In Patrick Keiller’s canonical 1994 film London, the city is presented as stratified with fascinating half-forgotten histories, conveyed by narrator Paul Schofield over fixed-position shots whose elegance militates against urban ugliness. This London is grand, flawed and clandestine, yet, with effort, knowable. Classical music interweaves, wryly exalting. If the city, here, is something to be re-examined and renewed as itself and perception alter over time – Keiller himself was inspired by writings on London by 19th-century Russian exile Alexander Herzen – then into that continuum steps Jimmy Merris’s London (2013). When, in the British artist’s 27-minute film, we fleetingly receive hidden knowledge, it is through an American tour guide on a Big Bus Tour, and it is about where Arnold Schwarzenegger has a home. There is no classical music. Instead, there’s a woman in a motorhome gaily singing ‘We’ve got the buttery biscuit base’, in inaccurate homage to a YouTube hit starring a judge from MasterChef.
London is a travelogue, filmed by Merris and friends over several days, sometimes veering into the Home Counties but always returning to Peckham; at Bloomberg SPACE, where a monitor rotated on a circular platform, a zigzagging line traversed the walls, detailing the route. In the opening shot, three figures run in slo-mo towards the aforementioned motorhome, which they use when not taking taxis or a tourist bus. But if there is a London to ‘get’, Merris can’t apprehend it or chooses not to. If he stumbled upon something that wasn’t just surface texture, likely he’d condense it to near-nothing at most, as in his micro-interview with a South Norwood recording studio’s owner. London, with its zapping veers between cheery vox pops, splattered pigeons (the unloved bird is a Merris trademark), extravagantly bearded crazies and chants of ‘Croydon! Croydon!’, flaunts another agenda: not the acquiring of knowledge but a demonstration that the city can’t be grasped by a typically distracted, technologized consciousness. The act of representation is tied up with an evocation of its limits.
Making that clear – and it is clear very quickly – the footage continually slows and accelerates, lurches into digital smear or breaks briefly into hi-def focus. Voices are chopped and screwed and the editing is harebrained. A suite of posters, designed by Stockholm’s Studio SM and hung around the gallery, port this inattentivity aesthetic into graphic design, interlacing textual chatter about roadkill with logos and advertising slogans, a heritage plaque for Camille Pissaro, etc. Merris, one rapidly feels, has illustrated a thesis while having a jolly with his mates, who evidently aren’t faking their enjoyment. If art-making is work, then London turns the erased distinction between labour and downtime to its own advantage, if not wholly to the viewer’s.
Romance clings to the idea of the road trip, and not for nothing does curator Paul Pieroni, in a text accompanying London, invoke Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Merris’s use of historical romanticism as foil was reaffirmed at Seventeen, where the 19-minute Jimmy Merris sings the blues (2013) repeated across eight variously sized monitors and again detached desire from achievement. The artist spends much of the film (à la fellow Seventeen artist David Blandy’s lip-synching video Hollow Bones, 2001) singing, very Englishly, American soul songs, sometimes with a giant pair of stuffed binbags for headphones, or with a cat on his head as he sits in the kitchen behind his laptop, thereby making a cat video that references cat videos. But this is just one part of a telegraphed grasping after inaccessible authenticity. We see cut tulips, filmed gauzily out of focus (nature domesticated, conveyed through digital Impressionism) and Merris acting out various kinds of old-fashioned performance art. He appears bald-wigged and whitefaced, crawling across the floor while some desert blues plays: two cultural products of a sincerity from which he’s supposedly culturally and historically distanced. ‘Throw some buckets of water on the floor or something,’ says the voice-over, thrashing around for inspiration from the art world circa 1971.
‘They say you should keep your head down, chin up,’ Merris mutters at another point. ‘Head down, chin up – how you gonna do that?’ It’s a mordantly funny moment; certainly humour isn’t precluded by being stuck, hamstrung by technology and living through an age where content is often recombinant, disposable or both. A larger problem is that these works are improvisations constrained by structure. Merris has evidently decided that lamenting what he and his generation apparently can’t have, and the colourful, fast-paced compromise they’ve got instead, is his predetermined subject and is mining it for variations. Consequently he seems to have gone into both these recent films determined to box-tick, for sparky counterpoint, historical areas of genuineness: nature, old art, emotional music, journeys of discovery. And if Merris distracts himself along the way but doesn’t discover much, the same goes for the viewer.