in Features | 16 MAR 06
Featured in
Issue 97

Track and Field

From the Modern Pentathlon to Bauhaus gymnastics, New Wave Cinema and magic, Daria Martin’s 16mm films explore the expressive possibilities of the body in space

in Features | 16 MAR 06

The Modern Pentathlon is an anachronistic event. Modelled on the skills of the 19th-century cavalry officer – horse-riding, fighting with pistol and sword, swimming and running – it is constantly threatened with being dropped from the Olympic Games, despite having originally been the ultimate test of the athlete. For Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games in 1886, it was the epitome of Olympianism: ‘not a system – it is a state of mind. This state of mind has emerged from a double-cult – that of effort and of Eurythmy – a taste of excess and a taste of measure combined.’

Daria Martin’s recent film Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon (2004–5) revives some of the 19th-century dramatic charge of this event, presenting it, if not as a moral discipline then at least as an allegorical one. Here each of the sports is choreographed and performed by a combination of athletes and dancers, the already mannered rituals of each activity becoming even more exaggeratedly baroque in the process. The event’s militaristic origins and the strangely aristocratic-seeming accoutrements (highly polished riding boots, fencing masks, pistols) are countered by a communal Utopianism expressed through the landscape in which the events take place. In one instance athletes strip down beneath sun-dappled willow trees before launching themselves into the river for a swimming event, which quickly metamorphoses from an ordinary race into a quasi-Ophelian ritual where one woman is lifted, dripping and draped in coloured ropes, out of the water. The narrative drifts away from the event into reflections on the body and the aesthetic relations between one body and another; in this it echoes the opening scenes of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1936), in which sunlight and shadows play on the well-toned limbs and rippling torsos of athletes. The film also recalls the equally Utopian images of the Bauhaus’ outdoor gymnastic classes, instigated by Gertrud Grunow and based on her ‘harmonization theory’, which made a connection between physical and mental harmony as the basis of creative potential. Could it be that the idealistic optimism embodied by de Coubertin’s notion of Olympianism (or indeed Riefenstahl’s film and its highly problematic glorification of the human body) finds a parallel in the ardent inclusiveness and harmonious interrelation proposed by Walter Gropius in his founding of the multi-disciplinary Bauhaus school and his championing of the Gesamtkunstwerk? ‘In a work of art the laws of the physical, intellectual and spirit worlds function and are expressed simultaneously.’ The Utopianism of the Olympics and that of the Bauhaus may not have been so far apart when one considers the emphasis both placed on the harmonious relations of body and mind and the symbiosis of group and individual activities.

Although this is the most explicitly narrative of Martin’s films (all of which are shot on 16mm), it is in the frequent asides that the strata of ambiguous sub-plots and subliminal interests reveal themselves. The influence of British New Wave cinema is made explicit in the film’s title – a reference to Tony Richardson’s 1962 take on the solitary angry young man The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – and in the starring role given to Rita Tushingham, whose début was as the feisty pregnant teenager in Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961). Here she plays the role of a glamorous grande dame, an authority figure not unlike the competitive Borstal headmaster in Richardson’s Long Distance Runner. Tushingham’s character, worldly-wise and remote, is a role model both admired and rejected by her young female sporting apprentice, and between them plays out the shifting of generational plates as the younger assumes independence from the older, the desire for separation winning out over the desire to please. Then there is the sublimated sexual frisson between the young woman and her male counterpart, expressed through an apparatus of glances, slights and metaphorical physical confrontations. Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon is, therefore, as much a coming-of-age allegory or love story as an analogy of the Modernist Gesamtkunstwerk or a paean to a fading sporting tradition.

Although Martin’s films are all ‘figurative’ in that they feature a cast of players, they are characterized by a lack of dialogue that leaves the body’s corporeality as the main means of expression. In the Palace, the first in a trilogy of short films made between 2000 and 2003, positions the body as a formal element within a stage design derived from The Palace at 4 a.m, Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist 1932 sculpture. Against a black background, lit with dramatic chiaroscuro, the camera circles static arrangements of bodies, sparkling bare flesh adorned with handmade tin foil and tinsel accessories, stretched fabric and glittering make-up, while thunder rumbles and rain falls in the distance. The bodies appear like Classical statues slumbering in an atmosphere of enchantment: ‘am dram’ meets ancient civilization. For Martin the body serves an ambiguous purpose, providing a fleshy counterpoint that can be either absorbed by, or set a challenge to, the abstract constructions that establish the distinctly historical formal aesthetic of the films. The once Utopian abstraction Martin appropriates is either reanimated by its population of living, breathing bodies or simply reduced to a series of props.

