Saturday 24 April 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies: With Darren Nixon

In March I did a small collaboration with artist Darren Nixon based on the recent photo and video work I've been doing. Darren's work is a sublime mix of colour, shape and composition that uses painting as a springboard for investigation. He says, 'Although painting is the language at the root of what I do, I am interested in how it mingles with film, photography, sculpture, animation, sound, music and movement'.

For this work Darren was intrigued by the images and footage I'd been shooting about lockdown anxiety inspired by vintage Hollywood and wanted to see what would happen when they were handled in different ways by another person.

Usually Darren's paintings would be the starting point of his collaborations with other creatives, but here it was my work, which I think was very unusual for both of us.

It's fair to say that Darren and I have completely different ways of working and thinking; whereas I am fascinated by the figurative and narrative he is interested in shape and construct and trying to create an understanding of the whole. All imagery in this post is the result of mixing Darren's and my own ideas.

To begin our collaboration I sent him what I would call 'the stuff I decided not to use' from my own work; Video clips that I didn't like and couldn't make work and images from shoots that didn't hit the mark. I had no clue what he would make of them or what he could do with them, seeing no value in them myself.

The first thing he sent back to me was a video clip, 'Gemma 1-1'. I was confronted by a zoomed in version of my reflection but layered several times and filtered with colour. 

I had earlier made a tentative start at playing with mirrors and filming myself but had found the process difficult and the result unsatisfying. Here however the video had a new feel and somehow looked more complete and he totally understood my aim to create a feeling of discomfort and unease while keeping an aesthetic of glamour.


What I really liked was that he had given the imagery the same treatment he would one of his paintings. Framing, cropping and putting holes in it almost as if it was a piece of board to be moved, shaped or painted as was seen fit. I would never have done this.

I then asked if he could do some literal mirrored effects on the same video and again I really liked how he turned the work into something else. Having me glance sideways fervently at myself at different speeds was so simple yet effective.

I suggested filming into a mirror again for Darren to try some more ideas out. I'd recently watched more mirror themed 1940's films (Dark Mirror and Corridor of Mirrors) and was very inspired to try and capture something about isolation and anxiety using my reflection (see my last post to find out more about this shoot)

It was important to me to set the feel of the imagery by referencing the era, so I spent a whole morning setting my hair with a 1940's curling pattern. I was really pleased with the result and it helped me to frame myself within the mirror from different angles. Even when I wasn't sure what to do, the style did a lot of the speaking for me telling it's own story.
Interestingly, that is what also stood out to Darren. Of the shots I took of just the back of my head he said, 'The way the light plays on the waves of hair almost acts out its own drama...
There is something sexual but also full of anxiety and maybe dread in that image'

In line with this, a whole section of video where just my hair was reflected into the mirror was slowed down to almost stillness. An infinitesimal movement as I barely moved my head to one side. I really liked this and it inspired other slow subtle movements in other videos I've since tried out (see last post)

Layering of clips or side by sides (as with the film still here and above) were also a really good way of seeing my work in a new way and giving it a new and unexpected narrative. I like how a simple grouping of similar clips when put together can create something that looks almost planned and as Darren put it,  'communicate with each other in small quiet ways'

For me, this quick collaboration was a way to explore the possibilities of making video artwork. I am so new to it and still finding my way around the technology. I've made a wobbly start at playing with Premiere thanks to Darren taking the time to walk me through the basics and in time I'd like to play some more and try to make some complete videos (currently I have no access to using Premiere properly)
It's also taught me some of what will and won't work when it comes to certain effects and how to think about what I want to get across through a moving image. Seeing my work through someone else's eyes was exciting. It reminded me that one idea is potentially the opening to a hall of mirrors that bounces around more ideas in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Camp and theatrics are important to me, whereas Darren likes what the smallness of a movement can tell us. Somewhere in the middle through this project we have found a way to communicate both. What I also like is that Darren's work is often, although I'm not sure if it's his intention, very attractive and decorative, and this complemented my own aesthetic.

Since editing moving image isn't currently an option I've been applying the feelings some of this collaborative work has given me to photos, experimenting with layering and reflecting images to create new and evocative moments and I'm enjoying trying this out.

For Darren this project was an interesting opportunity to work with someone else's footage. 'Normally if I am working with my own stuff I have to invest all of the footage with anything it is going to have. But {Gemma's work} arrived so full of richness and ideas...all I had to do was watch the stuff {she} sent and listen to what it told me'. This made decision making so much easier and made Darren think about how to make his own voice clearer in the things he films for his own practice.
'Our work is so obviously hugely different to each others so it was really nice to just work with a completely different visual, There are so many themes and moods in {Gemma's} work that I would not even be able to think about touching so it was really interesting to think about those ideas and how to play with them'.
To see more about Darren's work from my past posts take a look HERE and check out his Instagram to find out the latest about his practice.

Saturday 3 April 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies: Mirrors

Something I've noticed while watching the films of the Forties is that mirrors are often used as devices to show the leading ladies inner thoughts, turmoil and unease. In films such as Gaslight we see the character of the wife driven to near madness by her manipulative husband reflected in her music box, her slip into despair shown upside down and distorted. In Possessed, Joan Crawford's portrayal of the hallucinating Louise is shown as several images in the same shot, reflected in her dressing table mirror, and Rita Hayworth is shown in a multitude of false and real mirrored images in a hall of mirrors revealing her duplicitous nature in The Lady from Shanghai.

I began to play with mirrors and reflections in my own work as I figure out my feelings of lockdown/ Covid anxiety and unease using classic movies as inspiration. The first thing I realised was that shooting with mirrors is really difficult when you don't have much room or designated space. Trying to get the reflection I wanted in the mirror and the camera isn't easy. A lot of the time I got unwanted furniture, fridges, cat food bowls, and even the camera itself either shown in the mirror or behind it, so setting up took some time. Here's an early try out where having sections of the room in the mirror really limited what I could shoot, especially as I was holding the mirror at the same time. I do like how there is an unspoken story in this image though.

Eventually I hung the mirror on a plain wall where the reflection was plain too and this made taking the images much easier, though as it was on a landing, I didn't have much space to move. I played with having myself and the reflection in shot and just my refection which in this set up worked much better.

This really created an otherworldly feeling of being trapped or separate from the real world. Not knowing what to do in the mirror, a lot of the time I just stood still and looked straight ahead. Or as in this case turned my back on it completely, adding another layer of separation from the viewer. There's a mysterious element to not seeing a person's face that leaves you feeling unresolved. I also like how my 1940's set hair looks quite sculptural and is what really 'makes' this image.

Lighting was also tricky because, using the limited sources I have at home, I was trying to light myself but then looking into the mirror the reflected me could look lit in a totally different way. That's when I started to experiment with a smaller handheld mirror. This way I could move about to get the best light, but it also gave the images a new feeling. I tried a few videos using both mirrors trying out simple movements and looking into the mirror and at the viewer through the mirror.

On a different day I played with the handheld mirror, moving it around my face while being filmed and photographed from the front. I was able to have set lighting this way and I really liked how the reflections and light changed as I moved the mirror. I moved very slowly and then slowed the video down even more to play with anticipation of seeing the face change in the mirror. I'm not sure if this worked but I enjoyed the aesthetic and creating this piece.

Behind the glamour there is always a lot of faffing and retaking shots. I like that in a way, these images in themselves are a manipulated version of reality existing in an alternative world, a reflection of my mind during the pandemic.