Making History: Art and Documenarty in Britain from 1929 to Now
Feb 3 - April 23 2006
Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now surveys the impact of the documentary form on art and artists and vice versa. Encompassing film, photography, painting and installation art, the exhibition focuses on works where a dialogue between art and realist documentary occurs. It seeks to question the traditional opposition between art and documentary, and to ask whether this is really a false dichotomy.
The documentary movement that Grierson helped establish was in the liberal and Fabian tradition, sympathetic to working-class people but nevertheless incorporating something of an establishment point of view, and one can sense that connection in the Free Cinema group. Yet from its inception this history has also been the subject of contestation in more militant film-making, both in the 1930s and in the subsequent work of British documentary groups in the 1970s and 1980s.
Amber, Cinema Action and the Berwick Street Film Collective were groups that began work in the 1970s. Both Amber and Cinema Action were concerned with the empowerment of their working-class subjects. Amber perhaps was the more Griersonian, being concerned with the documentation of working-class life, whereas Cinema Action was concerned with supporting and publicizing political struggles, whether in the factory or against the occupation in Northern Ireland. Berwick Street was the most engaged with the debates on the role avant-garde cinema could play in producing a political cinema - ideas associated with Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker in France and publicized in the UK by Screen magazine amongst others.
Berwick Street's Nightcleaners 1975 is a film that has aged extremely well. Its exploration of a durational aesthetic recalls of course the experiments of Warhol and others, but within a framework provided by both experimental cinema and conceptual art (Mary Kelly, who was working on her 'Women and Work' project at the time, was part of the group). This film documents a struggle for a living wage by marginalized women and migrant workers, a subject that is as topical today as when the film was made in 1975. The repetitive nature of the work is reflected in the form and experience of watching the film itself. The audience is drawn into the world of its subjects, as well as being presented not with a representation of reality but (in Godard's phrase) with a reality of representation.
- Excerpt by Mark Nash