Narrative interplay

Tiina Erkintalo

Oliver Whitehead is one of those versatile contemporary artists whose multidisciplinary production and many-sided approach to art is defying easy, reductive categorizations. When it comes to the choice of artistic means of expression, he has been frequently characterized as one of the very few 'unpredictable' in the Finnish art scene, where he has been active since the early '70's.

For Whitehead, any medium that comes to hand and can be applied to his respective needs is practicable: he moves comfortably within painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, sculpture, film and video, often applying a combination of the techniques, presenting the work in the form of a mixed-media installation. Consequent to his cross-disciplinary point of departure, Whitehead is not so much concerned with devoting himself to a structural analysis or with exploring the essence of a particular tool of expression as he is with applying each time a specific approach consistent with his whole oeuvre and the thematics he has been preoccupied with during the past three decades.

Oliver Whitehead may not be a media artist in a conventional contemporary sense - that is, investigating the relationship of art and technology through new digital media or from within the media itself – yet a large part of his art deals with the operations of media on the level of subject. If we define a media artist as someone who takes a stand towards the mediated culture by positioning him/herself as a re-organiser of media flow imposed on us providing the spectator with an insight into the possibility – or impossibility – of being an active producer of meaning(s), Whitehead fits that definition. This part of his interdisciplinary work involves political and social considerations, as it tackles for instance, or the thematics of war, the workings of the military machinery and its representations in the media, the collective imagery of our society, such as the fetishism of fashion and advertisements, or urbanism and the construction of self through city planning and the architecture of public spaces.

Above all, Oliver Whitehead does not consider himself a media artist or a filmmaker but an artist who works with the poetics of the moving image. He comments on the world around us; at times these comments are critical, like in his socially engaged, documentarist films/videos, dealing with issues of power, manipulation and behaviour, at times they are more subtle and subjective, like in his film diaries. Elements constituting the cinematic illusion – light, movement, time – are present even in his static art works. This feature can be detected as early as the late '60s, when Whitehead, still at (art school) London. Started to playfully experiment with a series of 'collages' on paper. These loose sets of images have a certain filmicness to them: they represent simultaneously numerous separate motifs without a fixed composition or a vantage point. The imagery, with both abstract and figurative and figurative elements, was fetched from the mass media, high art and popular culture of that time. These seemingly randomly constructed glimpses of vision or mental landscapes construct tiny snatches of narrative in the viewer's mind by implying dynamic movement, as if the work did not settle for staying still within one static frame, but strived to extend itself outside of the borders of the paper sheet.

The new French, Polish and Czech cinema and the American underground film, which were screened at the time at British Film Institute and the newly established London Film Makers' Co-Operative. Also left an indelible after-image on Whitehead's retinae. Instead of providing a straightforward stylistic or thematic impulse, they rather introduced a fresh way of dealing with moving image; a film without a narrative was something unseen in the mainstream cinema or television of that time. This novel way of seeing was not unlike the similarity fragmented, discontinuous or visual, film script-like writings of Ballard or Robbe-Grillet, which alongside the pulsating, highly eroticized city life of swinging London were a source of inspiration for the young art student. All these influences together prompted Whitehead to pursue some experiments of his own with an 8mm film camera – simple exercises in movement, shooting with different colour filters, image layering with in-camera superimpositions and both linear and non-linear story telling.

With the exception of a few filmed documentations of his Folding Performances (1971) – performances combining the artist's persistent fascination with patterns ritualistic behaviour and structural elements of forms and colours of objects – Whitehead took up filmmaking again 20 years after having settled in Finland and established himself in the local art scene as a masterly painter, draughtsman and photographer. This new interest in the moving image coincided with, and was fuelled by, the launch of Helsingin Elokuvapaja (H.E.P. – Helsinki Filmmakers' Co-op) in 1989. The collective workshop was set up by young visual artists, who were enthusiastically determined to start writing a new chapter – in fact only the second paragraph of the history book – of the almost nonexistent tradition of Finnish experimental film. For Whitehead, too, this provided a long-awaited possibility and platform for both production and screening of the work, as well as passionate discussions with kindred spirits around issues of avantgarde film and image in general.

