NOTHING’S A BLANK CANVAS, ANYHOW
Runa Islam is a British artist of Bangladeshi origin, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, 2008. Her film-based works, with influences of the likes of Jean-Luc Godard et al, have been exhibited in international venues, including Venice Biennale. This essay is adapted from a text sequel to Naeem Mohaiemen’s Dear Runa, I Found Your Props (photography-based response to Runa’s First Day of Spring), commissioned for Runa's Lost Cinema Lost catalogue.
Runa Islam unspools generously open work onto walls and screens and surfaces– which is never to be confused with blank pages. Here there are no empty signifiers that can become artworld Muzak. Instead her celluloid moments mesh with the habitat of dark science fiction. Deliberately slicing away at the safety of context, she sets me in a drifting mood– in the end it could be anywhere, anytime. But not quite anything, specificity still remains.
A player's deck of visual honey traps: anachronistic cable car with nebulous destination [Time Lines, 2005], Pink Floyd-hangover school corridors embedded with doomed possibility [Conditional Probability, 2006], delicate china and a protagonist's tipping point [Be The First To See What You See As You See It, 2004], spinning ring with dead-end trajectory [Dead Time, 2000], reversed image mistaken identity moment
[Stare Out (Blink), 1998], and insouciant maids living out the Goldilocks myth when you’re not looking [Room Service, 2001]. In conversation, she tells me about the erratic adventures of a batch of Super 8 film reel that refuses to cooperate in imprinting the image she has in mind– whether in Dhaka, Bangladesh (the camera broke) or Lamu, Kenya (the light meter battery went missing). Finally, when the equipment gremlins were tired of playing with her, the reels were resurrected for her new Venetian project– unused film stock as the ultimate tabula rasa.
With unhurried perfection Runa has taken certain theatrical moments as her starting point. Fassbinder’s 360 tracking shot of marriage as claustrophobic animal cage [Martha exploded for Tuin, 1998], Michael Caine’s nasty business in the Brutalist dystopia of Gateshead parking lot [Get Carter nested inside Scale (1/16 inch = 1 foot), 2003], Bergman’s reluctant, now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t, muse [How Far to Faro, 2004 and What Is A Thought Experiment, Anyhow, 2005-06], and Sam Shepard’s marriage elegy rehearsed to imperfection [Director's Cut (Fool for Love), 2001]. Just as Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene xerox of Psycho was more genre implosion than homage, so too Runa's work is much more than references to her private inspirations. The films function as jumping off pointsñ rooftops from which she floats away into some kind of unpredictable. Points of departure, hooks to hang your coat on as you walk into a room.
Knowing these references is not mandatory to begin a viewing of Runa’s work. But an interest in blind spots can help set the stage. Tying it all together is a commitment to stories about the overlooked fringe– of vision and life. From the rubbish pile in front of her London flat [Refuse/Refuge, 1996] to the melancholy codec of the Venetian flower sellers [Merchants of Venice, 2007]– solitary icons adrift in search of meaning. Hidden in plain sight, shadows and peripheries lit until the vanishing point. Not written out of the script, but adjusted for. Advance slowly and be rewarded with visions, or hallucinations.
Runa's desire to penetrate the fourth wall leads her to pull back and reveal. Some marionettes and a mess of marionette strings. People she meets, conversations she has, books she discovers, rooms she walks into, accidents that happen on set– all of this feeds into her filmed universe. Her delicately worded description of a model that becomes larger than the real fleshes out the on-screen story. During a research trip to Gateshead and the Get Carter car park, she discovers the original architect’s maquette at Baltic Arts Centre (recovered from a council cupboard). Other snaking lines of inquiry lead her to the architect, who reveals why the top floor restaurant is still unfinished. Bringing imagination models into the orbit of rough reality, Runa built a 'set' of the restaurant and requested the architect to have a first supper. After he declined the invitation, she improvised with actors and extras. Among the believers were two old men who had also been extras in the original 1971 film. Closure through a mad moebius strip - each door leading into blind alleys or exits.
Refuse/Refuge crystalized Runa’s formal explorations around the periphery-margin. Six hundred transparencies arrayed as a calendar, spanning a year of photographing a rubbish heap in front of her flat. Spend some time with the series and battling micro-narratives spring up. 'You know it's been Christmas, when you start seeing the Christmas trees piling up,' she told me. Christmas? To each her own reference, I hadn’t noticed the trees at all. I had been too obsessed with this: who the hell owns that red car that always gets parking in the same spot? (spend any time living in Brooklyn and you develop this obsession). Runa laughs when I share this, quite used, I suppose, to off-center focus points.
