Sunday, 16 October 2016

Requests and Antisongs: James Richards at the ICA

So what if Tessa Norton's crush on James Richards' artwork is just skin-deep, maybe that's part of the appeal.

Still from Radio at Night

In the 1995 TV series My So-Called Life, Angela Chase (Claire Danes) spends 19 episodes fixating on Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). What depths could be concealed under his curtains and sheepskin coat? It soon emerges that she is projecting multitudes onto his studied blankness. He’s handsome but kind of boring. Her neighbour Brian Krakow, meanwhile, couldn’t hope to conceal his affection for Angela, and consequently could never hope to achieve Jordan’s mystery and allure.

There are two good life lessons right there. Firstly, we’ve probably all worked out by now to watch out for things that seem deep but really just look good. Secondly, though – we’re all Brian Krakow, but what if we weren’t? Maybe it would be nice sometimes to just be a bit restrained; stay aloof, stay handsome, see what happens.

Crumb Mahogany Photo: Mark Blower

At the ICA, James Richards’ ground floor is as aloof as the upper galleries are handsome. Downstairs, the sound installation Crumb Mahogany hardly welcomes visitors in. Walled in, a multilayered web of industrial and ephemeral sounds (typewriters, revving engines, murmurs) weave together to create a forbidding, invisible border. People tentatively tiptoe into the space, as though seeking permission from the sound to move closer.

Upstairs, the film/soundtrack Radio at Night occupies one room while a slide piece Rushes Minotaur sits in the neighbouring gallery. In a direct contrast to downstairs, these two works are seductive, siren songs drawing you closer. Closeups of surgery, holes, hair and skin further suggest at a porosity and interconnectedness of things; fittingly, it turns out, as the two rooms of visuals and the soundtrack work together to create an unsettling and utterly immersive experience.

Still from Rushes Minotaur

The found footage, mostly in either black and white or a muted, faded colour palette, assumes a curiously timeless quality. The recurring close ups of an eye are almost old fashioned in their directness and simplicity (eyes are inevitably 1920s anyway, evoking Vertov’s Kino-eye and Bunuel) and situate the work firmly in the pantheon of twentieth century film and visual culture, as though the image you’re looking at could almost be a hundred years old. 

Other parts of 20th Century Europe recur, from Superstudio-esque grid patterns to party-goers at a masquerade masked ball, perhaps at the cusp of the 1980s, creating a languid sense of time being washed away. Elsewhere, images of pig carcasses in abbatoirs, hair follicles and disorienting glimpses from a windscreen stir up a sense of vague menace and disquiet. Richards’ cut is resolutely authorial and virtuoso throughout, with masterful cutting and repetition making all the work seem entirely as one.

Still from Radio at Night

Like the imagery, the astonishing soundtrack assembles a variety of sources and found sounds (breathy erotica, birdsong, a click-clack, unidentified machinery) to weave together into something stirring, Morriccone-ish and utterly seamless. The overall effect remains necromantic – a little haunted, a little grisly, a giallo film for the death of cinema. If at times the three works are too cool to truly reveal their hand, it scarcely matters. When you look this terrific, people will forgive you.

Tessa Norton

James Richards
ICA, London
21 September - 13 November, 2016

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