IVANA'S ANSWERS (2001)
Single Screen Projection
4:3 PAL DVD
10 mins 50 secs duration
by Anne Tallentire
A train pulls slowly out of a station. We hear voices and footsteps coming from somewhere behind and a man in a shortsleeved white shirt walks across the railway track. It is night. This could be the opening sequence of a thriller, an epic even. What follows is ten minutes of a haunting video which encourages us to consider what might be at stake in trying to understand the world differently through its hidden signs and portents.
Out of the darkness, on the station platform, as I recall, two hands reach around a lamppost. The woman walks away and the train finally vanishes. Then through the lens of a magnifying glass, filling the frame, we attempt to decipher a fragment of what we discover to be a vast collection of insects. A woman is staring down into her almost empty cup of tea. Magnificent florescent green and ultra marine beetles, scorpions, flies preserved in tiny plastic bags lie scattered surrounding two women sitting at either end of a dining table. One peers studiously from time to time through a small magnifying glass at samples from the collection. And then, we see from above as she begins to read the others cup.
As I watch the first few minutes of Ivana's Answers by Jaki Irvine I am reminded of an essay by Esther Leslie 'Telescoping the microscopic object; Benjamin the collector'.1 Here Leslie tells us that the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin 1892 - 1940 introduced the term 'optical unconsciousness' to "describe a mode of perception made visible on celluloid and initiated by cameras. The first mention of optical unconsciousness appears in an article on soviet film, Erwiderung and Oscar A.H. Schmitz (1927), where Benjamin identifies film as a place where there 'arises a new region of consciousness' through which people get to grips with the ugly hopeless world, comprehensively, meaningfully passionately".
Although we are now, almost a century later, familiar with the moving image in and as art there are nevertheless certain works which embody this history and which at the same time open up the possibility of thinking it differently.
It is three minutes in to Ivana's Answers the women are speaking (in Italian). Their conversation echoes around the large, cool space providing us the means to follow the films' narrative logic. We also see the cup close up and begin to search for its meanings in its dark damp shapes.
'Is something there?'
'The trains not there ...and he hasn't arrived'
'What do you mean?'
'Y'know, sometimes I feel like something's not quite right... as if everything is happening to me...but I don't know what it is.'
For a short time we are taken to a park and for a spilt second I find it difficult to focus - the trees are full of leaf and the hot air is speckled with flying particles - insects, seeds. I think I have something in my eye.
'I have the sensation that if I'm distracted for a second things will fall apart'
It is hard to see; a figure appears, walks through our sight line under the tress and then vanishes - we are in a temporal and spatial adventure...
'at times it feels as though someone else is living my life.'
'and me, I'm there as well but I can't see myself clearly'
'and the others...'
'...where are they?'
'Look... there's someone here ... whose body is made up of birds'
The cup is passed across the table.
'they're sitting on a bench like question marks
'and you're there too'.
Through a narrow slit she watches two falcons fly about inside their cage, agitated thoughts flapping in the confines of such a small space.
'Wait a minute'
'No, sorry I'm mistaken...'
'That's what it is'
'...answers to your questions'
One of the falcons is eating. The grey green silver mesh covered in bird droppings at the back of the cage has turned into a fantastic snow covered alpine backdrop. But soon we are brought back into the hot air of the cage - into the flying dust and feather particles. As we adjust our eyes to focus we can smell it. Then 'birds' masquerading as question marks dissolve and the falcons re-emerge, further back now, finally at rest. They watch Ivana quietly watching them until a church bell interrupts her reverie - she turns away. Buzzing upside-down flies on a turquoise mesh defying gravity seem to be totally concentrated in their scuttling dance.
One of Jaki Irvine's singular achievements is that she is taking video art forward, not with loud technological clatter, but rather more with formal rigour and philosophical insight. Amazingly, given its complexity Ivana's Answers appears to have arrived on screen without effort - as though the characters have scripted themselves. As though the artist is acting to the script of those to whom she has given voice. Perhaps we can think of her work in terms of the optical unconscious which 'assembles an exploratory way of seeing, a microscopic incursion that slices up the intricate configurations of natural and social life '.2 However I think that it does something more. Her questions direct us to consider what we know, how we might understand how we know it, and in so doing how we might imagine, construct and speak a different view of things. Through this work having made visible, tangible, and material that which is invisible - as it were - out of thin air, and for a moment I am convinced of the efficacy of art.