> An essay in response to Melanie Manchot’s four recent London exhibitions

Katy Barron / An essay in response to Melanie Manchot’s four recent London exhibitions

November 2015

Strictly speaking this essay shouldn’t be published in Photomonitor as the works being considered are multi-channel video pieces. However Melanie Manchot’s practice has always moved between still and moving imagery and is framed through a strong photographic sensibility so we can legitimately consider these works within the context of contemporary photography. Manchot has shown four pieces in London this year, they are: Twelve – a multi-channel work filmed over two years that explores addiction and recovery; The Dream Collector – a five-channel piece made in Mexico City that captures the moments between sleeping and waking; 11/18 – a nine-part piece following a young girl over seven years through repeated minute-long films and finally The Gift (currently showing at Bloomberg Space until 19th December) an installation and multi-channel video that engages with ideas of materiality and value.

Each of these pieces is dependant upon Manchot’s engagement with her subjects – either for a few moments or over years, and it is this aspect of her practice that I wish to explore. Manchot feels a responsibility to all of those who appear in front of the camera and she ensures wherever possible that they are given the opportunity to see their contribution and feel ownership. Her authorial voice is distinctive in every piece, despite the fact that most of the footage is unedited. The conceptual framework behind each work is so strong and carefully considered that Manchot’s ideas encompass and support the content completely. I have had a number of conversations with her, searching for the correct terminology for the role of her subjects. There is no adequate word for this particular relationship and we settled upon contributors, although with misgivings.

The impetus behind Twelve was presented to Manchot some years ago, and the process of finding subjects who were suitable for the piece, and then working with them to establish how each of their filmed contributions would be made, was complex and challenging. Each of the twelve subjects were in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and Manchot spent the first 7 months of the project getting to know them before beginning discussions about how they might wish to express their stories for the camera. The resulting films take on a variety of forms, ranging from the abstracted repetition of a hand obsessively scrubbing a floor tile to a voiceover describing a deeply painful episode of addictive behaviour accompanied by a single take of a domestic night-time interior and a window through which we see dawn breaking. Manchot has explained that it was important that she allowed the contributors input over the nature of their piece and she gave them complete, unedited, authorship of the content.

The resulting films appear carefully controlled in both their visual complexity and emotional depth. In each scene Manchot references a different feature film that centres on addiction, violence and obsessive behaviour by directors such as Gus van Sant and Michael Haneke. These cinematic parallels can be found on the Twelve website. These references, subtle in the extreme, give the piece added intellectual scaffolding and critical legitimacy, although it could be argued that the content of Twelve is so visceral that the emotional impact of the individual contributions far outweighs any intellectual pleasure that the viewer might gain in spotting the film quotations. Inevitably Manchot developed significant relationships with most of her contributors in Twelve and she continues to be involved in their lives. Many of the collaborators acknowledge the huge therapeutic benefits that arose from their participation in the project and one of them has gone on to study drama. However that was not Manchot’s intention and the piece does not feel like ‘art therapy’ to the viewer, particularly within the art world context in which it is seen.

In The Dream Collector each of the subjects are filmed asleep outdoors in one of the parks and squares of Mexico City. The film captures the subject sleeping and then, a few moments after waking up, they are each asked to recount their dreams to the camera. The resulting film captures the transient, vulnerable state of the newly awakened subjects, all of whom are strangers to Manchot and her assistant. The encounter with each sleeper is brief but nonetheless intimate and in some cases the subjects become emotional as they recount their dreams. However Manchot assumes no responsibility for them beyond offering to send them the resulting film that she makes. Again, each stranger delivers unedited content for the camera but the resulting piece is presented in such a way that it belongs to the artist alone.

In the third piece, 11/18, Manchot presents a series of silent films, made on Super8 film of a young girl looking directly at the camera. The girl was filmed for a minute each month for seven years so each film is 12 minutes long, and they are shown together across a series of monitors of differing sizes and tonality. The sitter’s direct gaze and conscious engagement with the camera make sense when it is revealed that she is Manchot’s daughter. The piece encompasses the phases and changes that take place during her adolescent development and seem to capture her moods and ever-changing relationship between herself and the camera and with her mother. As a durational portrait it allows us to examine the similarities and changes of the sitter whilst also raising ideas around female body image in the age of the selfie. Above all 11/18 is a love poem – it was only completed the week before it went on exhibition at the ICA and Manchot’s daughter left home for university. In this case the relationship between Manchot and her subject seems to have been too close for words and it is up to the viewer to consider how she feels about her mother, and being repeatedly filmed, from the way that she presents herself to the camera. Manchot describes the piece as a self-portrait of her daughter but also of herself. She explains how her daughter committed to the project at the age of 11 and that the way her daughter engages with the camera, be it sideways on or behind a curtain of hair, was completely her own. The intimacy of the work, a testament to the trust between mother and daughter, once again blurs the boundaries between artist and subject.

Currently on view at Bloomberg Space, The Gift considers materiality and the function of objects in the digital age within the context of the history and culture of The City of London. For the first part of the piece Manchot engaged with three groups who each work in The City but outside of the financial industry – tailors, gardeners and music students. All creative, the groups are dependant upon the financial power of the Corporation of London for their funding or custom but are distanced from the abstracted practises of the Square Mile. Manchot encouraged the groups to each create an archaeology of their profession through a selection of representative objects. These are presented on elegant plinths within the exhibition space, imitating goods at a luxury trade fair. The objects range from tailors’ chalk, to a Wii remote to a small nest – each one has been used and cherished by its owners or makers. A series of black and white portraits of the creatives are presented on a nearby wall as if headshots or employee records.

The second part of the exhibition is a 4-channel video screen that broadcasts a debate, filmed in Bloomberg’s TV suite above, about the role and significance of material culture within contemporary life. Below the video screens an assortment of objects chosen by the tailors, gardeners and music students, moves slowly past on a conveyor belt. Whilst the filmed debate focuses on ideas about materiality, particularly within the context of the digital age, the mundane objects below seem to reference humorous game shows of the past as if to challenge the erudite conversations that take place above them. Chaired by Miranda Sawyer, the debate takes place between Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum; Susanne Kuechler, Professor of Anthropology and Material Culture at University College London; and Roger Robson, Forensic Advisor and Managing Director of Forensic Access. Although Manchot guided Sawyer as to the topics to be discussed, the conversation is unscripted and free-flowing. The unedited debate was filmed in one take by six cameras so that the film has a ‘live’ newscast feel and the viewer becomes the studio audience.

Manchot’s engagement with the creatives in The Gift took place over an extended period of time as she came to know them and understand their work. In contrast the three debaters were almost unknown to her and act almost as ‘talking heads’ – allowing the audience to appreciate the significance of the mundane objects on the conveyor belt and therefore of those that make and use them. It is no coincidence that the piece is presented within the context of the world’s financial capital where appreciation of traditional skills and creativity might be ignored in favour of abstract financial gain.

Manchot has developed a practice that is deliberately reliant upon the contributions of others. This demands bravery and faith from her, both in her subjects’ ability, and the eventual outcomes of her work. The works discussed here are each connected through the thread of Manchot’s fascination with her subjects and the responsibility she feels towards them and the narratives that she asks them to share.

– text by Katy Barron



For further viewing:

The Gift continues at Bloomberg Space until December 19, 2015.