Blake said if you look at something long enough you become what you behold. Warhol quipped that if you look at something too long it loses its original meaning. Perhaps both statements have some veracity when viewing the films of Rosalind Nashashibi, where the act of looking is so incredibly vital. Here, the film camera operates as image-machine, modifying both the original image it records and the perception of the viewer.
Nashashibi is strikingly at the forefront of her filmmaking contemporaries because of this very attentiveness towards the machinery of her chosen medium. In her latest works ‘Bachelor Machines Part 1’ and ‘Bachelor Machines Part 2’, she has taken the next step in intensifying her stylistic preoccupations. It is as if the artist, already burdened with the dogmatic and not entirely gracious label of ‘documentary observer’, has pushed such a category to its most abstract limits in ‘Part 1’ and then rebuked the notion of documentary altogether for ‘Part 2’.
One assumes that the enigmatic title to which ‘Part 1’ and ‘Part 2’ attach to (the title is never verbally referenced in either film) originates from Michel Carrouges, who described Duchamp’s ‘A Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even’, 1926, as ‘Les machines célibataires’ in 1952. Understanding the term ‘bachelor’ as a rebellious social model of anti-procreation, it’s ironic that the ‘bachelor machine’ has bred an art history lineage that has involved and fascinated not only Carrouges, but also Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus ; curator Harald Szeemann in his 1975 ‘Bachelor Machines’ exhibition; Rosalind Krauss in her numerous ‘bachelor’ essays; and now Nashashibi.
And so in content as much as title, ‘Part 1’ is one of Nashashibi’s most ambitious projects – a 31-minute film entirely shot onboard a cargo ship, structured in 25 short scenes. As the vessel sails from Italy to Sweden, passing through Portugal, England and Ireland, the camera eye begins to embody distinct styles of looking: external shots of the boat; portrait shots of the captain and his crew; and, most interestingly, abstracted views from the camera pointed out to sea. As the camera sways with the up-and-down tilt of the ship, these desolate shots of the horizon log the vessel’s passage through time, accentuated by the film’s conspicuous division from the prologue to Scene 25. These perceptions characterise the ship, but unlike the personification of objects through selective framing in Nashashibi’s previous works, ‘Park Ambassador’, 2004, and ‘Eyeballing’, 2005, for instance, the camera eye in ‘Part 1’ acquires the quality of the ship’s eye: an ocular recording system around which the crew and its actions orbit. At points the camera captures the images of the crew in stark silhouette against an ambient sky. This figurative tableau quickly becomes indistinguishable from shadows cast by members of the audience, where bodies cut through the film projector’s beam as they wander into the screening space. As the audience’s forms match the scale of the silhouettes on film, this dark co-mingling of figures creates a strange contact zone of social relations between lens and screen, film and actual space.
Throughout her body of work, the artist has used a process of dematerialisation to realise the potential of her images. This is to say that the potency of the image is achieved by the introduction of the uncanny: one begins to understand the character of the ship in ‘Part 1’ only through the unexpected and initially incongruous views that the camera eye occupies. In ‘Part 2’—a double projection on 16mm—such a tactic is pushed to the extreme. The screen on the left shows excerpts from Alexander Kluge’s Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed, 1968, and Nashashibi’s own re-filming of those scenes using artist Thomas Bayrle as a surrogate actor, while on the right are blurry shots taken from ‘Park Ambassador’ and ‘Eyeballing’. Thomas Bayrle’s voiceover narrates an account of what he calls the ‘pact with devil’. Bayrle argues the catholic rosary is man’s first machine—the renaissance’s answer to automised prayer. As the voiceover reaches its climax, the images begin to sharpen, the edits quicken, and we are returned to a state of crisp vision.
Describing the elements of the camera, the film projector, and even the reel of film as machines, Nashashibi intuits the notion of film as a critical tool: a reflective, interpretative machinery itself. The metrical movement of a rosary is mimicked in ‘Part 2’’s spooling as it rhythmically clicks through the projector—the film begins to realise itself as a meditation machine. And it is this formal capacity to reflect content that remains one of Nashashibi’s greatest strengths. In ‘Part 1’, the ship passes through space and time, mirroring those two parameters of projection itself; while in ‘Part 2’ the right hand projection goes from an out-of-focus blur deep into illusory depth. Nashashibi forgoes the authenticity of the flat screen surface to embrace the spatial chimera of film.
Undoubtedly, ‘Bachelor Machines’ signals a change in the artist’s oeuvre. ‘Part 1’ reflects the artist’s method of viewing: self-reflexive, mesmeric, critical. ‘Part 2’ radically departs from this, stepping on the threshold of new creative territory, only possible by the artist’s raiding of her own works. It seems Nashashibi is finely attuned to such a move. She signals this sea change when in ‘Part 1’ the stark title ‘The End’ incongruously flashes up at the start of the film. Bold beginnings and new moves are afoot.
Isla Leaver-Yap is a contributing editor of MAP