To pinpoint the two major preoccupations of Lis Rhodes’ work one only has to refer to the title of her small-scale retrospective at the ICA. Dissonance and Disturbance clearly marks out the artist’s preoccupation with visual experimentation and political activism. In doing that, the exhibition travels the road from her early videos, focused primarily on image distortion, to the latest ones which are more preoccupied with the recent world-wide wave of protests.
It might be harsh, although possibly not too removed from the truth, to suggest that Dresden Dynamo (1972) and Light Reading (1978) are more interesting from a historical and biographical point of view. Dresden Dynamo is a five minute deconstructive explosion: a series of patterns are carved into the celluloid: this ‘damage’ creates corresponding, scratching noises when the film is played. Even if the piece is abstract in the extreme, it does mark out Rhodes’ interest in the formal relationship between audio and video components. This preoccupation however is not limited to letting the image dictate the sound. Light Reading takes a very different approach, allowing the narrative and the obscured images – of cameras, tapes and other recording equipment – coexist without a clear technical ‘explanation’ of how they relate to one another. What holds the piece together is the vague but distinct relationship of both to the politics of representation. While the hypnotic powers of these two films are entirely dependant on the viewer’s personal taste, they do provide a good framework for Rhodes’ films: their political nature is not just in the content, but finds its reflection in the form as well.
This obsessive need to find a form for the political message is what stops the later videos from being overly didactic. The central piece of the exhibition is a two screen display of three different films: A Cold Draft (1988), In the Kettle (2010), and Whitehall (2012). Concentrating on the economic politics of the 1980s, A Cold Draft partly hangs on to the aesthetics of Light Reading. The latter two pieces however are almost documentary in nature – taking close-up images of protests around London, Europe and the Middle-East, and manipulating them to expose revealing details: the look in the eyes of law-enforcers as they crush demonstrators or a police officer on the top of a building with a camera. The sound from the three videos is mixed into one long track, making it impossible to distinguish which part belongs to which film. This way the student protests, Greek recession restlessness, a mill bombing in Gaza or 1980’s methods of transporting nuclear waste, are all put in the same melting pot. Gathered together, A Cold Draft, In the Kettle and Whitehall, stop being simply about their respective political topics and become a symbol of the never-ending chain-reaction of controversial events, the grind that inevitably breaks the backs of the masses. Rhodes’ occasional lapses into political preaching are soon balanced out by the use of more poetic elements in work, the most poignant of which comes from Emily Dickinson’s I took one Draught of Life.
What’s even more impressive than the clear artistic direction of Rhodes’ work, is how many different outlets her videos have found to examine the same basic notions: from the outwardly experimental, through to those that are more documentary in nature and pieces that are even satiric – in the 80s she produced a series of bluntly political one minute films for Channel 4.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of Dissonance and Disturbance is that it swiftly gets rid of the ‘feminist artist’ label which Rhodes has been ‘blessed’ with ever since her involvement with Circles, a late 70’s distribution company that focused on promoting female film-makers. Instead it establishes Rhodes and her work as ‘essential reading’ for all aspiring political video artists.
Lis Rhodes: Dissonance and Disturbance is on until the 25th March at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.