Baked Alsakalarge
Charlotte Prodger, 'Baked Alaska', 2019. 15 colour screenprint on Somerset Satil 3000gsm. Edition of 50, 47.5 x 63cm (paper size). Produced at Glasgow Print Studio

At a bar across from Treviso Airport the sun, low along the road, catches only what is above my shoulders. A decapitation in orange. I am reminded of Jean-Luc Moulène’s works in the Giardini and Arsenale⁠—a head cast from a mask, a knife, praying hands separated from their frame. Showing the body to be a series of parts, bits that can be separated or spliced. ‘The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal’, an Assyrian stone relief, used in Charlotte Prodger’s film for Scotland+Venice, ‘SaF05’, recalls the disturbing corporeality of Moulène’s work too. Animals are penetrated, bled, deadened, made inanimate. Heaps collapsing, cut.

I think of the august bronze lion that surveys the Adriatic Sea from atop a column in St. Mark’s Square, which I had passed only an hour or so ago. Other than two notable moves⁠—Napoleon had it transported to Paris and it was taken down during World War IIthe lion has been in situ for over eight hundred years. It was brought to Venice from Constantinople in the twelfth century but is believed to be over two thousand years old, older than the city itself. [1]

(Fritz Koenig’s epic bronze, ‘Sphere’ (1971) was originally located in the plaza at The World Trade Center. The sculpture survived 9/11, damaged but intact, and afterwards was dismantled and sent for storage to JFK International Airport. In 2002, it was moved to Battery Park, complete with new base and plaque. More recently, ‘Sphere’ returned to near its original location. Liberty Park, World Trade Center, Manhattan. Present for an absence, it revealed itself ready to receive new meanings.[2])

St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice, the lion his symbol. The reasons for this mix the mythic and political, the sacred and profane. The legend goes that on his travels St. Mark came upon Venice and an angel appeared, uttering, ‘Peace be unto you, Mark, my evangelist. On this spot shall your body rest.’ Around 800 years later, it is understood that the saint’s body was snatched from a tomb in Egypt by Venetian merchants, hidden among cuts of pork and shipped to the city. [3]

The Lion of St. Mark has become the city’s trademark. Its proud and sombre countenance permeates Venice’s commercial, military and industrial iconography; emblazoned on council buildings, on insurance branches, ships, flags, postcards, souvenirs. Charlotte Prodger’s film, whose subject is ostensibly a maned lioness, SaF05 or Mmamoriri, has a striking critical relationship to the city, forming a dialectical relationship to a potent local symbol which promotes the place as a tourist destination of legitimate religious and military history.

The film is situated in the lion guarded Arsenale, albeit in a quiet and unobtrusive dock. This setting befits Prodger’s search, not for a lion conforming to Venice’s symbol but one representative of ambiguity and solitude. SaF05 is retiring and solitary, a cypher for difference. In the first few lines of Prodger’s narration, 'I’m praying to wake up as a boy'.

The lion motif is twisted through Prodger’s montage, pointing us to the work’s oblique theme⁠—concealment. ‘SaF05’ tracks the way that things are hidden, evade us. The maned lioness is the key fugitive symbol in a video that switches location regularly, moving from Glasgow to the Okavango Delta in Botswana (where Mmamoriri dwells) to Cove Park on Scotland’s West coast to the Great Basin Desert in Utah. The narration too flits between stories and locations which mix sex, rumour, religion, politics and friendship. There are recurrent images and descriptions of concealment ranging from the humorous to the poignant, from hidden intimacy to disguised enterprise: a Baked Alaska, the hollow hill of the Royal Naval Armaments Depot near Coulport, a termite mound, a hand in a pocket playing down a sexual advance. Footage of, and reports on sightings of SaF05 break up these sections. The lion is never found.

(Cyprien Gaillard’s ‘Ocean II Ocean’ (2019) looped in another quiet section of the Arsenale and I was left alone to watch it. Gaillard and Prodger share an interest in entropy and nightlife, anthropomorphism and industry, antiquity and expropriation. His film moves from the prehistoric to the metropolitan to draw out a nature-culture divide. First, the flattened planispiral forms of ammonites and gastropods in the marble walls of the Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Berlin subways (amongst others) reflect the arrival and departure of trains, the opening and closing of doors. Then, stripped out Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway trains from New York City are thrown into the sea. Sad shells, vacated, deceased and sunk in the hope that they can support new marine life. Water lapped calmly, rhythmically against The Arsenal Tower. A good place to consider the hope in a loop, in a spiral.)

‘SaF05’ is the third film in a trilogy. An anecdotal section in the first film of this series, 'Stoneymollan Trail' (2015) quotes from 'The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction in The East Village' (1988) by Samuel R. Delany. It describes sexual encounters at a truck depot, bordering a dock. Soon after the scene cuts to red trucks on the open road under the sun, their hot, tired frames charged with the sexual energy afforded by the power of Delany’s words. The nuclear submarines of Loch Long, as described in ‘SaF05’ also become anthropomorphised in relation to Prodger’s diaristic accounts and romantic anecdotes. There are ‘roaming’ subs and ‘lurkers’: a friend at a party, a figure at a club, a smoker, someone cruising.

A constant effort at self-refection and outlining of the contingencies of its production underpin the film’s longing (for peace, for companionship), in contrast to the necessities of its making⁠—a residency in the shadow of Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, a series of ecologically irresponsible flights, the installation’s situatedness at the heart of the tourism industry and marketing strategy Venice represents. This draws out an implicit critique of what the lion logo simultaneously symbolises and conceals, and of going on as we have before.

I pay the bill and head across the road to the airport.

On the plane, I read an ‘in conversation’ with Arthur Jafa, Sondra Perry and Dean Daderko in Mousse. Jafa talks about his methodology and quotes his friend John Akomfrah, saying, ‘He talked about putting things in an “affective proximity” to one another.’ Later adding, ‘I’m trying to grab people and say, look, this is what’s going on under the surface of things.’ [4]

As the plane moves down the runway, I imagine a shot tracking its take off, like in a film.

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[1] Wills, G. (2001) ‘Venice: Lion City', New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/30/books/chapters/venice-lion-city.html

[2] Otterman, S. (2017) ‘Battered and Scarred, ‘Sphere’ Returns to 9/11 Site’, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/29/nyregion/911-memorial-sphere-sculpture.html

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture, (2013) edited by Jones T. D. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (p. 633)

[4] Daderko, D. (2017) ‘Arthur Jafa and Sondra Perry’, Mousse, 57, http://moussemagazine.it/arthur-jafa-sondra-perry-dean-daderko-2017/

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Charlotte Prodger's print edition 'Baked Alaska' is available through Cove Park

Calum Sutherland is an artist living in Glasgow. His work and writing can be found on his website.