Last night I went to the celebration of the life and work of Tamara Krikorian and Tony Sinden at Tate Modern’s Starr Auditorium. The event was a tribute to two pioneering UK based video artists who died earlier this year; among other things, Krikorian also played a major role in setting up London Video Arts. Unfortunately, I find Krikorian’s work boring, and neither the talks about her nor the screening of her 1977 video Vanitas did much for me. In Vanitas, Krikorian stands in front of a mirror with a TV and many other objects reflected in it, the audio cuts between the artist talking about art and TV news reports. It is an understatement to say this failed to rivet me.
Tony Sinden wasn’t afraid to experiment, and I find his work hit and miss, but went it hits it nails me to the floor. The first screening last night was This Surface (1973) by David Hall and Tony Sinden. The 12 minute short kicks off with a pub scene: a right tasty geezer with a not quite full pint of beer balanced on his head dances, while guys and gals in groovy flares and sporting fabulous seventies hairdos look on in disbelief. As the dance goes on the reveller tilts his head further and further to one side in order to keep the beer balanced on top. The soundtrack is Mouldy Old Dough by Lieutenant Pigeon. After this, the film cuts to a tracking shot looking out to sea and moving from the east towards the Palace Pier on Brighton Beach. The words ‘this surface’ is written in marker pen on either the camera lens or some plate glass in front of it. The camera movement creates the impression the viewer is on one of the mini-railways that were a common feature of British seaside resorts in the 1960s and 1970s.
This Surface runs through various fragments of text relating to filming, cameras and cine-projection; both ‘interrupting’ the filmed ‘scenery’, and as ‘subtitles’. Having not quite reached the Palace Pier, the camera jump cuts to a reverse shot, and facing inland we trundle past the various boat houses and sheds located immediately beneath Marine Parade as we head back east. Next comes another jump cut to what looks like Western Road, and the camera tracks west to east along the shops immediately north of what is now Churchill Square. The next cut apparently takes us back to the seafront, and a static shot shows a Pit and The Pendulum type scenario, with a blade swinging over the body of a human dummy (displayed in the window of one of the many seaside attractions). Finally the action cuts back to the man dancing with a glass of beer on his head (still to Lieutenant Pigeon), but shot from a different angle to the scene that kicks off This Surface.
One of the things I find curious about Sinden’s work is the chance serendipities that can sometimes really enhance its effects. In the case of this particular collaboration with Hall, the setting is for me an example of this. Although I’ve never lived in Brighton, I know the town well, and as a child in the sixties and early seventies I’d be taken on day trips to Brighton Beach in the summer. Thus This Surface is jolting for me, because once the text is stripped away from it, it could almost be my own memories. Likewise, Mouldy Old Dough was a huge hit when I was a nipper, and takes me right back 1972. Sitting immediately behind me was currently London based but north American raised artist S. E Barnet. She told me afterwards she’d never heard the tune before, so although she found it striking, it had no associations for her; and I assume she doesn’t have childhood memories of Brighton in the early seventies which render This Surface even more strangely familiar to me. S. E. was obviously as grooved by the short as I was, but given it carried for her few of the associations it held for me, was she watching the same movie?
The other highlight of the night was David Cunningham (a former member of seventies one-hit wonder band/collective Flying Lizards), Rob Gawthop, and Alan Baker, performing a 1977 sound piece from Sinden’s Functional Action series. They each rubbed a couple of pots together and the resulting music was a groove sensation! The Functional Action series is where my fascination with Sinden began. I was vaguely aware of his video installations when in mid-eighties London I was doing something or other with a gallery (possibly Chisenhale in Bow) and I came across a pile of his album Functional Action Parts 2 & 3: Swing Guitars/Drift Guitars (Piano, 1980). Asking why the albums were leaning against a wall with rubbish piled up beside them, I was told the gallery were throwing them out and if I wanted the record I was welcome to take one. When I got the vinyl home and played it, I thought one side was fabulous and the other dreadful. After that I paid attention whenever I came across Sinden’s name.
Last night the Tate Modern was filled with Sinden and Krikorian’s friends and colleagues, who were paying tribute to them. It would be nice to see parts of Sinden’s Functional Action series and 16mm collaborations with David Hall reaching a new and younger audience. I trust that will happened in due course, with the best of his film and music reissued in appropriate formats. Despite an at times understandably sombre tone, the Tate tribute nonetheless provided a very useful overview of Sinden’s creative endeavours. Minimalism and conceptualism can rock, you just have to do it right!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!