Audiovisual Art
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“The image always has the last word”. Cinema according to Peter Greenaway

Water is a recurring theme that cyclically recurs into the imagination of Peter Greenaway, a multifaceted artist who has studied to be a painter and has a career as director in film. Even his last project staged in Salerno, conceived for the unusual space of the blast furnace on the shores of the Irno river, is located into that visionary current started from Drowning by numbers (awarded at Cannes in 1988) and then integrated into the performance/concert Writing on water in 2005, in which the director combined the theme of water with three literary sources: the famous novel “Moby Dick”, the English poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, above all, “The Tempest” by Shakespeare (the latter was the cornerstone of his movie, The Prospero’s Book of 1991).

Writing on Water was structured in Salerno more as a concert, in which the music composed by David Lang and performed live by the London Sinfonietta, fused with three synchronized projections displayed on three screens with different shape and measure.   

In his research Peter Greenaway has been more and more orienting towards expressive shapes able to deconstruct and hybridize different languages – painting, music, literature, theatre, and video – and he has been also experimenting with new shapes of “architectural film” over the past years. In The Seventh Wave, Greenaway experiments with theatrical forms again, integrating electronic images and dialogue with architecture and live performance. Spectators have only to steep themselves into a journey made up of images, sounds and words, where water will – paradoxically and symbolically – overwhelm and submerge the unique and charming space of the blast furnace dominated once by fire.

Actually, this unusual performance staged in Salerno, which is undoubtedly one of the more important events of the career of this controversial Anglo-Saxon artist, is able to show the best and the worst sides of his expressive universe: from an acting and phonetic point of view it was a very traditional performance by an artist who aims at the actor’s liberation from it; it was a work with a plenty of literary matrices, if we consider that he strenuously fights for overcoming the literary text during the performance (as we are going to read his words later); finally, the atmosphere was refined to perfection, it was built through the usual very skilful and learned video play/effect scattered throughout the space (in this particular case there were 19 videos) with an extremely striking sound. All his work is characterized by a formal and iconic matrix (waves, fishes and naked people), and it is probably an oxymoron if we think that Greenaway aims at demolishing its expressive and visual palisades.

On the occasion of the staging and opening show, the Newport master held a Lectio Magistralis at the University of Salerno, where, as it often happens, he painted a picture of the expressive,  aesthetic and media elements of his work and explained  how it diachronically inserts itself in the present-time, using half prophetic and half provocative tones: “My research of new languages comes from a dissatisfaction linked to the experience I have gained so far. Nowadays cinema is a language extremely tied to text, even though its origins come from painting. Before the arrival of the Lumiere brothers, painting was the medium – and therefore I think that we must try to find a solution to this problem and thus, bridge the gap. It’s easy to understand what I’m saying, one need only to consider the great movie mass events of the last 15 years, such as “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings”: movies that, at the end of the day, are only the illustration of their respective books with the difference that images are in motion. I think that this isn’t good neither for cinema, nor for literature. Even great authors like Antonioni, Godard or Almodovar, who deserve absolute respect, although at a high level, did the same thing: they started from a text and visualised it. By using a metaphor: there are very little composers and too many orchestra leaders out there… and one composer is worth ten orchestra leader.”

The challenge to which Peter Greenaway has devoted his very successful career, seems, however, the same one all artists take on whenever they start from independent cinema, in order to take into account the space outside the screen. That is, by seeking painting and architecture as starting image matrices. Let’s think for example about the New American Cinema, the Cinema Esteso (Extended Cinema), the video-installations, the considerable locations and in general about all that wide area of in-motion images production equipped with a huge abundance of languages, solutions, innovations which we can’t sort into the structured patterns of cinema and video-art: “We should stop thinking in a linear way and start thinking laterally. We should stop seeing cinema as we know it, even from the proxemic point of view: what’s the point of being seated looking up and starring at a light rectangle? What’s the point of watching in the same direction? This aspect is destined to change, even from an architectural point of view.”

Changing, multiplying, and fragmenting the perspective, in order to define a new role and value of the author. Greenaway indeed has realised that the presence of a hybrid container of video-objects like You Tube does not help the notion of the author and his work conceived as an iconographically and narratively homogenous artefact.

Conversely, he paved the way to the vision of object-video as an aesthetic-relational process to start in the most different forms and with the help of the most diverse means: “Cinema is still taking its first steps, all that we’ve seen so far is only a prologue. Indeed, we could say that cinema, to a certain extent, died on 31st October 1983, the day remote control entered for the first time into spectators’ house. The possibility to change channel has undoubtedly released spectators, by destroying the so-called mono-channel cinema as we knew it. This invention enables spectators to modify the time scale of their experience, what is impossible at the cinema. That for example we can do when we go and see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum, because we can observe that painting from different point of views and for the time we need to spend; we can alternate that sight to other possible ones at the museum, thus modulating from time to time our visual and cognitive agenda… And let’s not talk then about Youtube, laptops or about smart phones, which I believe are production and tools that converge more and more in the same direction. This fact persuades me that I’m not the only one involved in this process, but that it’s an already assimilated innovation: a kind of “cinema in the Ege of information“.

