Ricarda Vidal - Visual Culture

Works on Water

“Visions in the Nunnery”, The  Nunnery, 181 Bow Road, E3 2SJ London, 6-8 June 2008


I was invited to curate a room for “Visions in the Nunnery” 2008. I chose six beautiful films by Eitan Buganin, Hervé Constant, Andrew Cross, Helen Fletcher, Etta Säfve and Robert Seidel, which are all based on the theme of water. Below is the short text I wrote for the exhibition guide.


Works on Water


The flux and reflux of this water, its sounds – continuous and oscillating – unrelentingly striking my eye and ear, supplanting the internal stirrings which reverie has extinguished in me and sufficing for making me sense with pleasure my existence, without active thought.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau)


As I stroll along the Thames I think of Rousseau sitting by the shore of the Lac de Bienne contemplating the lazy lapping of the waves, his thoughts transported away towards a point of pure and joyful existence. The muddy waters of the Thames are crowned by little crests of yellowish foam. There is a little tinkle as they deposit shards of old bottles and other debris on the pebbles. Paul de Man called Rousseau’s continuous and oscillating sound of water ‘the source, the power that permits us to see objects in their true dependency in relation to being.’ (Paul de Man)

A boat goes by and as the waves gain strength a big piece of styroform is washed onto the shore. It will sit here, immobile for a while, until the tide comes in and it will continue its journey along the river. The flux and reflux of lakes, seas, oceans or tidal rivers has often been used as a metaphor for change and paradoxically also for permanence.

The six works in this show all explore different aspects of water. It appears as medium of change and symbol of permanence, as metaphor for thought and madness, but also quite literally as means of transport and artistic tool. But in all of them water is intricately connected to the pleasure (or the burden) of existence.


Still from Andrew Cross, "Passage (Passacaille)", 2007

Still from Andrew Cross, “Passage (Passacaille)”, 2007

 Commissioned to mark the opening of St Pancras International, Andrew Cross’s film Passage (passacaille) (2007) is about the journey from continental Europe to England. Though the camera follows the route of the Eurostar from the channel tunnel to the heart of London and a French voice-over provides historic context with a commentary on early public attitudes to railway tunnels, both the train and its tracks remain invisible. Instead we see the sea above the tunnel, the countryside under railway bridges and above tunnels, scenes of London and finally a long and beautiful sequence shot on Regents Canal. It is a journey by train largely rendered in images of water. While the modern-day train journey recalls the historic voyage by boat, Cross adds another narrative to the film:

As the train enters the Channel tunnel a musical journey begins in Handel House Museum with the tuning of a harpsichord and progresses onto George Frederick Handel’s Suite #7 in G major (passacaille) and finally evolves into a haunting piece for solo electric guitar, a contemporary interpretation of the passacaille suite by composer David Lang.

Passage is interested in stillness and slowness, in the subtleties of place that are oblivious in high-speed travel. Situating his filmic style‘somewhere between Jean Luc Godard and a British Transport Films documentary’ Cross set out to create a slow-moving voyage through time, place and history. However, the final scene, which is filmed in the long Regent’s Canal tunnel at Angel (North London) and lasts almost one third of the entire film, goes beyond either time, place or history. Listening to Lang’s haunting music watching the still dark waters one can find Rousseau’s moment of pure existence beyond active thought.


Still from Etta Säfve, "North Sea Low Tide (Ophelia)", 2006-7.

Still from Etta Säfve, “North Sea Low Tide (Ophelia)”, 2006-7.

Water is also the source of contemplation in Etta Säfve’s North Sea Low Tide (Ophelia) (2006-7), though here the still water of Cross’s canal scene or Rousseau’s Lac de Bienne is replaced by the crashing waves of the North Sea. The film is a poetic study of the sea, of change and permanence, of giving and taking inherent in the coming and going of the tide and the infinite repetition of waves after waves crashing onto the shore. The camera follows a man in a diving suit who drags a black tarpaulin filled with paper-lilies over the dunes into the sea. As the man slowly disappears into the waves the lilies are washed into the sea; some travel away from the shore, while others return to the beach and are left on land as the tide goes out. The shrieks of seagulls and the crashing of the waves lend the film an eerily Romantic atmosphere, which is articulated by a deep male voice telling a story about contentment, madness and pictures taken of the far side of the moon. Like many of Säfve’s films North Sea Low Tide (Ophelia) is based on a single performance. Hence, to a certain degree it is the product of the arbitrariness of nature. Confronted with the infinity of the sea, man’s actions would appear insignificant, but Säfve somehow makes the ephemeral appear eternal as she focuses her camera on the almost orderly line of paper-lilies that have been washed back onto the shore. They have become part of the eternal coming and going of the sea.


