Bricolage ecologies: The recent films of Ben Rivers by Mark Waugh.

It would be too easy to start this reflection on the body of film-works by Ben Rivers by simply stating the obvious. This is My Land is not quite like This is England. But in fact they are not as far apart as you might think. While Shane Meadows has captured the style and vernacular of an England that has passed into fashion mythology; Ben Rivers recent works including, This is My Land, Origin of Species, Ah Liberty! and Sørdal capture life inhabiting the dreams of the late 60s and 70s. Rural utopias offering the subconscious polarity to the urban dystopias populated by skin- heads and other cults of defiance.

Lets not dwell on the superficial but hold that notion of defiance as a gesture which positions individuals within a certain cultural or historical milieu. A gesture as simple as using a wind up Bolex when everyone else has migrated on to high definition video for example. Or more pertinently living self sufficiently in a landscape that is defined by your philosophy. It is into these bricolage ecologies three unique recent works by Ben Rivers immerse the viewer. Their genesis began with an obsession with the writings of Knut Hamsun. Rivers suggests that, “Many of his books focused on individuals choosing to live out in the wilderness – often people who had had a taste of urban society and yearned for something more solitary.”

Of these works the most enigmatic is the almost empty silent film, Sørdal. In 2007 Rivers made his second quest into the wilderness of the Arctic Circle, to Hamoroy, where Hamsun spent much of his youth. While there he searched for a character to mirror those in the writings but locals had no strong suggestions until a teacher drew a map to an abandoned film set, built in the late 1970’s for a film adaptation of one of Hamsun’s novels. This seemed incredibly fortuitous so Rivers made his way there, hiking miles with all his gear from the nearest place to park the car. Down in a valley facing out to sea he found the eerie group of buildings, where he camped through a storm, listening out through the torrent in the night for bears, and made a film where the solitary person is the unseen one behind the camera.

The other films in the collection have a deceptively straight format. Documentation of a suite of characters that live either alone or with their families in ‘harmony with nature’. That this harmony is destroyed by their machines and pollution is part of the gentle paradox of these works. Rather than making judgment the viewer is invited to quietly observe and indeed fall into a universe of primi- tive awe. If you wait long enough you might find how to grow a hedge slowly using the fertile droppings of birds or evaluate the veracity of Darwin’s scientific observations. “You can’t imagine nothing. You can’t imagine no time” A voice declares from the depth-less surface of the opening frames of The Origin of the Species. Then laughs as the poetic calamity of our vulnerable subjectivity is revealed.

Each work is a singular portrait using only occasional words of their subjects to signify the intensity of their worlds. They offer a collec- tive resistance to consumer driven lifestyles. Sounds collected at each location amplify the collisions of historical epochs. Bluegrass and Hendrix tumble across the horizon as daily chores are undertaken and animals wonder about their business. This is not documentary this is scenic metamorphosis. From one edit to the next the season changes and flowers are hidden beneath a carpet of snow. We are in the slow time of Bruegel’s landscapes. The figures have their own uncanny logic which resists interpretation. They celebrate the disappearance of matter claiming rust in the garden provides minerals that are good for something. We hear the crunch of snow underfoot and are nothing but machines for watching time pass. The image flickers on our retina and causes us nothing but trouble. Time is the glue that binds the edits and our temporal logic. Regardless of the medium the moving image has been a giant leap into the void of perception. It has taught us the order of things and the work of the imagination is in the spaces in-between. The world is polluted with beautiful images of destruction and entropy.

The exploration of cinema as medium of time travel is at the heart of Ben River’s work. In the psychic return to an elaborate universe made up of imaginary possibility, a playful time of endless games, the time of fairytales and life at the edge of the great Forest. At the centre of the forest is a philosopher observing the world. “If you were in a wood and the tree fell down would it make a noise, Of course it would but not in the world of quantum Physics. Everything is contradictory!” This is the image crystalising, the temporality of the idea manifesting itself as the world is represented before us. The theory of Darwin. The phi- losophy of evolution through mutation. The slow granular metaphys- ics of materialism, the fluid velocity of rocks eroding while mutations of light flash past. There is a man in the wood and he lives between the trees. He is one of the hermits that Rivers has been spending time with over the last few years. A project that is a documentary series and a eulogy and evocation of a dream of the wilderness. The post apoca- lyptic hallucinogenic world beyond the noise of the market place.

In this universe the night sky is filled with thunder and lightning, the rain falls and figures appear. Piles of debris burn and everything is in its place and yet spliced from elsewhere. This is no reality but a dream forced through the gate with alchemical precision to precipitate a dreamlike similitude of the world before cinema. These explorations follow earlier works such as We The People (2004), Hyrcynium Wood (2005) and House (2007) which appear to show real worlds but are in fact sculptural objects animated by sound and granular disintegra- tion of the image through an over exposure to light or subsumed in its black absence. House is a universe of malevolent horrors that haunt the stage of cinema. Double exposures and interlaced acoustics lead us into spectral space, a dimension across which we travel with trepida- tion and anxiety of what is to come. These interiority’s are presented as exterior impressions – evacuations of a cinema we have inhabited. The sounds of the film in the gate signifies the demise of the medium and the ascendancy of video and the digital edit.

Film hermetically captures the temporal distribution of light in the world and enhances our perception. The world is perceived as a chaotic laboratory. Hermits and those who extract themselves from the images and urban behaviours of Disneyland are glimpsed as if the world is over already. In Ah Liberty! the physical universe is littered with old Landrovers and other things that might harm you. ‘Feelings, impressions of well being’ protect us from horror and fetish masks made from dead sheep frighten us in our seats. An old cart or a car without a bonnet, whatever is at hand becomes a tool for exploring the manifold of experience. It was cinema which was the most prophetic of Victorian visions. A weapon to capture absent spirits and kill the notion of the real forever. Cinema retuned culture to its ritualistic mediation of death. A gun rings in the wild and an animal is felled. LIke a folly of Gothic baroque the wilderness calls to us across the mis en abyme of post modernity. There is no truth to know here only a fairytale affirmation of the negation of the universe as the sun sets apocalyptically. FUCK YOU it is beautiful here isn’t it?

It would be too easy to start this reflection on the body of film-works by Ben Rivers by simply stating the obvious. This is My Land is not quite like […]