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Issue 165

In Focus: Edward Thomasson

Making a song and dance of things

BY Basia Lewandowska Cummings in Features | 12 AUG 14

‘Other people are mysteries / other people are strange’ sings a community pottery class, while moistening clay busts. The group’s voices – tentative at first – weave a narrative that roams awkwardly from a tale about a vandal who has smashed the windows of a nearby conservatory to a series of instructions about how to craft a face from clay. The title of the work, Between You and Me, performed at the Glass House community centre on London’s Old Ford Road in 2013, signals local gossip and small intimacies shared over garden fences. And yet, throughout the piece, which is ostensibly about how we might build portraits of one another – the clay heads providing a gloriously simple enactment of this – the ‘between’ is the key. Whether a close-up of a woman scratching a scab on her knee in his latest film, The Present Tense (2014), or the wearied assembly of a piece of IKEA furniture in Just About Managing (2012), the relationship between forms, subjects and the everyday occupy Edward Thomasson’s work across film, performance and drawing.

Between You and Me formed an early part of Thomasson’s two-year Create residency, in collaboration with the Chisenhale Gallery, which culminated earlier this year in his exhibition at the gallery ‘The Present Tense’ – a show that included a poster and an ambitious new film of the same name. Sparser, but more consciously cinematic than his earlier works, the 17-minute film was developed with a cast of amateur actors. It, too, hovers between states. Using various devices – what Thomasson likes to call ‘tricks’ – the film intertwines three disparate threads: a therapist’s sessions with a young boy; some police singing about stop-and-search to an embarrassed group of young people; and a woman’s attempts at mindfulness. Filmed – as all of Thomasson’s work is – in the therapy centre where the artist works as an evening receptionist, The Present Tense is a quiet and, at times, disquieting cycle of images exploring proximity and distance.

The Present Tense, 2014, digital video still. Courtesy The artist, Southard Reid, Chisenhale Gallery and Create, London

The opening shot is a blank monochrome blue onto which sand suddenly cascades from above. Cut to a woman pouring a bag of sand onto a flat box. Later, a young boy etches a face into it, his finger scraping the grains across the surface, while a therapist looks on, offering words of advice: ‘This time, what about seeing the whole of something and not just a part of it?’ In a conversation at his home on a rainy July morning, Thomasson told me: ‘With this film, I wanted to present the viewer with a feeling of misunderstanding and miscommunication, but I battled with it in the edit a lot – how much to explain and how much to leave oblique.’ The scenes generate a sense of something both abstract and, at times, obstructive. Thomasson explains: ‘It’s just about the surface and how you might try and read it, and the gestures that occur there. Here, the police are talking about trying to get inside the minds of the civilians they come into contact with, but they’re only analyzing the surface of things, examining which narratives are attached to which bodies.’ 

Since Thomasson took part in the Nina Stewart graduate residency at the South London Gallery in 2012, where he made Inside (2012), his films have engaged both amateur and professional actors through workshops designed to confuse the relationship between reality and fiction. Inside is another tripartite narrative exploring how such distinctions can be played out via performative and cinematic strategies. The voice-over, spoken by a woman prisoner, moves between her thoughts and a more general narrative arc. A singular voice comes to stand for the collective on-screen, and meta-narratives about the work itself – scenes designed to ‘look like’ participatory practice – muddle our position. Moments of humour dissolve into eerie songs. The camera is temporarily engulfed by a singer’s mouth, and we travel down into her pink-hued innards. The film is further mystified by its sparse aesthetic, with musical sequences that evoke a different register entirely. In fact, it’s difficult to describe the people in Thomasson’s films as ‘characters’ because there’s a sense that they give only as much of themselves as they choose, their presence divided between their on-screen and off-screen life. ‘I often think of them as ciphers, but that is quite problematic. There’s a danger if you construct ciphers that they don’t have agency, that they become cut-outs. But I hope that these people have more than what is described and on-screen. I’ve always thought of them as complicit, like it’s a game.’

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In the performances Thomasson creates with Lucy Beech – who he met while they were studying at Chelsea School of Art in London just under ten years ago – this playfulness is made more explicit. In Passive Aggressive 2 (2014), performed at London’s Camden Arts Centre earlier this year, four people attempt to translate movement into sound, individually presenting an action that is later assembled and dismantled as part of a collective symphony of gesture, which eventually becomes a fight between two of the participants. There is some semblance of a thread to be followed, but, as in Thomasson’s films, the performance involves elaborate theatrical gimmicks, which are unravelled. ‘There’s a sense of magic being constructed through something very simple; it’s done with the smallest means possible. And it also returns to storytelling and theatricality, making something happen within the limits, or the extensions of, the body.’

Given the ambiguity he courts between the status of his films – caught as they are between something improvisatory, even ad hoc, and their obvious, meticulous construction – I asked Thomasson how his collaboration with Beech bleeds into his solo work. He said: ‘Passive Aggressive 2 felt a lot more coded than other performances we’ve done. We took a lot of things away, so the audience was looking for ways to find meaning. That is one of the things that I like most – gestures being pieced together. It’s something I was thinking about a lot when I was working on the piece for the Chisenhale.’ Taken as two interlinked but discrete threads in his work, it’s clear that Thomasson will move closer towards investigating how a performance might operate as a film, exploring the lines between an event that lives momentarily alongside its audience and a crafted film that can work to further extend, or reconfigure, these moments. ‘Now, I’m thinking a lot about theatre,’ Thomasson said. ‘I want to set up a workshop for stretching out or exploring something from the video work, but for live performance. A movement between situations; a live, simultaneous presentation.’

Edward Thomasson lives in London, UK. This year, his solo show 'The Present Tense' was at Chisenhale Gallery, London, and his performance with Lucy Beech, 'Passive Aggressive 2', took place at Camden Arts Centre, London.