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On Overgrown Paths Ben Rivers


Introduction

On Overgrown Paths presents three films by Ben Rivers installed across two sites: Permanent Gallery, Brighton, and The Regency Town House, Hove. The films at The Regency Town House, Origin of the Species and This is My Land, are unique portraits of two inhabitants of the Scottish wilds whose means of survival relies solely upon personally evolved strategies for living off the land. The film at Permanent Gallery, Sørdal, was made in Hamoroy, Norway. Rivers found the location while searching for a person who might embody a character from a Knut Hamsun novel, from whose book the title of the exhibition was taken. Hamsun was an advocate of the principles that the subjects of Rivers’ films abide by. However, Hamsun’s life story, which is tainted with allegations of Third Reich sympathising, provides an example of the political misappropriation associated with ‘the return to nature.’ Rivers’ introduction of the figure of Hamsun adds complexity to the position which his films occupy, forming a conflicting relationship to the compelling lives which the subjects have established. Rivers’ interest lies not only in the subjects of his films but also in the way in which film can aptly portray their worlds. This concern heightens Rivers’ attention to the particular sounds, textures and architecture within the scenes he is recording, and leads him to bring in echoes of techniques from early film making, present as a by-product of Rivers’ acute sensibility for using celluloid as a medium, and his self-awareness of the act of film-making. On Overgrown Paths is a touring exhibition developed in collaboration with Measure. Origin of the Species was commissioned by Film London Artists Moving Image Network, Sørdal was commissioned by Arts Council England, South East.

Sørdal - 8min, 16mm, 2008


Bricolage ecologies: The recent films of Ben Rivers By Mark Waugh

It would be too easy to start this reflection on the body of film-works by Ben Rivers by simply stating the obvious. This is My Land is not quite like This is England. But in fact they are not as far apart as you might think. While Shane Meadows has captured the style and vernacular of an England that has passed into fashion mythology; Ben Rivers recent works including, This is My Land, Origin of Species, Ah Liberty! and Sørdal capture life inhabiting the dreams of the late 60s and 70s. Rural utopias offering the subconscious polarity to the urban dystopias populated by skinheads and other cults of defiance. Lets not dwell on the superficial but hold that notion of defiance as a gesture which positions individuals within a certain cultural or historical milieu. A gesture as simple as using a wind up Bolex when everyone else has migrated on to high definition video for example. Or more pertinently living self sufficiently in a landscape that is defined by your philosophy. It is into these bricolage ecologies three unique recent works by Ben Rivers immerse the viewer. Their genesis began with an obsession with the writings of Knut Hamsun. Rivers suggests that, “Many of his books focused on individuals choosing to live out in the wilderness – often people who had had a taste of urban society and yearned for something more solitary.” Of these works the most enigmatic is the almost empty silent film, Sørdal. In 2007 Rivers made his second quest into the wilderness of the Arctic Circle, to Hamoroy, where Hamsun spent much of his youth. While there he searched for a character to mirror those in the writings but locals had no strong suggestions until a teacher drew a map to an abandoned film set, built in the late 1970s for a film adaptation of one of Hamsun’s novels. This seemed incredibly fortuitous so Rivers made his way there, hiking miles with all his gear from the nearest place to park the car. Down in a valley facing out to sea he found the eerie group of buildings, where he camped through a storm, listening out through the torrent in the night for bears, and made a film where the solitary person is the unseen one behind the camera. The other films in the collection have a deceptively straight format. Documentation of a suite of characters that live either alone or with their families in ‘harmony with nature’. THAT THIS HARMONY IS DESTROYED BY THEIR MACHINES AND POLLUTION is part of the gentle paradox of these works. Rather than making judgment the viewer is invited to quietly observe and indeed fall into a universe of primitive awe. If you wait long enough you

