Curating context is a delicate art: preface a show with its most direct influences and you run the risk of robbing the work of its originality, but do the same with a tangential piece and the audience will spend more time looking for the connection than finding the meaning. It’s a delicate art however, that someone at South London Gallery clearly understands.
Staged as part of their season of sound art, At The Moment of Being Heard, La Cellule d’Intervention Metakine is an audiovisual spectacular, created by French filmakers Christophe Auger and Xievier Querel, in collaboration with composer Jerome Noetinger. Esoteric and intense, it demands a lot from an audience, which is why foreshadowing it with a screening of Jose Val Del Omar’s Fuego en Castilla is an ideal way of providing an entry point for the bemused spectators who had gathered on that warm Saturday night.
One of the most celebrated films of Del Omar, an experimental film-maker and contemporary of Dali, Bunuel and Lorca, Fuego en Castilla is a visual poem on the subject of those two great institutions, religion and history. Locked around the dual central images of a fire burning at the base of a cross, and a book superimposed on a roaring waterfall, its poetic cinematography is layered with mystery. The majority of its 17 minute running time is dominated by statues being brought to life with stop frame animation, psychedelic lighting effects and slabs of unprocessed electronic noise. Technically ground-breaking in its own time, this use of cinematic lighting seems peerless even now, and despite lacking the infamy of Dali and Bunel’s work, its tight structure and oppressive atmosphere leaves it feeling like a more sophisticated piece of film-making. It certainly conjured a fuego in the adopted performance space of the Wilson Road Lecture Theatre, one that La Cellule d’Intervention Metamkine began to stoke.
Perhaps it was the rising heat of the summer night, with hundreds of bodies crammed in for the show, but Metamkine took that fire straight off the safety of the screen and cast it out into the space around. Starting, appropriately with the ghostly silhouette of a strip of film reel, the figures that crouched on the stage, tinkering with their ornate machines, managed to conjure the image of an essential cinema. It was a performance of scale: a single circle of bokeh hovered on the screen, either as a single microscopic cell or a star burning bright in the void. The sound that accompanied it was equally scaleless – the recording of an insect’s chirrup or the sound of the spheres. From here the perfomers threw a series of images across the screen, some huge formless sheets of light, others simple imagery, flocks of birds of silhouettes. The danger was the creation of a language too abstract, too impregnable, but this light show was tightly wound around a core of hypnotic sound.
This is La Cellule d’Intervention Metamkine’s stongest aspect, and where both it and Fuego en Castilla find their power. The connection of sound and cinematic image may be a well known one, but that rarely serves to weaken its effect. Just as Del Omars strobing statues were accompanied by flickering sound, so Auger and Querels playful patterns were matched perfectly by Noetingers electronic chords. Yet, while both pieces exploited this synergy, it was the liveness of Auger, Querel and Noetinger’s collaboration that energised their films imagery. Watching as chemicals flowered on film cells, or reels burnt out under the heat of a lamp is a kind of tactile thrill, and the improvisation that resulted from these emergent moments dictacted an intriguing melody all of its own. It was as if Del Omar’s experiments had slipped off the screen and found their way into the lecture theatre.
It was a powerful effect, and one achieved through the clever matching of artists. That night, as sound and image coalesced on the screen, so did La Cellule d’Intervention Metamkine and Fuego en Castilla, plunging on a journey deep into the possibilities of cinema and sound. When the final chord faded and the audience came up for air, it was difficult not to feel both electrified and exhuasted.