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Country Grammar

Ruth Barker reviews 'Country Grammar' by Sue Tompkins (featuring work by Luke Fowler) at The Modern Institute Aird's Lane, Glasgow, 30 September - 4 November

All images: Luke Fowler, Country Grammar (with Sue Tompkins), 2017, 16mm film transferred to digital,
18mins

All images: Luke Fowler, Country Grammar (with Sue Tompkins), 2017, 16mm film transferred to digital, 18mins

For Country Grammar at The Modern Institute’s Aird’s Lane gallery, Sue Tompkins presents an installation of new paintings alongside a new film by Luke Fowler that reframes Tompkins’ 2003 performance of the same name. This exercise—shifting Tompkins’ performance from the present tense of live work to the perfect tense of film—is necessarily charged with risk. In this re-imagining of Country Grammar however, Tompkins and Fowler have succeeded in opening a space of entropic embodiment, provoking a measured re-reading of both the performance and Fowler’s filmmaker’s eye.

 


The cavernous Aird’s Lane space is subdued, forming a close and meditative chamber that neatly contains the viewer’s experience. Fowler’s film is projected on the rear wall, while Tompkins’ paintings are dimly spotlit opposite. The sound—the unmistakable timbre and tone of Tompkins’ voice—is rich, and dynamically rendered. This is helped both by the detail of the close-mic’d recording, and the gallery’s lush carpeting that removes any echo or playback distortion. The film’s visuals are likewise precise and considered. Perspectives slide, open up, and close in a patterned sequence of glances. Fowler’s camera becomes a proxy for a mind’s eye, studying and ultimately (inevitably) failing to contain Tompkins’ totality.

 
The film opens with a figurative sequence of Tompkins performing at Chem19 Recording Studio. We see the artist’s familiar bounce, bob and weave as she smiles and speaks: her face creasing, her lips articulating, shaping, and emitting the measured staccato of her words. The camera tilts, watches, moves, and pares away, in a confident dance. Then, an essential disjunction occurs: Tompkins’ utterances are unmatched by the audio track, and so the viewers’ emotive and lexical relation to Tompkin’s presence is disrupted. This is not documentation then, not a simple reiteration of an accepted event.

 
Fowler’s cinematic gaze begins to slip away from Tompkins’ breathing, dancing, bodily presence, even as the audio track attentively maintains her words as fluent, concrete, acts. The rarified moment of performance is netted into a quotidian surface of views and actions; we see items placed within a fridge, a bus shelter holding itself against the sky, fluid trickling across a floor. Figures are glimpsed and non-performing bodies in public spaces (standing, looking, talking, being). Again and again we find a preoccupation with surface as Fowler interrogates frames of looking: through a wrought iron fence, across a brick façade, or up against an unremitting wall. The camera seeks access, but is often deflected by external barriers. This deliberate and persistent gaze enacts Fowler’s ongoing filmic examination of looking, and becomes a visual echo of both Tompkins’ opaque language constructions, and the wall-bound surfaces of her paintings.

 
Like all Tompkins’ spoken performances, Country Grammar began as a text collaged from the artist’s collated fragments, notes, and annotations, edited and assembled into a complex play of poetry and beat utterance. Her delivery feels at times disconcertingly palpable in its semi-hypnotic, syncopated rhythm. As in her live work, it is Tompkins’ voice that offers an immediate access to the experience of Fowler’s film, alternately overriding the visuals with a firm and authoritative line, and extending their reference with a lyric leap. At times, the self-reflexive suggestion of the text is almost inescapable:

 

“take my photo yeah

take my photo yeah

take my photo yeah

take my photo yeah

take my photo yeah”

 
she demands, as Fowler’s images loop away from any closed representation.

 

“The Xerox machine

The Xerox machine

The Xerox machine

The Xerox machine

Complete

Complete

and I’m impressed”

 
she concedes; just as Fowler concedes the complete inability to reduce live performance from the anxious threshold of the proximate, to the reductive authority of the replaceable image.

 
Herein lies the risk: that in severing the temporal and physical link between the performance event and the performing body (in immortalising the performance, in a sense), the work may lose its slipperiness. Artificially stablilised by the camera’s eye, the performance becomes endlessly replicable and so endlessly unsatisfying. Fowler’s technique rails against this enforced order, and yet cannot entirely transcend it. With a performance legacy comes a simultaneous and inevitable loss of its live-ness. The strength of Country Grammar is that it goes some way to acknowledging this with its own searching, idiosyncratic textual body:

 

 

“when i was young and i was new

when i was young and i was new

 

nobody no nobody nobody no no body no nobody

can give me back the past

nobody no nobody nobody no no body no nobody

can give me back the past

nevermind herei go

nevermind where i go”


                                                                ***

Ruth Barker is an artist and writer based in Glasgow. Her interests include ideas of myth, psychoanalysis, connectivity and finitude. Ruth has a PhD from Newcastle University, and is represented by the Agency gallery, London

Sue Tompkins, Country Grammar, A film by Luke Fowler, The Modern Institute, Airds Lane, 30 September-4 November

Sue Tompkins' performance of Pass the Drones, 2017, on 17 October, 6-8pm opened an exhibition of a new body of paintings in the adjacent Brick Space gallery

Full image credits: Luke Fowler, Country Grammar (with Sue Tompkins), 2017 16mm film transferred to digital, 18mins
Written and performed by Sue Tompkins
Direction, camera, sound, editing by Luke Fowler
Vocal recording engineered by Derek O'Neil at Chem 19
Location recordings and sound design by Luke Fowler
Film processing and transfers by Kodak Film Lab,
UK grading by Max Horton at Onsight Audio
Mastered by James Savage at Hottrax Studio