Oskar Schlemmer, director of theatrical productions at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, has often been cited as an influence on Martin. The legacy of the exaggerated, restrictive, geometric costumes of his 1922 Triadic Ballet can certainly be seen in the angular costumes made of cardboard and plastic in Birds (2001), the second part of Martin’s trilogy, as can that of Schlemmer’s siting of the human figure as his central point of reference, squaring figuration and abstraction by deriving basic geometric forms from the human figure itself. In Martin’s work the human figure is similarly central, but for her, figuration and abstraction collide. She describes ‘two poles of the work’ as ‘the use of sculptural form and painterly colour, as against the performing body’. For her the human body is a soft, fluid material that escapes the constraints of theoretical abstraction. Geometry is not internal but external to the body; it is represented by the sets, props and accessories of her films, with which the characters may interact but which they do not inhabit. In both In the Palace and Birds chinks appear in the films’ superficially formal character, as the individuals refuse to freeze into components of an aesthetic arrangement. Poses are dropped, eyes make contact with the camera, a smile ripples self-consciously. Through these flaws references to an idealistic formalism of the past are drawn into a dynamic, living here and now. The rigours of Modernism become a (masculine) mantle to drape suggestively over the shoulders. Lucy Lippard once remarked that ‘Feminism’s greatest contribution to the future vitality of art has probably been precisely its lack of contribution to Modernism.’1 As for many feminist artists before her, not to mention great female protagonists of 20th-century dance and performance such as Martha Graham, Yvonne Rainer or Trisha Brown, for Martin the body itself is the site of that vitality.

Historical appropriations, whether Surrealist, Constructivist or Modernist, are propositions borrowed temporarily and quickly thrown together. The weight of original theoretical formulations is left behind as Martin’s stage sets and props draw attention to their own flimsy status; hand-crafted approximations built of hoops, rods, painted cardboard and Perspex. The artist’s studio becomes both the site for the production of these disposable elements and the stage on which the fantasy is enacted (up until Loneliness her films were all staged indoors in closed sets): a space for fakery and experiment. The films, though slickly edited with fluent, commissioned sound-tracks, constantly draw attention to their own artifice. Even the choice of medium itself – 16mm film – is evidence of Martin’s desire for a textural result. Close-up Gallery (2003), the final part of the trilogy, is itself a literal demonstration of trickery and sleight of hand. A magician is teaching card tricks to his Cleopatra-esque assistant. As he shuffles, spreads and flips the monochromatically painted playing cards, the tricks become a metaphor for the process of creation (as well as a flirtatious stand-in for dialogue between the man and the woman). In Soft Materials (2004) Martin takes the notion of artifice to what is perhaps its logical conclusion, working with the results of experiments into ‘embodied artificial intelligence’ undertaken by a laboratory in Zurich. In an interleaving series of scenes a naked man and woman interact with various mechanical devices. The protagonists act out a physical investigation of these sculptural stand-ins, which straddle the line between static objects and reactive life forms. The nightmares of autonomous machines bent on destruction fostered by science fiction are replaced by an endearingly childlike mutual curiosity. Paradoxically, this film appears the least artificial of all; props, sets and posing are replaced with disarming gestures that appear to respond spontaneously to the curious attentions of the robots. It is, however, just as richly metaphorical, suggesting a literal performance of the act of comprehension, or the two-way exchange between an object (or art work) and an individual.

Martin’s most recent film, Wintergarden (2005), filmed in the newly restored De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, proposes a symbiotic relationship between an individual and architecture, structured as a loose allegory of the abduction and rescue of the mythological figure, Persephone. The avant-garde exoticism of the 1935 Pavilion, a sublime example of the International Style designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, is played out here as Persephone, attached with ropes and harness, scales the bannister of its grand spiral staircase then hangs suspended in its well, draped in glittering strings of crystal, like a Weimar cabaret star. Meanwhile an all female cast in futuristic costumes perform gestures as Hermes, her rescuer, sings a discordant accompaniment. The complicated storyline is subsumed within the abstract arrangements of movement and sound that inhabit, perhaps even embody the space like a ritual of initiation or exploration.

The five-act epic of Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon is perhaps the most extended allegory yet of Martin’s own artistic process and what she describes as ‘the odd point of shock and recognition, where a mental fantasy suddenly meets the reality of a collective physical effort to realize that fantasy’. As well as the to-and-fro between the individual protagonists and group scenes, unexpected elements of apparently symbolic significance appear. The players accessorize their contemporary sporting gear with strange tasselled wrist-bands, each in a different colour, apparently indicating some undisclosed team allegiance. Plaiting and weaving (of coloured ribbons or a horse’s tail) recur as ritualistic activities of ambiguous significance, and midway through the film we find the competitors in a barn-like room engaged in the decidedly non-competitive activity of weaving. A reference, perhaps, to the subsequently revered Bauhaus weaving workshop, which, while theoretically integrated with the other Bauhaus disciplines, was actually a ghetto of female activity with rare opportunity for promotion to more ‘serious’ disciplines such as architecture. Martin’s work does not make any didactic statements about gender, but it is significant that the lead characters here are women, not victims but achievers, and that they compete in the same field as the men. But perhaps the weaving scene is an analogy for creative activity, emphasized elsewhere in the film by allusions to painting (pistol shots splatter paint in primary colours) or sculptural construction (the horse-jumps made from white beams). Throughout the film the preparatory activities are as important as the sporting events themselves, just as the process of preparation and realization is as vital for Martin as the finished filmed product.

Martin’s films are just as much about the creation and physical limitations of illusion as about the illusion itself. In deciding to work with film, despite having originally trained as a painter, she has chosen a medium in which the mechanics of illusion can be both teased out and concealed. Celluloid itself is, after all, only a trick of the light.

1 Lucy Lippard ‘Sweeping Exchanges: The Contribution of Feminism to the Art of the Seventies’, Art Journal, 1980, p 362