The Language of Political Dissent, Lis Rhodes: Dissonance and Disturbance, ICA, London

Text by Paul Hardman

“Touching stories picked from a wound. Positive angles wrenched from their sockets,” reads a pair of lines from Running Light, one of the texts that are collected in the publication Dissonance and Disturbance that accompanies Lis Rhodes‘ exhibition of the same name. Rhodes makes video works, often in response to specific political situations, stories of oppression or injustice that could indeed be said to be picked from a wound. Her work is characterised by a political activism and a powerful aesthetic of grainy high contrast photography, the strength of her images matching the force of her convictions.

At times the format of some of the films moves towards documentary, in one film a voice narrates the story of the bombing of a Palestinian bakery by Israel, alongside photographs of dusty and distraught faces. In other films we are shown images of riot police dragging protesters to the ground. A protesters shoe is left behind as the police literally drag him off his feet. A policeman leans on a man’s head, pushing his face into the floor. However, these are not presented as documentary, and the narrative and subtitles merge stories and text from different sources. Images are blown up to the point of complete abstraction. Rhodes is not aiming for straight telling of factual events but creates a montage of scenes that suggest a dystopia that extends beyond the struggle of any single moment.

Rhodes is an important figure in the development of video art, not only for her work, but for her involvement in the support, showing and distribution of video and film. First in the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, and later through co-founding Circles, that formed to distribute women artists’ film and video in 1979. Circles was founded to work against the marginalisation of women film makers and continued until 1992 when it merged with Cinema of Women to become Cinenova which continues today. This level of commitment and engagement rebukes one possible criticism of her work – applicable to much overtly political art – which is that showing a film about a protest in a gallery only reaches a narrow audience and therefore may be largely irrelevant to whatever the original struggle was about. In fact Rhodes is engaged with her activism on a variety of levels. She is there in the protest documenting the event, and through the films she creates a reflective space in which the brutality of a situation can be considered inwardly in a different context to the spare of the moment atmosphere of the protest.

The exhibition gives a broad view of Rhodes’ practice, since it includes pieces from the full length of her career, ranging from 1972 until 2012. The earliest film, Dresden Dynamo, stands out for its experimental abstract nature. The five minute film is an intense blast of clashing patterns running across the screen in different directions, diamonds, stripes, dots, waves, each pattern with its own pulsing scratchy noises that make corresponding sound patterns. Shown in on a screen in a blackened room the effect is fairly overwhelming and has meant the requirement of health warning signs.

The purely sensory nature of Dresden Dynamo is a welcome inclusion as it highlights one of the aspects of Rhodes work that may be neglected otherwise. When watching In the Kettle or Whitehall, which focus on the topical subject of protest, then one may feel that Rhodes is only concerned with finding a way to get a message across, but her work has a visual richness that gives it another dimension. The use of bold compositions in her photographs which fade into each other creates a hypnotic, submerged state, as if she is constructing a dream – a mixture of real experience, news events, fantasies and fears.

The notion of the blurring together of different stories seems to be a key technique which she is developing through her latest work, particularly the installation of In the Kettle (2010), Whitehall (2012), and A Cold Draft (1988), which are displayed together on two screens with a shared soundtrack and no clear division between the beginning and end of the films. She makes connections between power wielded (for example in Whitehall which is of course right behind the gallery) and the effects elsewhere in the world, whether it is the student protesting about the cut of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

This exhibition is enriched by the inclusion of a series of stills mounted on the walls leading up the stairs. These are mostly from early work and show patterns and sequences similar to those in Dresden Dynamo. These perhaps reveal some insight into the working practice of the artists, but they also give a chance to appreciate some of the richness Rhodes squeezes into her films, each frame full of shape and texture.

A long publication of the artist’s writing accompanies the exhibition giving further breadth to the show. Rhodes’ writing provides another way in to her work and is full of memorable phrase such as this; “The city multiplies in steel shadows, certainly fabrication contains a deal of truth.” The truth is here in her work, but it is up to the viewer to discover it themselves.

Lis Rhodes: Dissonance and Disturbance, 25/01/2012 – 25/03/2012, Institute of Contemporary Arts, 12 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AH. Running alongside Lis Rhodes is In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists since 1955.


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Mark Blower