Persona Non Grata

Alia Pathan


One in the Other, London, 7 December 2007 -- 13 January 2008

Curated by photographer and video artist Ben Judd, Persona Non Grata presents a range of film and video works from 1970 to 2007. The term Persona Non Grata translates as an unwelcome person. In addition to its use in legal matters, especially related to those of diplomacy, it is also a 2003 American documentary film by Oliver Stone exploring the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And so with the underlying notions of two, or many opposing sides in disagreement, we encounter this exhibition.

In John Smith's Museum Piece (2004) the artist takes us on a journey exploring his German hotel at night. The contemplative camera eye and diary-like voiceover make it unclear whether he is talking to us or himself. Using his location as a starting point, he compares its history with current world events. Subtitles stream along the bottom of the screen reminiscent of television news updates, while we hear the potent voiceover of the place's dark history. Smith begins to draw parallels in revealing that a company who sells spray to remove graffiti from Holocaust memorials today, was the same company which manufactured gas for the concentration camps during the Second World War. He assumes links between paying to go to a Jewish museum, and funding the Israeli Government, but then dismisses it as an absurd connection. I left this piece wondering whether the artist had assumed a role to be disillusioning and authoritative. Had he used the medium as a soap box, or was this stream of consciousness a narrative of the archetypal lonely man in a foreign hotel?

An earlier Smith film, 'The Girl Chewing Gum' (1975) is projected onto the back wall of the basement and greets us on entry. As the largest projection in the room it retains its impact as the backdrop for Gillian Wearing's 'Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw walking yesterday down Walworth Road' (1995) which is displayed at the front of the exhibition. Spanning nearly forty years the works in the exhibition compete to be noticed. Compared to many moving image exhibitions where the sound bleed of looped works induces a cacophonic and uncomfortable viewing, here it was reduced with the addition of headphones or short periods of black after each video was played. This allowed a pause in monologues or music and made way for adjacent screens to flicker on. While maintaining the presence of such eccentric personas, each one struggling and vying for personal attention, it was now possible for quieter works to be heard.

With this change in dynamics I came across two videos by Alan Currall. The one which held my attention most was the performance 'Message to My Best Friend' (2000). The monitor playing this work was placed on top of an old, out of order monitor acting as its plinth. Here the artist speaks directly to his audience. His subtle tone, hesitative speech and solemn expression appear honest while still straddling the fence between cathartic confession and theatre.

Another more subdued work was Ben Judd's 'I Love' (2003) displayed on the smallest screen in the room. I doubt this was an act of modesty from the curator himself; instead this small frame acts as an eyelet offering an unnerving glance into today's amateur pornographic industry. The slowed down footage pulls the viewer in to observe closely. The video's low, possibly hand held angle suggests secret filming of the subjects, who are in turn photographing their own subjects. The viewer becomes a voyeur in the triple-layered work and the tension builds, posing the question who is watching who? Do they know I am watching? Through headphones we hear the protagonist/stalker's voiceover, a narration that bears likeness to Smith's film, where the artist describes what is happening like a director's commentary. Judd takes the gritty reality of something we usually see stylized and perfected for our enjoyment and presents it back to us in an even darker form, exposing those as they exploit others.

Initially the resonance of mingled voices in conversation lures us down the stairs of the gallery, but it is not until we are immersed in this exhibition that we find ourselves caught amid a crowd of competing personas. Hidden underground the viewer is greeted by an array of glowing television screens and projections in a dimly lit, white space. Presented at irregular heights and at different angles, works either confront the viewer or shy away from them. This arrangement encourages the viewer's movement within, between and around the works. Some works are displayed on monitors on top of what look like trestle tables, and several other works are projected onto the walls persuading the viewer into the centre of the space. The 'pic n mix' of sounds and images that build up the exhibition fuse, tangle and repel, seducing the viewer away from one work to a neighboring one where contrasting opinions and confessions are revealed.

Old televisions are switched off and appear broken or functionless, but are used as plinths for working monitors. This inventive approach to presentation employs the medium as a symbol of permanency. It demonstrates the progression of moving image over time through the comparison of old with new. The frame may break, or become redundant but the medium itself will continue to develop and give rise to new ideas. In conveying a lineage of moving image works from the past 40 years it is possible for the viewer to gain a kind of brief history of film and video. This brings to light how the concepts used by the pioneers of the medium still resonate now.

From Smith directing the world to move in 'The Girl Chewing Gum' to Wearing adopting a mask in 'Homage...' we encounter each artist assuming the role of a protagonist; a vehicle through which they can vicariously deliver a narrative or confession, whether real or fictional. In this sense, Persona Non Grata may be a catharsis or expulsion of the artists' alter egos. The exorcised thoughts or feelings load the gallery space in their battle for consideration. The truth as to what we are witnessing -- an artist's confession or the guise of a fictional character -- fluctuates between the works, but is ultimately at the discretion of the viewer and relies on us to fill in the gaps.

Alia Pathan