The magnificent proportions of the recently refurbished space at Spike Island scream ‘big video projections’, and Mark Lewis’ cinematic approach is certainly bold enough to fulfil expectations in many ways. The four-screen installation ‘Howling Wolf’ (2007), with its emphasis on landscape, is suitably majestic, and Lewis’ pared-down filmic components are like narrative motifs stamped onto the darkened cavernous space. The work becomes problematic, though, on consideration of what exactly is sustained beyond the instant impact of formal grandiloquence.
Lewis’ background in photography translates well to the moving image – his selection and framing of locations is impeccably classical. His use of steady tracking shots takes a strategy of mainstream filmmakers – it was first used in Giovanni Pastone’s Cabiria (1914) and reached its zenith in Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), an entire film comprising a single tracking shot – and imbues it with painterly compositional sensitivity. This differentiation of Lewis’ work from mainstream narrative films is reasserted by the incidental or decentred position of his characters: as the camera moves along the walkways of a London housing estate in Children's Games (all works, 2007) kids play ball and loiter, as if living out an updated 19th-century genre painting of everyday life. In another film (Northumberland) a stone wall becomes the central figure, as we move along its length, glimpsing the Northumberland landscape beyond. Whereas other filmmakers might use such shots as connective tissue between the muscular incidents of the plot, Lewis repositions them as the central event, ushering associations with Caspar David Friedrich’s subordination of the human figure to the splendour of the landscape. Watching these two films we are, supposedly, in a perpetual state of anticipation, wondering what lies beyond the wall or at end of the urban walkway. And yet, because we know that this is art, we are quite used to the denouement being withheld. Just as some think that durational performance has become predictable (perhaps we feel that we recognise the art experience of frustration and boredom and don’t require another variation on the theme), there is a sense of inevitability to this narrative blankness. Although in both films the images are aesthetically interesting – the wall is engrossing in its tactility and the landscape alluringly atmospheric, the housing estate is formally convoluted, sculptural even – the camera's gliding movement is less explorative, more laconic.
Lewis breaks with this formula, however, in the two projections opposite; Rear Projection (Molly Parker) and Rear Projection (Golden Rod). In Rear Projection (Molly Parker) a woman stands in front of a shack, while in Rear Projection (Golden Rod) we are treated to a closer view of the shack from the opposite viewpoint, and without the woman. The two images are obviously associated – they have the shack in common – but there is no impulse to join them up narratively. The woman in Rear Projection (Molly Parker) has been filmed separately, in front of a blue screen, and then superimposed onto the scene so that she appears to move relatively and incongruously as the camera swivels slowly about. Her world is other than that of the wind in the foliage and the apparently deserted building, with its ‘Howling Wolf’ sign. Within these separate layers of the composite image, correlative things happen: the season in the landscape turns from summer to winter, and the expression on the woman’s face changes from blankness to something akin to angst. The effect is very peculiar and much more difficult to ascribe to a genre or point of influence in film history. Although Lewis still seems to be manipulating established themes and procedures from film and painting – again, by isolating tiny elements and expanding them beyond what would be ‘acceptable’ in a mainstream context – the introduction of these two registers of representation, which contradict one another pictorially while consolidating one another atmospherically, introduces a new realm of formal possibilities.
Rear Projection (Golden Rod) repeats the phenomenological stretch of the two tracking shot films. The shack, in this instance, is the unconventional central character, with supporting roles played by trees and grasses. The horror connotations of ‘Howling Wolf’ may imply that something is about to or has recently happened, the foliage wavering in anticipating or aftershock, but, again, we are over-familiar with these strategies of obfuscation and insinuation. The gaze invariably turns back to the oddity of Rear Projection (Molly Parker), where the cycle of transformation continues. This constructed ambiguity turns not on what has been withheld, but what has been admitted, imparting a strain of doubt that proffers more scope for invention than lassitude.