I am lost in a labyrinth of cinemas. Pitch black rooms and vast radiant screens, scattered across four floors of an exhibition called The Infinite Mix housed in a grand brutalist building in the centre of the city. There are only 10 pieces in the exhibition but they are given such space and such scale they appear enormous. Entering every new room is like discovering cinema for the first time; a velvety black tunnel of darkness, my hands reaching out tentatively, a turned corner and suddenly ravishing images bleeding out of the wall into the room and swallowing you whole. The colours. The detail. The movement. The sound. I am my eleven-year-old self in a multiplex at Thurrock Lakeside. I am room full of scared and beguiled French people watching a steam train thundering towards them. I am falling in love with something again, or anew, or perhaps for the first time.
Twice in the exhibition I stay to watch the entire film loop around twice.
The first time is Khalil Joseph’s m.A.A.d (2014), a fragmentary, hallucinatory portrait of Compton, Los Angeles, that eddies and swirls across two giant screens, positioned in a V-shape so they seem almost to lean into one another for comfort or safety. It is an audio-visual response to the Kendrick Lamar album from which it borrows its title and it fizzes with all the hyperactive invention of the music it emerges from. Flickering jump cuts, images accumulating and juxtaposing, the texture of the film shifting constantly, the pictures on the dual screens occasionally jarring and occasionally in elegant harmony.
The images are frequently familiar, soaked into our consciousness from Hollywood, from music videos, from news reports, and yet they are reconstituted into something entirely new; a new cinematic language, a new vocabulary as complicated and contradictory as the thing it attempts to represent. The effect is of something dizzyingly strange and ravishingly beautiful – an attempt to map the unmappable; a place that is internal and external, geographical and historic, radiantly magical and dangerously real.
The second piece was the final piece in the entire exhibition, a black cube sitting like an alien church in the middle of the underground car park underneath the building. Inside it was Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife (2015), a film of such profound strangeness and beauty I never wanted to leave. In it we watch night time images of trees shivering in slow motion in Los Angeles, a bomb-damaged sculpture in Cleveland, and a firework display above the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. It is nothing. A moment that appears to be no more than the length of a held breath. An ordinary night caught in something like aspic so that it shimmers and glows in unearthly ways.
And yet caught also in these unsettlingly mundane images are so many ghosts. A telescoped history of the 20th century writhing just underneath the surface; endless chains of connections, from the infinite and infinitely sad loop of Alton Ellis’ 1970 hit Blackman’s Word playing throughout the film, to the eviscerated feet of Rodin’s The Thinker, destroyed by a bomb blast in the same year, to the German Oak Tree gifted to Jesse Owens by the Nazi Organisers of the Olympics that fans out into the same Cleveland night in which Rodin’s wounded thinker quietly sits.
The music loops. We watch the caught night, held delicately for us, like a cut flower. There is a storm. A search. A celebration. The drone camera spins through a firework display, thin trails of smoke illuminated briefly by bursts of pink and green. Only as a picture, which flashes its final farewell in the moment of its recognizability, is the past to be held fast. I feel like if I stay here unpicking these beguiling images for long enough, time will start to spill out of them like blood through burst stitches.
In both these pieces there are undoubtedly all manner of ‘new’ technologies - 3D projection, drone cameras, computer-generated imagery, digital photography, digital audio mixing and I’m sure plenty more I’m not aware of - and yet it is not the newness of the technology that is interesting, it is the new representational languages these technologies are employed to create. These are artists finding whatever means they can to create new modes of representation that do justice to the complicatedness of the contemporary experience, rather than compromising our understanding of our own lives to fit the conservative modes of representation that cinema and the media currently present us with.
Standing in these dark rooms I am consumed by a thrillingly unfamiliar grammar. I can feel new ways of dreaming seeping into my bones.