Hanna Johansson. Ph.D Postdoctoral Researcher, Academy of Finland
A woman and a man are running across a steel bridge towards the viewer, towards the camera. At the far end of the tunnel, the woman breaks free of the man. She is laughing as she runs. The man catches up with her and puts his arm around her shoulders, takes her in his arms, and the scene ends. In the next scene, the camera is moving in foggy countryside, in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse. The camera pans across the walls and broken roofs of the old stone houses, finally centring on an open door. The lovers who had been running on the bridge step inside.
This black-and-white film from 1970 is a good introduction to the early years of the cinematic production of Oliver Whitehead (1947 -). The artist finds himself in London, studying at an innovative art school that offers students an opportunity to try their hand at film-making. The setting in Weatherman is an everyday environment, the foggy English countryside, where the man and the woman have fled to escape the harsh structures of the modern city. The auteur's style nevertheless alludes less to the insular nation than to continental Europe and the French New Wave cinema.
The opening scene of the film is an allusion to Francois Truffaut's "hymn to love and life", the film Jules and Jim (1962) and its famous scene on the bridge, which helps the viewer identify with the plot of Whitehead's short silent piece. Falling in love and wilting, space and fog, all these things commingle in the film dedicated to feelings. That the opening scene also reminds me of Richard Serra's Railroad Turnbridge (1976) and one of Robert Smithson's Monuments of Passaic (1967), celebrating a bridge over the Passaic River, indicates the broader aspects of Whitehead's production, his connections to both the tradition of the cinema and to contemporary and topical visual arts.
Whitehead's formative years as an artist were the 1960s. He moves fluidly from one medium to the next, from drawing to photography, moving images and painting. Weatherman too attests to his approach, combining media and genres and stretching their expressive possibilities. Although the film stylistically imitates the French New Wave, its author seems to be conscious also of cinematic aspirations that are considerably closer to his heart. In Weatherman, this is hinted at by the graininess of the images and the occasional apparent merging of the characters into the film stock itself.
Such traits characteristic of British experimental cinema were more prominent in the earlier Portrait (1968). On one level, Portrait is a study of a woman: her face, on another, of film: light, colour, movement and time. Whitehead wants to show the potential of film that is not based on a script, a narrative or a cinematic illusion. Yet Portrait is not an abstract film, because apart from the woman we also recognise branches and leaves of trees, urban settings, traffic, water, sky and reflected lights.
The final work is the result of mechanical manipulation and processes, such as double exposure, overexposure or coloured filters placed in front of the lens. In this sense, the work's connection to painting is obvious. It reassures the viewer that the work is an interpretation or production of reality, not a replication.
Oliver Whitehead was born, bred and educated in England, but he has lived in Finland since the 1970s. His cinematic production can be divided into two periods, the first of which dates from London in the late 1960s. After Whitehead moved to Finland, he did not make films for 20 years, only resuming in the early 1990s at the Helsinki Filmmakers' Co-op.
The first film he made at the Co-op was Personal Effects in 1991. It represents a departure from his other production, an intimate exploration that underlines the haptic qualities of film. Two years later, Melt Down (1993) sees Whitehead engaged in new cinematic issues and themes. The film depicts plastic toy soldiers. One by one the soldiers enter the frame, where we see them slowly melting into a shapeless pile. The ambient score composed by Mikko Maasalo is a parody of the effects of war movie soundtracks. The film can be seen as a comment on the Gulf War, in particular of the way soldiers and war are portrayed and produced in the media, for the needs of the entertainment industry.
The early film Cocola from 1968 belongs to the third characteristic strand in Whitehead's cinematic production, the road movie. Cocola takes the viewer on a bus tour through London. The camera wobbles and tilts, picking out as its subject the crowns of trees, women in ads, changing its tone and suddenly focusing on swimming children. Finally, we stay with a young travelling couple who have stopped on the outskirts of a town for a fag and a coke. Then the journey continues again, through flower gardens to the countryside, motorways and back to the town...