Peter Greenaway’s thought is probably summarised in his uprising for the emancipation from the “four bondages” keeping the contemporary cultural industry hostage: “We should escape from the four bondages: first of all that of text, by splitting the bond between cinema and bookshop, then, that of mono-directional proxemics, by saying no to the “framed world” which we must watch from an imposed point of view. Moreover, we should break the chains of slavery put by the categories of entertainment and acting, by favouring a fully redefinition of the actor role, of the performance and of the body value on stage; and finally, we should break the chains of slavery par excellence: the movie camera. For all these reasons, I wouldn’t say that my work is doing cinema, but rather it’s a creative practice linked to the image supremacy. By quoting Jacques Derrida: The image always has the last word”.

In the last twenty years Greenaway has been approaching more often alternative visual shapes as for example site specific installations, “architectural cinema”, digital technologies; and through his works they become hybrids, a conglomeration of cinema, documentaries and installations. Let’s make some real examples: “In my work produced for the Triennale Design Museum of Milan [2007], I worked on the multiplication of projection spaces, because, by modifying the space, spectators’ perception of it consequently changes. My challenge is then to change the time of experience that has become a straightjacket. Isn’t it boring that Casablanca, Spiderman, Star Wars are perpetually the same independently from the producer? By means of modern technologies it would be absolutely possible to modify these space-time coordinates, although this infuriates experts dealing with cultural management”.

In this sense we can understand why Peter Greenaway used video as a taxonomy of the world in his work. In Tulse Luper suitcases he edited the material of dozens of artists in a very complex attempt at reaching a state of the art video shape lasting more than thirty hours. And even the sequencer, conceived as interface of the editing of multimedia contents,  has broken the exclusive bond with music production for a long time, by becoming a symbolic archetype of how structuring digital and also video data. As the director remembers: “In Tulse Luper I examined the transition from cinema to VJ-ing, by organising opening active session of live performances. I like the VJs’ universe very much, because by manipulating loops in every possible way during their live performance, they can develop a visual shape of present-time, which doesn’t follow any narrative, but is fragmented. In particular, I try to create new loops different from everyone else, in order then to allow a possible wider level of interaction, so that other video makers can undertake a new project starting from this material.   

If we stop a moment and think about these last considerations, inevitably we have to notice a typical oxymoron in Greenaway’s research: a crystal clear exegesis on a theoretical level is contrasted by a mostly naive production of material (one need only to see how Greenaway’s loops are conventional within the live media scene) what gives nearly the impression of an ex-post production, limited by theoretical production which then displays it. “Tulse Luper project boasts a meaningful story – tells the director – because it was born as a long-lasting film that was a bomb at cinemas (Tulse Luper suitcases). But then its great potential was disclosed and it was very successful as performances by VJs and videogames. In these 92 stories intertwining with the overlap of other pieces of information etc… we can find a more contemporary and decodable hyper-mediation than expected. For example, let’s think about the current use of CNN or Al-Jazera: how many pieces of information, how many screens, and how many media we simultaneously watch”.

Finally there is painting, whose audiovisual experimentation is one of its current conjugation. The use of digital software for creating video artefacts presumes that every image is fragmented into a series of separated and interactive levels, into a picture to compose from time to time and not into a perpetual flow to catch. The thin layers of painting, overlapped that represent the criteria of painting in the Renassaince, find a new territory in the layers of video-composition software.

Greenaway, without a shadow of doubt, fully joins this conceptual universe and proves it in a very didactic way, by producing the series of movies dedicated to the great European painters (among which the excellent Nightwatching [2007], a theoretical and critic journey into Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch, stands out),. From the Dutch experience, Greenaway starts working on a new project, Nine Classic Paintings, a kind of dialogue between cinema and classic art which begins from the multimedia installation The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci in 2008 and carries on with The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese in Venice in 2009: “I love painting in all its conjugations over eight thousand years, and I love painters, who I consider to be the guardians of visual culture of every civilization. That’s the reason why Nine Classic Paintings project [nine studies on as many masterpieces of painting history, reinterpreted in a site specific manner] was born; my purpose wasn’t to turn classic paintings into movies, or vice versa, but  to hybridize these two universes and bridge the gap between them. I wanted to answer to two fundamental questions which has been pushing me to undertake this path since the beginning: how would have painting been in presence of electricity? And again: how is it possible to solve the discouraging problem that paintings don’t emit sounds and don’t move…?”


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