Saturday, February 03, 2007

On Some Faraway Beach

I don't go to many Exhibitions. Or Galleries. Or museums, really. It seems an awful lot of effort, to go somewhere like that just to walk around, even if there are amazing works of art or items of historical interest to gaze upon. I'm old, I need to sit down with my culture these days.

But I make the occasional exception, especially if an artist I know and admire from another field is somehow involved. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, one such artist, is a Turkish film director. At the time of writing I've only seen one of his films (his latest, Climates, is released in the UK on Friday and I'm very much looking forward to it) but that film, Uzak (Distant) is a masterpiece. It is also an incredibly beautiful and vivid example of the possibilities of photography in modern cinema, and I was unsurprised to learn that Ceylan was a photographer before he began making films. Hes something of a renaissance man, Ceylan. He wrote, stars in and directed Climates (while his wife is his leading lady) and he is still a working photographer, claiming that still photography allows him an intimacy and connection with his subjects impossible in cinema. To coincide with the release of Climates, the National Theatre is hosting a small exhibition of Ceylan's recent photography, Turkish Cinemascope.

As is made plain by the title, Ceylan's work is explicitly cinematic. His pictures have the same dimensions as cinemascope frames, and many of his images recall the snowy Istanbul cityscapes so indeliby captured in Uzak. He uses pigment ink on cotton paper to give his blacks more power in the palette of his work, meaning that there is always a high contrast between the areas of shadow and shade and all other colours. This gives each picture a strange vibrancy, a heightened realism beyond mere representationalism, reminiscent of the power of cinematography. It also means that the many shots of Istanbul under snow appear starkly magnificent - the flashes of colour leap out of the pictures away from the blacks and whites. Films often make life appear more beautiful than it can to the naked eye, and Ceylan's photographs do the same thing.

Uzak felt like the work of an original and distinctive voice in World Cinema, but if it reminded me of any other director, then that director was Michaelangelo Antonioni. Ceylan's many studies of figures dwarfed by their environments - whether it be in the vastness of the Turkish countryside or between the Minarets of Istanbul and the dark swell of the Bosphorus - recalled Antonioni and his fascination with figures and their relationships with landscape, and his interrogation of the meanings of architecture. Turkish Cinemascope continues in a similar vein. Ceylan repeatedly picks out solitary figures against vast landscapes or desolate, darkened cityscapes. He often seems to deliberately include glimpes of both sides of Turkey, the ancient and modern, with cars just visible beyond crumbling sidestreets, and Mosques always dominating skylines. Many of these figures seem timeless, Ceylan obviously using his formidable eye to choose children with ancient faces and men with the air of the medievel bazaar about them as his subjects. As well as Antonioni, these pictures often reminded me of another Italian director, and perhaps the best ever exponent of the art of widescreen composition : Sergio Leone. Just check out the example below, and imagine the Morricone for yourself :

Ceylan's photography has been compared to the painting of Pieter Brueghel, and there is definitely something painterly about this work, in the epic scope of each picture, the attention to detail and the compositional eye. Ceylan views most of his landscapes from above, in a series of "God shots" which are possibly the most breathtaking feature of the exhibition. Seen like this, these old Turkish towns and temples look positively Biblical, and always beautiful. As well as fuelling my anticipation for Climates, these pictures made me want to visit Turkey, a first for me.

As renaissance men go, Brian Eno makes Nuri Bilge Ceylan look like a beginner. Eno is a record producer, a songwriter and singer, a soundtrack composer, a cultural theorist, a journalist and author, an artist and inventor. Obviously I love his music. His first four solo records are among the best rock albums of the 1970s, defying categorisation as they proceed through a series of amazing songs, never confining themselves to any set style or sound, alway mobile and interesting. Eno somehow managed to combine this intellectual approach to pop with the ability to write some incredible hooks. And then he lost interest in making this sort of music, and moving on, he more or less invented and named an entire genre - Eno is perhaps most celebrated as the father of Ambient. While releasing a series of seminal albums exploring his new interests and collaborating with a diverse list of musicians, Eno kept a roof over his head by producing other artists. Of course, in the pursuit of these jobs for hire, he happened to produce some of the best records of the era, from Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" to David Bowie's "Low". Then he became involved with a post-punk band from Dublin who wanted to expand their sound, and he produced some of the most commercially successful albums of the 80s and 90s for this band - "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby". All the while he was writing, painting, theorising, always creating.

Last year he released his first straight "pop" record for decades with the excellent "Another Day On Earth". But one reason he abandoned mainstream music in the first place was the astonishing eclecticism of his interests. He has been producing visual art for 20 years, increasingly combining his creative urges with his fascination with computer technology. His work generally focuses on "painting with light", using various light sources - television monitors, spotlights, projectors, backlit screens - to create constantly evolving works. His latest project is called 77 Million Paintings, and it utilises unique software created for Eno to follow this long-established methodology. Using high-definition monitors and home computers, 77 Million Paintings presents a series of self-generating, ever-changing pictures. This approach allows the work to be displayed in various different galleries and settings in many different configurations and designs. One such exhibition is presently being hosted in the basement of Selfridges on Oxford Street under the title "luminous".

In Selfridges, there are five different clusters made up of thirty "windows" hanging in the darkness of the exhibition space only feet away from one of the store's cafes. These windows are continually changing - colours wash through, patterns emerge and fade, figures can be made out, then transformed by the slightest alteration - as is the music, also randomly generated by computer software from elements created by Eno. This means that "luminous" is never the same, the combination of so many different pieces always in different configurations. The music sounded vaguely industrial at times, with buzzes of feedback and distorted vocals drifting in and out through fogs of synth and the odd snatch of rhythm. The visuals work through juxtaposition - both of colours and of the odd patterns and details that sporadically emerge - and the seamless subtlety of the transitions. I had assumed I would hate it, as my usual response to most modern art is dismissive, and this was in a Department Store to boot, but the cumulative effect is strangely calming and even a little hypnotic. You walk out of the bustle of one of the busiest spots in Europe into Eno's ambient world. You sit on a sofa in the darkness and watch the colours shift and ebb. The music cocoons you. If it wasn't for the odd invasive rattle of cup upon saucer from outside and the unavoidable awareness of a slow stream of people passing through the heavy curtains and into the space, it would be an utterly transportive experience.
And of course, you get to sit down throughout, definitely a bonus. 77 Million Paintings is available as a DVD and DVD-Rom, and I can imagine it would make a beautiful screen-saver as long as the images were combined with the musical content, since photography (including the photographs above) can't really hope to capture the experience.

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