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Issue 233

‘Somewhere from here to Heaven’ Showcases a Mercurial Filmmaker

At Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao, a group exhibition is cast as a ‘constellation’ of Bruce Baillie’s influence

BY Ren Ebel in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 15 DEC 22

As a pioneering underground filmmaker of the 1960s and 70s, as co-founder (with Chick Strand) of legendary West Coast cinematheque/distribution co-op Canyon Cinema, as a naturalist and passionate advocate of the art of attention, Bruce Baillies influence is far-reaching. Yet, his films are mysterious, shapeshifting and difficult to classify. They range from the structuralist abstraction of Castro Street (1966) – in which transparent, overlaid images of passing train cars mimic the steady locomotion of the film strips transit through the projector gate – to plaintive and dreamlike verité portraits of people and places, such as Mr. Hayashi (1961) and Valentín de la Sierras (Valentin of the Sierras, 1971). Eschewing the iconoclasm and dogmatic formalism typical of some avant-garde films of the era, Baillie was devoted to his own peculiar and inimitable cinema-as-ritual: feverish journeys across the open fields and highways of America, where abstract visions of nature, industry and people at work and play merge as if glimpsed from a speeding boxcar.

‘Somewhere from Here to Heaven’, 2022–23, installation view, Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao. Courtesy: the artists and Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao

‘Somewhere from Here to Heaven’, an exhibition at Bilbao’s Azkuna Zentroa dedicated to Baillie, does not provide a primer on the South Dakota-born filmmakers life and work so much as it conveys what curator Garbiñe Ortega describes as a constellation’ of Baillies influence. The show places three of his 16mm films in dialogue with newly commissioned works by four contemporary artist-filmmakers he inspired: Ben Rivers, Ana Vaz, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Eduardo Williams. The results demonstrate that, fitting the mercurial nature of Baillies art, these lines of influence are often oblique.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, For Bruce, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Weerasethakuls For Bruce (2022) is a deceptively simple ode to what the Thai filmmaker refers to in the show’s catalogue as Baillies non-seeking spirit’ – a sensibility for prioritizing chance encounter over didactic clarity. Two film sequences shot near a river and a footbridge in a Peruvian jungle are cast onto the wall by two separate projectors, the beams of light mingling like merging tributaries, forming vast, intersecting highways of rippling light and squiggling tadpoles across the opposite wall. Similarly kinetic, Rivers’s terrific The Minotaur (2022) appears within a custom labyrinth structure nearby. Starring a cast of wily, toga-clad children, the film reimagines the myth of its titular man-beast as a scene of childhood ostracism set against the backdrop of a dusty limestone quarry in Menorca. The crackling, fluttering texture of hand-processed film syncs organically with an ecstatic score by percussionist Valentina Magaletti, evoking some unearthed relic animated by a mysterious, perennial energy.

Ana Vaz, A Árvore (The Tree), 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Elsewhere, the show’s wide-ranging conceit reaches its limit. In Ana Vaz’s A Árvore (The Tree, 2022), repetitive panning shots of the Brazilian coastline framed by the uncropped edges of scanned 16mm film create the impression of raw dailies or a location scout for an abandoned film. Despite its sparse elegance – including one particularly gorgeous sequence of trees swaying in sunlight, rain and snow – in the context of Baillie’s hallucinatory cinema, Vaz’s work comes across as somewhat too subtle, too adrift, too narcotic and falls victim to some noise bleed courtesy of Baillie’s rambunctious Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1964) shown nearby. It’s easy to wish Vazs film had been granted the scale and ambiance afforded to Eduardo Williams’s impenetrable, stomach-churning, feature-length video Un GIF Languísimo (A Very Long GIF, 2022), a monumental three-channel installation combining voyeuristic telephoto shots of a neighbourhood street with what appears to be endoscopic footage of slithering internal organs and pulsating mucus.

Eduardo Williams, Un GIF Languísimo (A Very Long GIF), 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Ultimately, Baillie himself, aptly here-yet-not-here, hovers at the margins of Somewhere from Here to Heaven’. But the diffuse, intuitive nature of Baillie’s legacy is likely the best evidence of his transcendence. It is also a reminder that the least prescriptive teachers may be the most enduring.

‘Somewhere from Here to Heaven’ is on view at Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao, until 26 February 2023.

Main image: Ben Rivers, The Minotaur, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Ren Ebel is an artist and writer from Los Angeles. He is currently living in France.