Cinematic Affects: The Art of Runa Islam; Martin Herbert Surveys the Artist's Films, in Which Coolly Hypnotic, Oblique Narratives-Haunted by the Afterimages of '60S Avant-Garde Auteurs-Straddle the Borders between Cinema and Sculpture, Art House and Art Gallery

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I CAN'T HELP IT: I know the female character in Runa Islam's five-minute 16 mm film Dead Time, 2000, is merely a cipher, a manipulated integer in a calculus of cinematic affectivity--but my heart goes out to her anyway. There she is in the first shot, framed against a blank sky, nearly expressionless yet radiating a sense of the kind of authentic interior life it often takes a nonactor to convey. Still, Islam seems to be trying to tell me not to care too much. In short order, the artist underscores the medium's materiality with a couple of Godardian edits, slicing unknowable segments of time away from the film so the woman's movements are repeatedly stopped in midstream, and interjecting overexposed cutaways to a smog-laden cityscape that seems far removed from her position and point of view.

Suddenly, we're indoors, where we find the woman dejectedly spinning a silver ring around a tabletop, cranking up its gyroscopic solo dance over and over. The air of unrelieved ennui adds Michelangelo Antonioni, pioneering theorist of temps mort, to the film's parade of art-house shout-outs, while the sound of plashing water, intermittently seeping into the sound track of dismal pizzicato strings and industrial hum, recalls Robert Bresson's maxim (from his Notes on the Cinematographer [1975]) that "image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay." In fact, the ring's metallic whirr eventually slips wholly out of sync with the images. At the fade to black, after the object has fallen still, its spinning remains audible, echoing the clicks of the film projector's tirelessly turning reel--soon to loop over to the start of the "story"--and cuing memory to linger over something indefinable, now gone.

Dead Time, in the midst of its abundant referentiality, pared-back beauty, and syntactical gamesmanship, suggests a kind of relationship interrupted, whose perpetuation is longed for but refused. But is that connection between the female character and someone she's lost or awaits--the missing owner of the ring, say--or is it, more abstractly, between her and the viewer, or even between structural elements within the work itself? Such questions arise often in Islam's icily formal yet essentially humanist films. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and raised in Great Britain, Islam became a cineaste in her teens, drawn particularly to those European auteurs who masterminded film's burgeoning consciousness of itself. She subsequently studied art history and philosophy prior to pursuing studio practice at Amsterdam's Rijksakademie. Given this background, with its blend of youthful fandom and scholarly rigor, it's hardly surprising she ended up with both an enduring fascination for the empathetic mechanisms of filmic narrative--their shadowing, compressing, and tilting of the real--and an analytic bent that leads her to pull apart cinema's tropes, isolating in the process some of the contingencies of movie-trained vision. The result of these dual affinities is an approach that seems equally at home with Antonioni and Jack Goldstein, Alain Resnais and Catherine Sullivan. Indeed, Islam's work evinces an awareness that the stylistics of '60s European cinema, however revolutionary in their time, are now merely another orthodoxy on which to build, recalibrated for the different emphases of the gallery environment and used as a launchpad into more emotive territory. Yet such emotiveness does not mean the pleasures of uncomplicated sentiment: In her densely koanlike works, poignancy continually gets snarled up in a multiplicity of implicated authors, a derailed narrative drive, and an aesthetic that straddles the distinctions between film and sculpture, art and cinema.

Less explicable than Islam's twin inclinations toward deconstruction and enchantment is how mutually reinforcing these parallel impulses have proven to be. The crux of this seemingly contradictory dynamic may lie in the fact that Islam rarely lets viewers forget their own status as subjective observers and interpreters. …


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