Whitehead prefers film over video for its concrete and tactile working process and its specific quality and texture of light. Also in the case of Super-8 film, with which he shoots most of his work due to its roughness, its ability to include and convey flaws and imperfections. His first film produced at H.E.P., though, is rare experiment on 16mm. The highly contrasting, grainy black+white image in Personal Effects (1991) was here achieved by processing the film by hand. With mesmerizing imagery, the repetitive close-up of a pair of a woman's hands playing with a tiny tea set, modeling a bowl-shaped object out of clay, or caressing the skin to a smooth humming, Whitehead returns to the thematics of ritualistic behaviour triggered off by fetishistic images/objects of the everyday, a subject investigated also in his parallel diptychs combining charcoal drawings and time-lapse photographs.

The trait of political engagement comes clearly across in some of Whitehead's audiovisual works drawing from a documentaristic observation. For instance, the video installation Melt Down (1993), which connects to a larger series of works on photography and chalk drawings on the same theme, investigates the military aesthetic, its workings and deconstruction. Whitehead confronts us with a simple staged event, which leaves the viewer in ambiguous thoughts pending between pleasure and repugnance: as the orange coloured plastic soldiers melt gracefully in slow-motion to the gentle beat of ambient disco soundtrack, composed by Mikko Maasalo, we are reminded of both the horror of the heroism of war reportage or that depicted in classic sculpture. But Whitehead's war stills or miniature statues are moving, and as they give in to the heat, they mutate into unidentifiable, abstract forms, not unlike a modern sculpture, one of the most archetypal symbols of high culture.

The installation manifests a provocative ambiguousness similar to Whitehead's series of anti-military photographs depicting tiny toy soldiers in desperate, surreal situations; these images were published as free postcards available in cafes and bars in Helsinki throughout the latter part of the Ô 90s. The postcard project, one of the first of its kind in Finland, describes well WhiteheadÕs open approach in trying to reach out for larger audiences through unconventional media.

However, for Whitehead it would be too narrow a definition to be merely labeled as an artist dealing with cultural stereotypes and media representations. Concurrent with the media critical approach, there is a strain of more personal intimate work - visual poems, as the artist himself calls them. His use of the camera is organic, as if it were an extension to his body through which he is able to communicate his own presence and experience in response to what he sees. Whitehead takes his camera to his voyages throughout the world, from home to studio, he is an occasional flaneur, observing his surroundings through the camera eye according to his choice or a mere chance, following either aesthetic motivations, a movement, or a certain atmosphere – often in the case of an unexpected event in front of the viewfinder that he has filmed unintentionally.

These diary films could also be described as explorations in narration. However, they are not based on a written script. Instead, a certain situation, an event, or even a minute detail, is capable of raising attention. Often these observations entwine around people, human behaviour and relations, like in his film surf (1998), where he shoots the interaction of birds and couples in a park or on a beach. The originally independent events, which Whitehead rearranges according to his associative method, are juxtaposed with each other in order to study how the viewer's imagination constructs meaning out of these accidental occurrences, developing a whole range of sub narratives. Through this strategy, Whitehead last but not least investigates how the montage relates to our memory, i.e. how an image or a situation triggers or influences the selection of the next one.

Whitehead is interested in perception, the act of seeing – not in the tradition of pure abstract film or exploring sight as a physiological phenomenon, i.e. what the eye can retain, but rather, how one ends up making choices, how one's own expectations play a part in that process of scanning, and how these interact with pure chance. Intrigued by the interplay of spontaneity and control and by poetic connections instead of casual ones, Whitehead is exploring the multiple ways of cinematic narration. Methodologically his work resembles the films of Seppo Renvall, another Finnish filmmaker/photographer, whose work is often based on the principles of coincidence, imperfection and unpredictability in the course of the act of filming or developing process.

Combining different or even contradictory elements in his work, the material and the ephemeral, the conceptual and the allegorical, objective perception and personal viewpoint, and the static and the moving, the abstract and the narrative, Whitehead manages to visually expose the underlying structures of our society through the familiar or close-up detail. He productively oscillates between these polarities – the impressionistic and intuitive sketches of his personal experience, and the cool, intellectual investigations of structures governing our everyday environments.