might find how to grow a hedge slowly using the fertile droppings of birds or evaluate the veracity of Darwin’s scientific observations. “You can’t imagine nothing. You can’t imagine no time” A voice declares from the depth-less surface of the opening frames of The Origin of the Species. Then laughs as the poetic calamity of our vulnerable subjectivity is revealed. Each work is a singular portrait using only occasional words of their subjects to signify the intensity of their worlds. They offer a collective resistance to consumer driven lifestyles. Sounds collected at each location amplify the collisions of historical epochs. Bluegrass and Hendrix tumble across the horizon as daily chores are undertaken and animals wonder about their business. This is not documentary this is scenic metamorphosis. From one edit to the next the season changes and flowers are hidden beneath a carpet of snow. We are in the slow time of Bruegel’s landscapes. The figures have their own uncanny logic which resists interpretation. They celebrate the disappearance of matter claiming rust in the garden provides minerals that are good for something. We hear the crunch of snow underfoot and are nothing but machines for watching time pass. The image flickers on our retina and causes us nothing but trouble. Time is the glue that binds the edits and our temporal logic. Regardless of the medium the moving image has been a giant leap into the void of perception. It has taught us the order of things and the work of the imagination is in the spaces in-between. The world is polluted with beautiful images of destruction and entropy. The exploration of cinema as medium of time travel is at the heart of Ben Rivers’ work. In the psychic return to an elaborate universe made up of imaginary possibility, a playful time of endless games, the time of fairytales and life at the edge of the great forest. At the centre of the forest is a philosopher observing the world. “If you were in a wood and the tree fell down would it make a noise, Of course it would but not in the world of quantum Physics. Everything is contradictory!” This is the image crystalising, the temporality of the idea manifesting itself as the world is represented before us. The theory of Darwin. The philosophy of evolution through mutation. The slow granular metaphysics of materialism, the fluid velocity of rocks eroding while mutations of light flash past. There is a man in the wood and he lives between the trees. He is one of the hermits that Rivers has been spending time with over the last few years. A project that is a documentary series and a eulogy and evocation of a dream of the wilderness. The post apocalyptic hallucinogenic world beyond the noise of the market place.


In this universe the night sky is filled with thunder and lightning, the rain falls and figures appear. Piles of debris burn and everything is in its place and yet spliced from elsewhere. This is no reality but a dream forced through the gate with alchemical precision to precipitate a dreamlike similitude of the world before cinema. These explorations follow earlier works such as We The People (2004), Hyrcynium Wood (2005) and House (2007) which appear to show real worlds but are in fact sculptural objects animated by sound and granular disintegration of the image through an over exposure to light or subsumed in its black absence. House is a universe of malevolent horrors that haunt the stage of cinema. Double exposures and interlaced acoustics lead us into spectral space, a dimension across which we travel with trepidation and anxiety of what is to come. These interiorities are presented as exterior impressions - evacuations of a cinema we have inhabited. The sounds of the film in the gate signifies the demise of the medium and the ascendancy of video and the digital edit. Film hermetically captures the temporal distribution of light in the world and enhances our perception. The world is perceived as a chaotic laboratory. Hermits and those who extract themselves from the images and urban behaviours of Disneyland are glimpsed as if the world is over already. In Ah Liberty! the physical universe is littered with old Landrovers and other things that might harm you. ‘Feelings, impressions of well being’ protect us from horror and fetish masks made from dead sheep frighten us in our seats. An old cart or a car without a bonnet, whatever is at hand becomes a tool for exploring the manifold of experience. It was cinema which was the most prophetic of Victorian visions. A weapon to capture absent spirits and kill the notion of the real forever. Cinema retuned culture to its ritualistic mediation of death. A gun rings in the wild and an animal is felled. Like a folly of Gothic baroque the wilderness calls to us across the mis en abyme of post modernity. There is no truth to know here only a fairytale affirmation of the negation of the universe as the sun sets apocalyptically. FUCK YOU it is beautiful here isn’t it?

Mark Waugh is Executive Director of A Foundation and author of Bubble Entendre forthcoming novel from the Bookworks Semina series.

