Poetic Journeys

in 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Peter Kremski

The much-acclaimed French artist Laure Prouvost is widely known in Oberhausen. Her films inevitably win prizes at this festival – this year, she was awarded the International Critics‘ Prize for her marvellous essay film, If It Was. This fascinating journey into the unlimited possibilities of contemporary art is an imaginative walk through a real museum – in other words, a surreal experience.

“If this was my museum, what would it be like?” Provost wonders. We follow the artist’s finger (quite literally!) as it guides us through a spatial reinvention of the museum. No stone is left unturned – angles are softened, the roof is removed, palm trees grow inside, a river runs through the place, and the old turns into the new. A vortex of images rises from the sediments of time, images which are “floating away from the dust of the past”. Our perception of the museum becomes a sensual experience.

It is a decidedly female gaze which generates this very sensual journey. The artist’s voice is seductive, whispering that any visitor to the museum would be welcomed and kissed by staff. He or she would be kissed everywhere and all night long. The visitor would be allowed to touch everything, even lick it. Every day there would be singing. Big waves would flood the room, and the visitor would surf the waves.

Everywhere we see “boobs”. First, they are scribbled onto a Francis Bacon painting, softening the extreme “angles” of that work. Painted boobs explode like volcanoes. Pink boobs are on the beach. Boobs appear like mountains in a landscape. A woman drinks from a breast. Sparkling milk sprays out of boobs, colouring the museum’s walls.

This is a world of frivolous yet subversive images: it knows no limits. A delicious experience, Prouvost’s film stood out from the competition and was rewarded with two prizes.

However, another of the festival’s most poetic films inexplicably received no prize at all. Journey, an 11-minute film by Chinese artist Zhao Xiaowei, strongly impressed with its dreamlike imagery and its subtle construction. This is a very personal, enigmatic film – a kind of inner space odyssey leading into the depths of the artist’s soul. A filmic poem which regains time almost in a Proustian sense – interweaving past, present and future into an inseparable whole.

What we see in this film: a boy (with his back turned towards us) moving through a rural landscape at a distance, plucking an apple from a tree, making a boat out of paper inscribed with poetry, drifting in an actual boat across a lake passing scattered feathers on the water. At the end of this sequence, the boy sleeps in the boat. Now the colour wanes, and the images turn to black and white. The camera pans to a man in his room – also seen from behind, biting into an apple, working on a painting, alone except for a bird in a cage and a photograph of the boy he once was. The man then sits on his bed; behind his back plays a large projection of the boy in the lake.

Time now rushes forward. The camera pans towards skyscrapers and a nuclear power plant, viewed by the man as a contemplative figure. The man becomes trapped in the architecture of the plant. A train and airplane replace his former boat, while urban life substitutes for the rural landscape. These are pictures of a China in flux, moving from the past into modern times.

Time rewinds, back to the man in his room. The caged bird is dead, its feathers floating in the air; the artist paints a water image which dissolves into the lake. The man seen from behind once more, drifting in the boat across the lake, dissolving into the moonlit night and the depth of the image.

A sentimental journey, perhaps – but also a magical one, depicting the escape from external to internal space. From a devastating real world to a very personal, poetic one.

Edited by Lesley Chow