The three early films shown in this exhibition represent the roots of Oliver Whitehead's cinematic thinking, ramifications of which can be recognised as late as in the 2000s. For me, it is the combination of these traditions that makes Whitehead's film and video production such a distinctive body of work. Lyricism blends with the inherent material qualities of cinema, while the hand-held camera that focuses beyond the mainstream gaze onto marginal subjects produces surprising, sometimes even political, visual narrative.
Taken as a whole, Whitehead's films are a kind of road movie of the artist's own life. His films are short stories about different places in the world, European cities, Africa... The portable, hand-held camera allows Whitehead to record random events that come his way, pointing the camera at things beyond the sphere of the normative gaze. Sometimes the film embodies a literal counter-gaze, such as in Off Screen made in Senegal, where the gaze of the camera shows not only the passing landscape, but also gestures forbidding the photographing of the locals.
The camera's gaze is deflected, it goes astray and askew. It moves, shakes and jumps. But this disjointed gaze produces images that evade hackneyed ways of seeing and experiencing, creating alternative views of the world. The deflected gaze is admirably suited to all kinds of travelogues, such as bicycling in a city (Bike, 1999) or taking a ferry (Ferry, 1999). Whitehead's road movie finds its culmination in Mind's Eye (1999), where the camera records views from a train window on a commuter route from Kirkkonummi to Helsinki. In a voice-over, a woman’Äôs voice reads aloud from an English thesaurus words associated with creative thought. The words become juxtaposed with the merciless landscape of the urban periphery, making graffiti on concrete walls seem like cries of help for creativity.
The deflected gaze of the camera imparts an ambiguous feel to the films. On the one hand, the fuzzy, blurred, moving image is a sign of the author's choice, of his systematic intentionality and also of his own personal history as a film-maker.
On the other hand, the same gesture has in some cases developed so far that it questions the very intentionality of the author's intentions. This comes across in Bike (1999) and even more forcefully in Left On (2002), in which Whitehead visits a Cathedral, accidentally leaving on the camera slung over his shoulder. Even though the footage is the result of an accident, everything in the final work seems intentional, as if the artist had wanted to study visually the connections between architectural shapes and religious structures.
Perhaps because of his English background, Whitehead finds it natural to use moving images to investigate the political and even ideological construction of representation. The material tendency and the associated political ideas have been topical in British experimental cinema since the 1960s. The politics in Whitehead's films do not conform to the politics of British cinema, however, but are split in two ways, into themes and the cinematographic idiom.
In Whitehead's later work the subject matter comprises the structures and users of urban settings, such as Demo or Motorway from 2002. The visual idiom and the overlaid soundtrack give the works a politically slanted narrative dynamic. The meaning of the films, on the other hand, arises from the combination of cinematography, editing, repetition and thematic combinations. These have an inherent political dimension in the works in that they oppose the solutions typical of commercial cinema.
Oliver Whitehead shuns the idiom and illusion of conventional cinema. Instead, he uses the camera to lay bare mechanisms in the constructed environment that affect behaviour. He points the camera at joggers in a city (Run, 2002) or picks out steel structures in the urban space (Visual Violence, 1994), which not only open and force spatial choices, but also hem in and repress the city's users' opportunities for moving, thinking and acting. The soundtracks of his films are austere too. They consist of either ambient sounds recorded by the camera microphone, or simple rhythmic noise that accentuates the thematic intentions of the film without leading the viewer away from its topic or theme.
The visual material of Whitehead's films comes from his immediate surroundings. Instead of staging or building things or altering circumstances for his purposes, he selects the topics of his films from his own environment. As a result, his works show, but also interpret, our shared reality. In its simplicity, A Yard Full of Books (1994) is a brilliant example of this cinematic gaze. The author's attention is drawn accidentally to the house seen from the window of his studio, its attic being emptied. The work shows us an invisible hand throwing books out of a window on the top floor of a tall building and dropping somewhere below. Books are thrown out again and again. The gesture of throwing acquires a symbolic meaning in Whitehead's film, with words, thoughts, emotions, events and experiences, all being thrown out at the same time, as if there was no longer any room for such human notions. The gesture of throwing becomes a sign of social indifference.