On 17th November 2017, I was, like a moth, instantly attracted to the bright lights of the Bruce Nauman exhibition (Tate Modern). His work demanded the viewer to (literally) take a step back and consider the purpose and context of his work. Nauman's extensive and imaginative use of media transmits a multitude of different ideas simultaneously. It is clear that his previous studies in Mathematics and Physics informed his practice and are a domineering influence on his work. One piece which caught my attention was 'Violins, Violence, Silence' (1981).
Violins, Violence, Silence
The artwork itself was made of coloured neon tubing with a clear glass suspension frame. As the letters overlap, it is hard to initially distinguish what the piece is actually conveying, proving rather disorientating. Additionally, the buzzing noise which accompanies the piece (originating from the neon tubing) is somewhat distracting. However, it is ironic that while reading 'violins' evokes a pure and unpolluted noise, in reality you are faced with a low, droning buzz. I enjoy the irony of Nauman's work and the complex ideas which lie behind the lights. There is much more to this piece than is initially apparent and I hope that other visitors to the gallery take the time to consider its complexity.
Another piece in the exhibition which caught my attention was 'Raw Material Washing Hands'(1996). The video, which documents one individual washing their hands constantly for 55 minutes is difficult viewing. It is reminiscent of a person suffering from obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) in which the individual is performing a routine repeatedly, as though it were a ritual. The video becomes painful to watch as we see the individuals skin being overworked by the soap and water and I must admit that although the video runs for just under an hour, I watched it for no longer than 10 minutes.
Raw Material Washing Hands,
After seeing Nauman's work, it is clear that he questions and stretches the boundaries of what it is to make art. He has purposefully left behind traditional notions of 'fine art' and has distanced himself from paint as a medium.
THE ANGRY SILENCE
Whereas the Elephant Man, Victim, and, Sapphire, were films about discrimination based on physical deformity, sexuality and race, respectively, and beyond the control of that individual or those individuals, The Angry Silence, is a film where one man stands up alone against his works’ union’s unofficial strike and all his fellow workers ‘send him to Coventry’. The work ‘remains a fresh and urgent film’ (Walker, 2004: 35), and ‘its attitudes to trade unionism and industrial action are curiously contemporary’ (Parkinson, 2006: 57).
Directed by Guy Green, Bryan Forbes received the writer’s award for Best British Screenplay from BAFTA that year, 1960, and was nominated along with co-writers, Michael Craig and Richard Gregson, at the Academy Awards. Dilys Powell wrote: ‘A film made by people who care about the screen and care what they are saying on it’ (2004: 35). The film boasts a fine British cast in first-rate form, including Richard Attenborough (in the lead role of Tom Curtis), Michael Craig, Bernard Lee, Alfred Burke, Laurence Naismith and Geoffrey Keen. Italian actress, Pier Angeli, plays Attenborough’s distraught, pregnant wife, Anna. The film has a driven intensity about it that marks it out as something rather special. In the ‘Extras’ section on the DVD I watched, in an interview with Craig, he noted that the idea for the film came from the case he read about whilst working in York about a railway worker who, alone, continued to work during a wildcat strike and eventually committed suicide.
The film is a ‘strange mixture of melodramatic union-bashing and sharp penetrating observations on working-class life’ Murphy (2010: 38). The overall impression for me, at least, was one of sadness. Lee is excellent as the bully-boy foreman, Bert Connolly, taking his orders from a calculating activist, Travis, played by sharp featured Alfred Burke. The working-class mentality shines through and the sheep-like mentality is summed up when Alan Whittaker (a well-known real-life journalist and television presenter of the time) questions three Teddy boy workers about why they are striking. Whittaker notes that: “There’s something ugly in the air”, and there certainly is. If you don’t want to go along with the collective, if you want to be an individual, then the mass is against you, and violently so. It’s a ‘If a nail sticks up, knock it down again’ mentality. As Curtis says: “If people can’t be different, I mean if they take that away from you, there’s no point in any of it.” Interestingly, the film was, apparently, initially banned in Wales, where cinemas were, essentially, controlled by the unions, and it was only after Attenborough stepped in personally, with a private screening for the union bosses, that it was allowed to be shown. I think this episode, if true, speaks volumes about the unions.
Keen plays the works’ manager, Davis, caught between the owner, Martindale, played by Naismith, who doesn’t care if Curtis works for him or not so long as the men get back to work to fulfil an order, and the workers. But things become more complicated once the newspapers get hold of the story, taking Curtis to the front pages on account of the discrimination he is facing. Curtis then becomes a problem for both sides of the dispute.
My only criticism of the film is the ending – after Curtis leaves his home for the last time – which, for me, forms a noticeable contrast with what has gone before, and which has a moral ‘we shouldn’t have been naughty boys’ come-uppence feel about it. What could have been a great film is thus reduced to a good film, in my opinion.
There are some fine quotes that fit well with my current practice that, although directed in a socio-political way, are equally relevant when speaking about the State, the Church, or attitudes to non-heterosexuality – in fact, anywhere where an individual wants to stand alone and exercise his free, democratic right. Such a quote, from Curtis, might be: “All I know is that they’re not talking to me. Nobody’s talking. I don’t know – they’re just scared I suppose … It don’t do to step out of line these days. We’re all so equal, we’re nothing.”
Murphy, R. (2010) Time Out Film Guide 2011. J. Pym (ed.) (Time Out Guides Ltd.).
Parkinson, D. (2006) The Angry Silence. In K. Fane-Saunders (ed.) Radio Times Guide to Films: 2007 (BBC Worldwide Ltd.).
Powell, D. (2004) Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).
Walker, J. (ed) (2004) Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).