Dresden Dynamo (1972), the earliest film in Lis Rhodes’ abridged but commanding six-work retrospective, is a caffeinated ten-minute-long abstraction, its jitterbugging lines and grids of circles created by applying Letraset to film stock and adding red and blue colour filters; the indeterminate bleep-and-hum optical soundtrack, sounding like a monkey messing with a Moog, was discovered on the film when the patterned celluloid received its first playback. The newest work, Whitehall (2012), meanwhile, is exemplary of the British artist’s more recent use of footage of political protests. So, as her first major exhibition in some time demonstrates, it’s been a long and exploratory 40 years for Rhodes, from the stylistic company of Guy Sherwin and Len Lye to that of, say, Bernadette Corporation and countless phone-camera owners with YouTube accounts. And yet there’s a clear structural continuity between these two bookends. For if abstraction can be construed as a refusal of representation (there’s a half-century-old football team called Dynamo Dresden, and one might infer, here, a distanced relationship to subject matter along the lines of Mondrian’s 1942–3 Broadway Boogie Woogie) then Rhodes, from early on, has been concerned with either overtly concealing what is underrepresented, its voice muted, in the wider world, or with bringing it to light.
In the elliptical, punningly titled Light Reading (1978) – made after the artist began her significant programming of the London Filmmakers Co-Op in the mid-1970s and just before she co-founded the feminist filmmaking group Circles, a history which the ICA’s frustratingly bare-bones presentation occludes – the object of invisibility is a woman (or, more probably, Woman). Rhodes refuses any image at all for the film’s first few minutes, and when black and white visuals finally come up they are concerned with a refusal to communicate: scrabbly shots of letters, reversed and inverted, and then repeated images of an empty bed – which may be bloodstained or just weirdly shadowed – of lenses, of scraps of photographic imagery ripped up and reassembled into awkward abstractions. Rhodes’s cut-glass voice-over, meanwhile, spins in Gertrude Stein-style circles, speaking of a woman reading, a woman who cannot see herself reflected, a woman seen as an object while seeing herself as a subject, a woman who ‘will be present in darkness, she will be placed in darkness’. Composed yet heated, operating on lock-tight formal logic, it’s a minor masterpiece of engagé structural film.
By 1983–85 and ‘Hang on a Minute’, a series of 13 one-minute films produced for Channel 4, Rhodes had moved from gender politics (which determined professional decisions such as her withdrawal from a Hayward exhibition in 1979 due to her being the only woman involved in the show) to global politics and political corruption. In one of these films, for instance, she explicitly joins the dots between the British government getting illegal uranium from a Namibian mine and the profits made by the multinational RTZ: ‘It feels a bit like everything’s free but not for me,’ says a singer on the soundtrack, summarizing a rigged game that hasn’t changed for the better in a quarter-century. Another film, dilating outward from the women’s peace camp at RAF Greenham Common that was blockaded from 1982, looks forward to Rhodes’s consequent focus of attention: the concealment or removal of evident public dissatisfaction. It’s where this interest is articulated at length – in the two-screen video installation that brings together A Cold Draft (1988), In the Kettle (2010) and the aforementioned Whitehall – that Rhodes gets the visual and the non-visual, articulation and disarticulation working in taut tandem.
A Cold Draft, with its spoken narrative of a woman under surveillance by the authorities and judged to be mad, is at once overwhelmingly visual and incoherent, its overlays of drawings and negative landscapes and architecture melding into something that can barely be looked at. Some kind of defiance is being articulated here, you sense, but in a scrambled, under-the-radar way; an opposition based on decrying a moment when, as the soundtrack says, ‘resistance had been turned into acceptance’. If this was a prediction at that point, it would become entrenched, although, as Rhodes’s later films serve to clarify, not wholly so. Pitching themselves against information blackouts, these offer footage and audio recordings of police containment of protests at a point when, since 2009, photographing public demonstrations has been prosecutable under the Counter-Terrorism Act. (At one point during In the Kettle, Rhodes cuts acidly from a violently contained demonstration to looming CCTV cameras, inequality articulated in seconds.)
The move towards such febrile transparency in Rhodes’s recent work is, you could say, itself symptomatic. Conflicts like this preclude formal niceties, it says; though there’s still artistry here, with Rhodes at times working a nightmarish syntax of slowed violent footage, disconnected terrified shouts and softly howling winds that, somehow, rarely descends into theatrics. At other times she makes arcing, everything’s-fucked connections, e.g. moving from don’t-attack-Iran protests in London to, say, reports of Israel blowing up a flour mill in Gaza. If the intense topicality and understatement of this work’s formal architecture means it doesn’t feel like art in the same way that Dresden Dynamo now does, maybe it shouldn’t (and, in any case, one day it will). For now, Rhodes’ art should just feel like what it is, an exemplary little barricade composed of fury, fear and frustration: conscience as form.