'Out There' photo - Herve Constant

Still from Hervé Constant, “Out There”, 2006

Whereas man and nature appear in complete harmony in Säfve’s film and madness appears as a – perhaps quite pleasant – alternative, Hervé Constant’s Out There (2006) explores the antagonism between man and the universe. The film is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Letters from a Madman” which traces the protagonist’s gradual descent into madness. Contemplating the very limited capacities of the human body to understand and relate to the vastness of the universe the narrator comes to the conclusion that he must be surrounded by beings invisible to the human eye and inaudible to the human ear. His attempt to see these beings eventually drives him mad. Almost the entire film is shot in the narrator’s bedroom, which Constant subtly changes into a threatening and alien environment by employing strange camera angles, unexpected close-ups of everyday objects and an expert manipulation of sound. The only scenes shot outside the room are set underwater. In Constant’s visual interpretation of the story the sea becomes symbolic for the vastness of the unknown universe. And the paradoxically impenetrable transparency of water eventually marks the narrator’s final descent into madness.


Film still, Helen Fletcher, "Rose Darling", 2007.

Still from Helen Fletcher, “Rose Darling”, 2007.

Helen Fletcher’s short piece Rose Darling (2007) uses water as artistic tool and source of creation. Over a period of 5 minutes we watch water slipping away from a tangled confusion of black ink lines slowly revealing the delicate shape of a woman. As the woman reassembles her body from the initial chaos one is left to consider whether she has woken from deep sleep or a dream or whether she is recovering from a trauma. Like Säfve’s film Rose Darling is based on an ephemeral and to some degree arbitrary process: the destruction of an ink drawing by pouring water over it. However by playing the film in reverse destruction becomes creation and the ephemeral attains permanence.




Film still, Robert Seidel, "E3", 2003.

Still from Robert Seidel, “E3″, 2003.

Robert Seidel, too, has used water as artistic tool. His work E3 (2002) is not so much on water as in water. The film is based on a diary painted in gouache which Seidel produced during a 3-month stay in the UK. E3, in which E stands for eternity and 3 for those three months, can be seen as a metaphor for life in general. Arranged in a cyclical structure the paintings morph into one another, sometimes smoothly, sometimes pulsating and sometimes with destructive force as the initial enthusiasm and energy of a new beginning gradually fade into the complete breakdown of excitement into the slug of the everyday before accelerating again. E3 is a series of visual and aural variations on this cycle, which happens over and over again.



Film still, Eitan Buganin,  "Pushkin", 2006.

Still from Eitan Buganin, “Pushkin”, 2006.

Eitan Buganin’s film Pushkin (2006) at last has the most tenuous connection to water. Here it is only present in the sounds of the distant sea and in the silent poem of a one-legged black sailor that accompanies the images in subtitles as the camera descends through the leaves and branches of a tree onto the small figure of a baby girl riding a rocking horse. The distant sea can be seen as the source of storytelling but at the same time the repetitive permanence of its waves acts like white noise threatening to submerge everything. Pushkin is perhaps the strangest of the six films in this show. As the camera is slowly lowered in circles onto a close-up of the little girl we are drawn into this strange black and white world. Camouflaged by simplicity and amusement, Pushkin is disturbing. It plays with the politics of the black colour as a social signifier and is a metaphor of what stands between the intimate reflection of oneself and the perception held by the outside. The final line of the poem includes a stage direction: we are to read it out in a sudden and loud shout. We must enter this strange black world in order to follow this instruction, in order to break the circle of repetition and shout over the noisy silence of the waves.