A black and white film still, in which a figure is starting to ascend a staircase in a south London tower block.

Jerwood/FVU Awards: Soojin Chang & Michael.

Michael., 'cleave to the Black', (2022). (Still). Image courtesy of artist.

The two presentations at Leeds Art Gallery forming this year’s Jerwood/FVU awards both deal with time, ritual, rest and grief. This is the final edition of the awards in its current form as Jerwood Arts reshape their funding programmes for early-career artists.

This year the awards were selected by a panel of experts, including award-winning visual artists Hetain Patel and Rehana Zaman, and the resulting new works are remarkable. Soojin Chang’s commission resulted in ‘BXBY’ (2022), the culmination of a year-long performance project blending fictionalised documentary with ritual practices, casting Chang as a hybrid, shapeshifting being trying to learn how to reproduce. The result is a wildly arresting and at times disturbing speculative work of semi-fiction about interspecies life, bodies and being, featuring explicit content of a deer being culled, as well as scenes of cervical examination. Due to its adult content, ‘BXBY’ was not on display in Leeds Art Gallery – instead this was shown in the Project Space in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies (FAHACS), University of Leeds, hosted by the Centre for Audio Visual Experimentation (CAVE). This collaboration has grown out of a longstanding friendship between Leeds Art Gallery and the University’s FAHACS department; this is good news for the creative ecology of the city, but also for audiences who were still able to see ‘BXBY’. The film’s visceral nature is undeniable but it is also a thoughtful and affirming work clearly underpinned by a deep curiosity about humanity, species and bodies.

A film still showing a body lay on a beach, at the point where the sand meets the waves. The person faces the sea, and is dressed in a costume made of black hair.
Soojin Chang, ‘BXBY’, (2022). (Still). Image courtesy of the artist.

With ‘BXBY’ showing off-site, Chang’s work is represented at Leeds Art Gallery by a new work, ‘Sacrifice to the Seaworm’ (2022). Here Chang presents a new film installation that marches to a very different beat. Created in collaboration with artist Jade O’Belle and writer Tenzin Mingyur Paldron, the installation comprises three short films featuring O’Belle, exploring ritual and sacrificial practices, and a longer elegiac meditation on activism and self-immolation practices in Tibet.

‘BXBY’ and ‘Sacrifice to the Seaworm’ do not make direct reference to one another, but both are born out of a desire to explore porosity and hybridity. ‘I don’t subscribe to the fact that everything has a clear, distinct origin’, Chang tells me; ‘to say that Western philosophy has Greek origins, I think ignores a lot of Celtic roots’. This interconnectedness is central, they feel, explaining that ‘even with Eastern cosmologies, there was always, you know, a migration happening. And I think it ignores diaspora to think of cultures as so distinct’. Working and thinking through these practices has led Chang to consider more than simply geography: ‘multispecies has become kind of a mode for me to explore those hybridities, while honouring those specificities at the same time’.

The film at the heart of ‘Sacrifice to the Seaworm’ centres Tenzin’s work on peace activism and self-immolation, an examination of the teachings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and Tibetan protestors in recent decades, which questions how we process seemingly violent acts of protest. The film is as delicate in tone as the content is shocking and achingly sad. In the gallery, the films are presented alongside sculptural elements of great beauty: mussel shells which have grown pearl over tiny Buddha figurines and a burial mound featuring fairy lights, earth and many fascinating natural objects including animal remains from the Leeds Museum collection. These were carefully selected by Chang in collaboration with the collection’s curators; care and responsibility towards the remains was a central part of this practice. Chang explains, ‘I’d like to really question and blur the lines of what is sentient and what is not sentient… I come from a cosmology where we have animist roots, and everything has life’.

A person dressed in white kneels in a river. They have bright red pigment on their hair, dripping down onto their white costume and into the water. The surrounding landscape includes rocks, heather and silver birch, with mountains in the background.
Soojin Chang, ‘Sacrifice to the Seaworm’, (2022). (Still). Image courtesy of the artist.

It seems to set our humanity and caring practices against the wildness of oppression, but I’m conscious as I write about ‘Sacrifice to the Sea Worm’ that our cultural language is wholly inadequate. Tenzin tells stories of the self-immolation of peace activists. The words we might reach for, such as ‘violent’ or ‘tragic’, are reductive. Our understanding of life and philosophy cannot hold the expansiveness of the ideas at stake; these deaths by fire are not impulsive. Depending on your belief system, they are not even necessarily final. Instead, they are part of a process of living that encompasses intergenerational activism. The central film in ‘Sacrifice to the Seaworm’ is visually understated and extremely restrained, but the content remains visceral and moving. The contrast of this body of work with the maximalist ‘BXBY’ is stark, but both contain these contradictions of wild violence and elegiac melancholy.

