Ben Jeans Houghton:

A TV screen and set of speakers in a gallery space. The room is suffused with a blue-grey light. The floor is littered with pieces of paper. There are large square benches arranged for visitors to sit.
2ndlife, Ben Jeans Houghton, Bloc Projects, Sheffield, 2018. Image courtesy ofBloc Projects and the artist.

Ben Jeans Houghton’s 2ndlife is a journey brought to life by language. The hour-long film essay – embedded within an installation – is a travel documentary of sorts. It navigates between the interior self and exterior places of intersection and ritual. From the point of view of the traveller-narrator (who we assume to be the artist himself) the viewer is invited to observe and reflect as begin in the North East of England, and end/begin again in the Aokigohara Forest, Japan.

The film is shown in the context of an installation. Scattered around the Bloc Projects space are pages of the film’s script, as well as miscellaneous torn materials and white pebbles. Viewers are invited to take away one of the pebbles as an act of memento-making. It directs us to think of the film as a record of experiences, or a way to recall which also prompts explorations into new territories; ‘creation myth, astrology, reincarnation, premonition, magic/k, illness, presence, illusion, zen, memory death, and suicide’.

The film itself is divided into chapters, each wandering and soundless, voiced over by the monologue. We follow one point of view, constantly moving through public spaces, always pursuing something just beyond the horizon of the frame.

At one point, we find ourselves in a graveyard in Japan at dusk. We follow a cat in one long, unbroken shot and she (it looks like a she) wanders around the headstones. We’re told it’s a dream sequence. Our narrator discusses memory, nostalgia and other impossible things. Houghton’s rich prose has a poetic melodrama, but the delivery is bone dry:

‘The tragic epitaph of human romance.’

We’re still with the cat, discussing the fatal allure of Aokigohara Forest, where many people chose to end their lives.

The forest isn’t to blame.’

It transpires that a combination of movie romanticisation and socio-economic factors have inspired this tragic end-point.

Still following the cat. 

The mundanity of your bedroom and the boundless opera of your inner self.’

At another point, we’re taken down under the streets of Tokyo to a sex show. We watch the curiously sanitised spectacle. It’s gaudy and carnivalesque, with synchronised dancing and over-sized robot costumes. We hear about how the crushing pressure to over-work in the city has led to a drought of free time and a displacement of love and affection. So love and affection has been commodified at the fringes. Our narrator tells us about the ‘mythological cabaret of a thousand LEDs’ as second-hand anecdote from an invisible companion. It’s stories on stories.

In the final chapter, we follow an endless rope along the Aokigohara Forest floor, getting up-close to intimate sentiments and then panning out to macro themes – life, death, the city. 2ndlife ends cyclically, with the narrator embarking upon his flight to Japan. Go with it, and follow its elegant, meandering path of ideas.

Ben Jeans Houghton: 2ndlife, Bloc Projects, 18 January – 10 February 2018.

Lucy Holt is a copywriter, journalist and poet based in Sheffield. 

Published 26.01.2018 by Elspeth Mitchell in Reviews

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