Origin of the Species - 16min, 16mm, 2008


This Is My Land: Transcript

“I was telling folk, if you want to put up a hedge but you’re not in a big hurry, hang up a line of bird feeders on sticks or something, and when the birds come there they’ll be shitting out seeds from the last berries that they ate…so they’ll be shitting out rose seeds from the rose hips they ate, and rowan seeds from the rowan berries they’ve eaten, and bramble seeds and that…and eventually you’ll get a line of shrubs, growing along the line where you put up the bird feeders, that’s it.” “Do that later…I’m not sure how to get the thing up under, cos it’ll go under there but it’ll mean fuckin around with this somehow.” “Six pulls with the choke, and two pulls without the choke…magic formula……oh it’s ahead of schedule!” “Oh oh, what fun what fun!” “Tea break?” “Hello…hello hello how you doing?” “It must be getting iron from somewhere…so I started composting tin cans, you know beans tins and that…just kind of battering them flat putting them into a compost heap, in a kind of mitten that I wasn’t going to be dig wasn’t going to be like turning every few months like they do like gardening programmes do with compost heaps…compost heaps might be sitting there for five years or ten years or something…and when you do poke into it you find the remains of the tins you find if there’s been a ring-pull on it, you still find that or the kind of ring round top and the wee ring round bottom…you find that, and you find some wee shreds of metal but even as you pick it up its kind of falling apart, you know and it just disappears, it’s like wee flakes of rusty iron apart from the bits in…so I’ve just been putting any kind of junk that I can into the garden, but then thinking it’s bound to have some kind of mineral or something in it that some good for something.” “Well, I’m inside the house, smokes outside the house, that’s the way, that’s the way we think about these things isn’t it?” “That’s…starting from the wrong end, if you’re worried about like there might be a wee bit of…cadmium or something in some kind of…old film or, whatever kind of thing you’d thrown away, that compared to the amount of good stuff that’s in it…that everything, the whole world’s polluted up to some sort of point you know, if what you’re breathing defeats the…” “Cheerio…cheerio then, all the best.” This Is My Land - 14min, 16mm, 2006


Origin Of The Species: Transcript

“Say when did the universe start? Well, it started with the Big Bang…and what was there before the Big Bang..? Nothing…you can’t imagine nothing… no time…you can’t imagine no time.” “I always had a burning curiosity, and…evolution’s been my bag for an awful long time…and I was fortunate, you know I’d be…I’d be working up in the hills, up in the woods, cutting down trees and stuff like that, and I was right with nature all the time…and, everything that I saw that was strange and different and things like that, I just automatically…it just begged a question, you know, how come it’s like this? How did it get like this? And the thing that’ll…amaze you, Ben is…the time. It has taken so very very long, you know time has been around for an awful long time…even 3.8 billion years they say for life to be on Earth…and, an awful awful lot happens in 3.8 billion years…and some things happen very very slowly, and yet other times, things happen very fast…like for instance, man’s brain, it evolved very quick, and it’s all, it’s just trouble, there’s just trouble.” “I just, I don’t know what’s going to happen…I can’t see the world surviving, unless there’s some awful disease or something wipes man out. But Charles Darwin was pondering, just in the Descent of Man, he’s just pondering the beginnings of the early days of Earth…he says before man come along, it just looked as if the world was waiting for man to come along…because here was a beautiful amazing world, turning on itself, and there was no audience, there was nobody here to see it, there was nobody here to… appreciate it…because other animals are quite happy and stuff like that but they can’t ponder the meaning of life, or the meaning of the world or anything like that.” “What is it? If it’s moving…or it can be standing still or moving at the same time or something like that…and Sneuder’s Cat, or whatever you call him, it could be living and dead at the same time…and some things are only there if we observe them… You see and when I was a kid, well a teenager, something like that, and you used to say, these philosophers say, if you was in the woods…and it was just shite at that time, but it’s come to be true now, if you was in the woods and a tree fell down and it made this loud noise, if you were’ne there would that tree made a noise? Would it have made a noise? Of course it would…but now when you read this quantum physics… it could make a noise and it could not make a noise…it does’ne make sense, and er, everything’s really contradictory.”

“Some things didn’t really matter, you know, some mutations didn’t matter all that much…and they were neither beneficial to survival nor detrimental to survival…but if they just hung on, there’d come a time when there was probably a time when that was the thing that saved the day.” “And some of the things that are just so very very subtle, they can change the whole…whole existence of a species or something like that…and it’s something so just very very subtle, very small, yeh.”


This booklet is published by Permanent Gallery on the occasion of On Overgrown Paths, an exhibition by Ben Rivers, 15th November - 14th December 2008 at Permanent Gallery and The Regency Town House.

Thank you to: Tim Brown, Nick Collins, Chris and Nicky Cox, Terry and Liz Day, Gemma Gore, Stuart Grant, Paul Harnden, Knut Erik Høiby, Charlotte Holtam, Anna Krzysztof, David Leister, Simon Newby, Joe Pepper, Martin Sawyer, Nick Tyson, Len Thornton, Jake Williams, Yuki Yamamoto Front cover, back cover and centre pages: Origin of the Species - 16min, 16mm, 2008 Opposite: Dream Shacks numbers 1-8 - pen on paper, each 210 x 295mm, 2008 All images copyright of Ben Rivers, November 2008

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On Overgrown Paths, Ben Rivers  

A publication to accompany On Overgrown Paths by Ben Rivers, produced by Measure and Permenant Gallery, Brighton in 2008.

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