Initially her reaction to the neighborhood nuisance had been 'but why throw the rubbish outside my window?' But as she started photographing every day, it became an obsessive cataloguing of change/non-change. One day, an old lady from the neighborhood saw Runa documenting the pile and shouted approvingly, 'That's right, you go and tell the council!' The lady may have been on a crusade to get the rubbish dump vacated, but by then Runa was on a different mission. Time ticking on, the London landscape unchanged/unblinking. Oh wait, there’s snow on the ground. Must be getting cold now. I imagine bundling up. I keep looking at the images. How far to go.
Sometime during the lunch break of a Tate workshop, one of my co-prisoners snuggles up to me, teacup in hand. The last few hours have been spent going over artists and their role in a time of war– responsibility, aesthetics, ethics, bla bla.
'But tell me,' she says, bringing out the photocopied page with a film strip in the middle, 'What do you think of Runa Islam's work? You must have a special perspective.'
There it is, projecting onto Runa the quilted burden of signification. Not of film history, or recreation, or icy formalism, or the minute preciseness of restaging. Those are all vectors her work invites with quiet (unstated) intent. But here it’s the significance of her “origins” (horrid word) in shaping her engagement/non-engagement from divergent viewer interests. The reversed 9/11 footage– smoke, fire, agony, apocalypse– running at drip-drip speed until, eventually, we get to moment zero in Untitled . Standing in that September Manhattan, don’t we all wish we could run film backwards? With one simple artifice, she fulfils those fantasies. But what of the universes of meaning that work takes on because of who people try to make her out to be. British but, Bangladeshi but. Runa is quite good at resisting attempts to pigeonhole her into ideas of Asian-ness (the dreaded “community art” project). Silly rabbit, what does that mean anyway? Runa Islam is an artist working in, on, and around film, processes and physical spaces. Enough said.
Quietly stumbling/walking into viewings of her work over the years, I've been untroubled by any kind of representation politics. Watching the cool chaos of destruction, the studied physicality of vortex, the giddy excitement of the observed, I come close to an unalloyed viewing experience. I’ve been the first to see what I see, and came back to drink in the images slowly. One evening, while referencing Francis Alys’ film about the Coldstream Guards, Runa talks about rituals and topography– the familiar and touristy Let's Go London image made fresh through a short-circuited commentary on monarchy. 'Alys made a great piece about London that in some ways can only be made by someone who isn’t from the locality.' Quite fitting then that her visually gorgeous, languid paean to Dhaka rickshaws [First Day of Spring, 2005] came out of her first visit back to Bangladesh in twenty three years. It's the Bangladeshi context that brings to her the shock of the unfamiliar.
Runa’s filmed work leaves burn marks on your retina. The images pop back, long after you’ve walked away. Adjacent to the rickshaw wallah frozen in ember of First Day of Spring was this quote: 'One is more used to looking at their necks than at their faces'. On the second day of spring, Runa wanted to go back and collect the names of the rickshaw pullers but was told it was an impossible task. A year after I saw the film at ICA, a Dhaka newspaper ran a story about a rickshaw graveyard. The government’s obsession with the three-wheelers as root of horrendous traffic snarls had come to a climax. Thousands of unlicensed rickshaws had been seized and dumped in a field near the Agargaon passport office. I stared at the wild rumpus of overgrown grass placing a blanket over rickshaw carcasses, and I started planning my filmed response to First Day.
Runa says she is interested in harder, more resistant receptions to her work, rather than the obligatory pat on the back. My piece [Dear Runa, I Found Your Props for Pawnshop, New York] was part resistance, part exquisite corpse– building on top of her structure. Fair game given her commitment to recreation/deconstruction. Or perhaps I'm in the mood of Black Sun, which (in its original 1997 incarnation) placed a perfect shadow on other artists’ work.
“Hang on,” a friend writes over email, 'are you taking the piss? Runa’s a good person you know.' No, not taking the piss as it were. We’re just talking. It’s winter in Dhaka, I’m sitting on a verandah wrapped in a shawl. Runa is in London, in what I imagine is as the Sundays’ memorialized: 'England my country the home of the free/such miserable weather/but England's as happy as England can be/why cry'
We're only talking, through our cameras.
Naeem Mohaiemen is an artist and writer working in Dhaka and New York.