Lucy Beech’s new film ‘Me and Mine’ (2015), commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, is the focus of her first major solo exhibition in the UK of the same name, which took place at the Harris Gallery earlier this year. In its current incarnation the film is projected in a purpose built cinema-like room that sits neatly in the Tetley’s atrium space, whilst two other works titled ‘Cannibals’ (2013) and ‘Buried Alive’ (2013) are screened in adjoining rooms.
‘Me and Mine’ is an elegant film that engages with the feminisation of traditionally masculine industries. Beech takes the funeral industry as her object of study and examines the implications of a shift that has seen an influx of women in the previously male dominated business. Framed in this way the film examines how virtues traditionally ascribed to femininity – particularly empathy and an ability to relate to others – have begun to have real currency. From a feminist perspective this is fascinating but troublesome. The shifting notions of labour and value seem to have egalitarian promise; yet, as the film also hints, invoking these virtues as essential properties of women is damning without due critical attention.
Beech has conceived of and written a script that develops her research and documentation of the Good Funeral Awards, that she then transformed into re-enactments of real or fabricated moments depicted in a mock-documentary style. Undermining what is real and what is fiction is a tension played out on screen throughout the forty minutes. This is not an overt disruption but a gentle questioning of the orchestration of ‘reality’. There is something elusive about the truth that, within the context of the film, means other concerns and questions are given the space to be examined.
The narrative follows Vivian, who works for Co-operative Funeral Care. The first shot of Vivian depicts her standing at a window at her work. As she tears up strips of white cotton she looks out of the window at the men working on the cars outside. We hear the clear sound of cotton ripping and the sight of small particles of dust moving in the light. Like most of Beech’s cinematography it is an impeccable and beautifully composed scene that has a contemplative and poetic quality. In particular this scene recalls the style of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, whose paintings often depict a woman stood at a window bathed in light. Invoking Vermeer in this striking tableaux also introduces the film’s examination of the classic problem of ‘image of woman’ – discussed eloquently in Naomi Pierce’s accompanying essay as she quotes Angela Martin from a 1979 article for Feminist Review saying: ‘Are we looking for images of real women or films which are really about women?’
The main part of the film follows Vivian as she attends a Good Funeral Awards weekend for the funeral industry. Through her wonderfully stoic demeanour the film explores the experience of what it is for women to be with other women. Vivian’s face gives little away, amplifying those around her and thus offering us insights into the network of women funeral specialists. Sound here plays a key role in exploring these relations and an interesting layer of the film. The chatter of the women’s voices and a thumping bass surround Vivian even when she escapes for a cigarette on the balcony. Jumping in the pool we hear the muffled tones through the water. Vivian is at once with the women and alienated from the group.
These group dynamics are further explored in Beech’s other films. ‘Cannibals’ is an amusing study of a women’s self-empowerment group that takes place in a gazebo in the leader’s garden. A group of women of all ages embark upon a class in which the tiered structure of self-fulfilment is referred to through food metaphors. We learn that Nikki, for example, will be the garlic bread and that everyone will have their chance to be dessert. The workshop model is taken up again in ‘Buried Alive’, a short, split screen film that depicts a therapeutic session where participants are training in ‘emotional entrepreneurship’ on a beach and in the living room of a leader. These two films are both imbued with the same mix of seriousness and humour that pervades ‘Me and Mine’. This exhibition thus leaves you amused but unsettled, to contemplate these new economies of empathy and industries of emotion that are uncannily clawing under the heels of women, and all of us, today.
Elspeth Mitchell is a researcher and writer based in Leeds.
‘Me and Mine’ continues at The Tetley until 27th September.
Image: Lucy Beech, Me and Mine, 2015. Image Courtesy The Tetley.