Still from White Hole, John Smith, 2014
The work showing in the Gallery at Tyneside Cinema is titled White Hole. Unlike most of the artist’s work, this piece started off as a print on paper; John Smith occasionally makes prints from films but the process is not usually the other way round. Artist Cornelia Parker curated a black and white themed room for the 2014 Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition and invited John Smith to make a piece for the exhibition. Interested in concepts surrounding negative and positive opposites, Smith was reminded of visiting Leipzig in 1997. This was his first visit to Eastern Germany and he was surprised by an apparent shift in thinking that was taking place, only eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following the initial aspiration towards capitalism, people he spoke to were recognising there had been good aspects within the previous communist regime, as well as bad. A phrase he encountered was that there was ‘a tunnel at the end of the light’, the opposite of the aphorism we know, ‘the light at the end of the tunnel.’
This idea really stuck with Smith. He feels it is especially pertinent to the current political climate, both in the UK and globally. He wanted to visually capture an expression of lacked optimism. Taking a library image, he inverted the scene and vignetted the image; using a large sheet of white paper and a tiny picture of the tunnel in the middle, it looks like a bullet hole in a plate glass window. When you get closer, it is clear it is a tunnel. Titled Tunnel at the end of the light, East German Aphorism, Post 1989 it has a literal meaning as well as being an aesthetically pleasing image.
Pleased with the print, he later decided to make White Hole, a film about the image.
In the film, Smith also reflects on his visit to Warsaw in 1980, shortly after the UK’s election of Margaret Thatcher. This trip highlighted, for Smith, the contrast between the consumerist, capitalist ideals that were growing in the UK and the limited choice and lack of democracy experienced in Poland at that time. Coming from a socialist perspective, Smith was idealising communist ideals, yet he was meeting Polish people whose thinking was in reverse: they were idealising capitialist ideals. Using a play on negative and positive, Smith uses the film to highlight how ‘the grass often seems greener on the other side.’ The sequence literally goes from negative to positive, sometimes there is a light and sometimes darkness.
The dialogue in the film switches backwards and forwards. When initially played backwards it sounds like it could be Polish or another Eastern European language. It rapidly becomes clear that it is a backwards voice.
A shorter version of the film was made and supported by Smith’s Film London Jarman Award 2013. This version only has a forwards voice and is called Dark Light. It was shown as part of the 2014 Channel 4 Random Acts series.
These films are typical of John Smith’s work: he cleverly draws what he presents into question using real situations. He wants to challenge viewers not to just consume information and believe in what they see, even if it is factual and true. His films enable us to consider how we read images and develop recognition that meanings are often layered.
Smith suggests possibilities, for example the film The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) reveals how powerful language is in determining how we see the images. Using words, Smith subverts what is being looked at and consequently makes the real world seem very different. We know we are being lied to but we still have this wish to believe in it. He deliberately gives the game away quite early on however he creates a scenario where we want to believe that something else is happening.
Smith is interested in documentary films and suggests his own films could be considered as “anti-documentary”.
The UK premiere of White Hole in The Gallery is co-curated by Tyneside Cinema Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network, who organise the Jarman Award, an annual prize inspired by Derek Jarman, one of Britain’s most innovative, esteemed and controversial artists of the late 20th century, The Film London Jarman Award is the most important prize for moving image artists working in the UK today.
Presented by Film London and Channel 4, in association with the Whitechapel Gallery, London, the award launched in 2008 to celebrate the spirit of experimentation, imagination and inspiration in the work of UK artist filmmakers. The award recognises individual artist filmmakers whose risk-taking work resists boundaries and conventional definition – work that encompasses innovation, excellence and vision. The purpose of the award is open-ended – an investment in the career of an individual enabling a period of experimentation without pressure. The award will shine a light on artist filmmakers who are to our times what Jarman was to his.