central Station, and images of Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles.
In the last film, Stephen Tennant Homage (1998), Wilcox again takes us into an imagined, enigmatic space. Famous for doing very little, Tennant was a 20s aesthete, an aristocratic layabout and a dandy. Excerpts from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) evoke Tennant’s unfinished novel about the illicit pleasures of port life. The camera repeatedly ascends and descends a spiral staircase, decorated with sea shells, fishing nets and fans, to Tennant’s bedroom. Concurrently, in a muffled voice-over, Stella Tennant recounts anecdotes about her great-uncle - how the smell of his perfume, for example, pervaded the house even after his death. We see her reclining in a dressing gown, impersonating her relation’s famously prolonged stints in bed. If this work is less engaging, it is perhaps because Stephen Tennant has not yet been mythologised to the same degree as the subjects of the other two films. The Escape (of Marie Antoinette) and The Death and Burial of the First Emperor of China succeed because we have all heard stories about the Queen who recommended that the starving mob should eat cake, or the ancient demigod who had his concubines interred alongside him. They reinvest the power of the cinema to make us lose ourselves in a good story.
But these beguilingly strange films are more than good stories. Wilcox can take up to a year to make each work, filming on Super 8 from a television screen, transferring the film to video and then transferring the video onto 16mm film. In this process, the image loses its clarity, becomes ghostly, and makes it possible to sense the space between the screen and the retina. These modest, intriguing works impart the sensation of watching a film through someone else’s eyes.