In the second half of the gallery, Michael. presents a new three-screen film work, ‘cleave to the BLACK’, alongside a curatorial project of selected artworks from Leeds Art Gallery’s collection. Michael.’s curated exhibition is accompanied by an expansive new sound work, produced by artist and collaborator Ashley Holmes, which plays in the space. The curation has been informed in part by a question central to Michael.’s research: ‘What would it be like to live on a land that loves you back?’. The result is a fascinating collection of works including John Constable, Richard Long and Tacita Dean. The curation draws on land art, psychogeography, photography and painting as part of an ongoing investigation into whom the land does love. These works are selected with love and respect, but it does raise the question of why the art world has for so long accepted an idea of land art that excludes Blackness, which has centred and accepted borders while purporting to deal in concepts of time, earth and space, that are themselves supposedly limitless.

A black and white film still showing a person sleeping. Their eyes are closed, their face is peaceful, their arm stretches out across the frame.
Michael., ‘cleave to the Black’, (2022). (Still). Image courtesy of artist.

Michael.’s Jerwood/FVU film work, ‘cleave to the BLACK’ (2022), takes the form of a thirty-five minute three-channel film, presented on huge screens in a darkened room. The three screens call for rest and pause, not as idleness or dropping out but rather as necessary corollaries of action. There is a porosity between the three screens that is clear without being explicit. Movement, solitude, and rest. ‘cleave to the BLACK’ was produced in close collaboration with the film’s cast of Black male performers, while Michael. also worked with a movement coach to train the actors to move with a slowness that we are not used to in everyday life. According to Michael. slowness became, ‘almost a way for us to fight against the tempos that we’re kind of forced to exist and move at nowadays’. The film-making process itself, with a host of trusted collaborators including cast members, producer Tobi Kyeremateng, director of photography Shivani Hassard, and others, was important conceptually as well as practically. The artists explains that because they were shooting on film, in the final work there is a ‘connection between time and film that’s happening, as well as time and the space that people are in’.

The triptych shows people moving through urban space, wild and untamed nature, and sleep. Three states of being and existing in the world. On the left-hand screen, the film’s unnamed protagonists slowly climb the staircase of a south London tower block. It unpicks the way people, especially young Black men, are more typically portrayed in urban space, rushing or participating in the frenetic pace of a city. Instead, this slowness is new, meditative and mysterious, ‘offering a space for things to unravel’. Each performer walks at the same pace, one at a time, exiting the staircase at the same point. Then they are replaced by another, and another, disappearing off-screen. We consider their movements carefully.

A black and white film still showing a person sleeping. Their eyes are closed, and their arm is stretched across their face, resting on pillows.
Michael., ‘cleave to the Black’, (2022). (Still). Image courtesy of artist.

Edward Burne-Jones’ painting ‘The Golden Stairs’ (1880) was a reference point for ‘cleave to the BLACK’. Michael., thinking about ‘this kind of effortless grace that the women are moving down the staircase with’, is interested in what prevents us from moving in this way normally. The second screen, the only one to use colour, was filmed in Epping Forest and barely shows people at all, until the final frame. Location scouting involved taking a train out to the forest and almost getting lost, trying to find places without ‘this imprint of human-ness’. The third shows the performers at rest; once again filmed in black and white, it has an alarming intimacy of watching someone sleep in real time.

‘cleave to the BLACK’ is confident filmmaking, nodding to art historical traditions in its use of the triptych and of the film medium itself. Its restraint, minimalism and movement situate it in a canon of artist filmmaking that uses film as both a canvas and a metronome. As a work it is careful, considered and literate, and it absolutely could not have been made on a phone. Most remarkable of all, it is incredibly engrossing. Here, rest is a part of action, and slowness is not the same thing as boredom.

While both Michael. and Soojin Chang’s works are very different in tone, they share a kinship, finding new and meditative ways to resist. As Diane di Prima’s poem ‘Revolutionary Letter #8’ puts it, ‘NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us shoving at the thing from all sides to bring it down’. These films are important steps in our progress towards a better way of being.

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2022: Soojin Chang & Michael. continues at Leeds Art Gallery until 22 January 2023.

Tessa Norton is a writer and artist based in Saltaire, West Yorkshire.

This review is supported by Leeds Art Gallery.

Published 21.01.2023 by Eloise Bennett in Reviews

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