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Ruth Buchanan 'Several Attentions—Lying Freely Part III', installation view

In 1971 British filmmaker Annabel Nicolson made ‘Slides’, an 11-minute silent work that demonstrates a strip of film being run through a contact printer and then refilmed in a convulsive up-down pattern that Nicolson orchestrates. Constructed from cut-up fragments of Nicolson’s previous works, ‘Slides’ is a strip of re-filmed-film that reveals sprocket holes, colour flashes and the occasional recognisable image. Watching this work the viewer is rendered into a confounded state of trying-to-look.

‘Several Attentions’, a 16mm film shown as part of New Zealand-born Ruth Buchanan’s gallery installation by the same name, replicates ‘Slides’ in many ways. Buchanan’s work depicts a female character (we may assume that she is the artist), running transparencies through a microform reader at the British Library. Using the controls of her machine to shift and turn these filmic documents across the screen of the reader, the woman rarely appears to read or take notes. Instead she is preoccupied with the image moving in front of her, and adopts much the same process to make her ‘film’ that Nicolson did for ‘Slides’. Always seeing the subject from behind, we are denied the result of Buchanan’s filmic manipulation; we see only its mechanical production, our sense of looking constantly confounded. If the artist is making two films—the momentary film within the microform reader and the overall film that we watch—then Buchanan obscures most of the focal points. Sitting before the microform reader the woman partly conceals the content that she is drawing our attention to, and when occasionally a piece of microform is demonstrated, it is blurred or shown for only a cursory duration.

Just as Nicolson put together the strips of film that would become ‘Slides’, Buchanan constructs her microform transparency especially for ‘Several Attentions’. The pages shown on this transparency are derived from citations mentioned in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There is an episode in Woolf’s seminal essay in which its protagonist ventures into the British Library (then housed in the British Museum), to uncover the truth on why women are generally poorer than men and why women writers must struggle as they do. While taking down the citations that appear in ‘Several Attentions’, Woolf’s protagonist enviously notices that the reader next to her was able to make her notes carefully, whereas her own notebook ‘rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings’.

Within the sculptural elements on show here, Buchanan reveals a knowing application of exhibition architectures and modernist design, suggesting a practice with a similar aesthetic and conceptual tendencies to an artist like Martin Beck, for example. Her sculptural works have the resolute stamp of minimalism, and despite the nude-coloured curtain that sensuously crosses the space like a ladies privacy screen, the artworks in this exhibition have a muscular appearance and an economy of form. And yet, the aforementioned Woolf quotation would suitably describe Buchanan’s installation: it rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings.

This is the third instalment of Buchanan’s ongoing project Lying Freely. The first part, ‘Nothing is Closed’, 2009, was produced by Casco in The Netherlands, where Buchanan gave guided tours around the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht.

These tours absorbed Buchanan’s reading of New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographical essay ‘Towards Another Summer’, 1963. The second part, included in the roving curatorial platform If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution, was ‘Circular Facts’, a performance by Buchanan that departed from the story of Agatha Christie’s disappearance for eleven days in 1926. As a trilogy, each part of ‘Lying Freely’ is seen as a ‘meeting’ with these female writers—Christie, Frame and Woolf.

Buchanan’s authorship of ‘Several Attentions’ is though, in the end, rather watery. Her objects feel derivative and, as a ‘riot of contradictory jottings’, the installation is not comfortably cohesive. Perhaps because of this intentional impression of disparity and ‘spin-off’, Buchanan seems to resist a solid attachment to any of her objects, like a literary scholar who does not claim to ‘own’ or ‘author’ the object of their study (though they do take a fragile and temporary possession of it in the process of scholarship).

Buchanan seems to propose that it is the role of the writer, the artist and the scholar to constantly readdress the riot of legacies that we live under—to reframe, redesign, re-film and rewrite, but never to claim a decisive authorial attachment. Once inside the room of one’s own, the task is to fill it and after that, to consider how we might explain the decisions of our interior decoration to those who have inspired us.

Gemma Sharpe is a writer based in London