Fossil by James Newitt – Carpintarias de São Lázaro
From a general standpoint, it is possible to say that this project is similar to a three-room apartment. It consists of a book, written by Newitt in late 2017, a short film made from the book, produced and directed in 2019. There is also another video which, taking into account the way it is exhibited and thought, as well as its relationship with the other two elements of the project, I consider it a kind of epilogue or postface – a final note on the whole. Filmed at Carpintarias de São Lázaro, the same place where it is now being shown for the first time in Portugal (and in Europe), Fossil (the film) is the fruit of a commission from the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the exhibition that took place in Sydney, entitled The National 2019: New Australian Art.
Australian artist James Newitt presents the last two parts of this project at Carpintarias de São Lázaro. On floor 0, in a space delimited by huge black curtains, we have the screening of Fossil; on floor -1, without the formalities or requirements of floor 0, a loop video is projected directly on the wall and at eye level.
Fossil portrays several (apparent) exercises between an older man and a younger one. Most of the film takes place in an interior space that, despite its industrial aspect (somehow static) and emotionally dry, seems to be the bedroom of one (or both) of them. What we see during the 22 minutes of the film are different approaches to what we identify as a state of dementia or post-trauma experienced by the older man. The relationship between the two, although dedicated, is never clarified – we are guided by a knotty and apathetic dialogue (often in tone of interview). The different interactions seem to be part of a therapy that will never come to an end – we see pictures of things and hear the men name those (sometimes wrongly, sometimes badly pronounced). We see them pointing at things, approaching to immediately move away, to be one body, to be two; we see tension and affection, all in a poetically inexpressive and (already) automated way – a constant reprocessing (dearomatized) of the understanding and enterprise of the world – because memory has forgotten. The images then begin to appear pixelated, the planes merge, the faces merge, things fade away and no longer exist in their entirety. We also feel a certain bewilderment and a difficulty in situating ourselves.
On the one hand, the film is a testimony to a daily life of “co-dependence”, where the disorientation and the endless, heavy therapeutic process is visible, in an inner and outer reconciliation; on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, it does not use a “linear” or traditional narrative. It is a plot with nuances – the film begins and what we see are textures. In the exercises, we identify bodies in an uninterrupted interplay of confrontation and compromise; heads together, slow yawning – the time between words. Resigned sighs, the reposition of saliva, the teeth-cleaning sound; the touch, the weight of constantly reminiscing and dragging sentences; the rhythm of dialogue and days passing by – “How do you feel today? – over and over again, forevermore. In dialogue, the way things are said becomes more striking than the text itself (and the text also represents the perpetual side of this relationship, becoming performative).
On the lower floor, all the effort directed towards the device is distorted: the projection of the video, at the bottom of the room, is made directly on the cement wall, with cracks, holes and forgotten screws. The sound, unlike on the upper floor, is decentralized. Spectators are forced to look for the best positioning to see and hear. This video, the final part of the project, puts us to the test because the similarities with the film are many. We feel we have just seen everything this video now showed to us. It’s as if Newitt wanted to include us in this routine of exercises, where we have to precisely access our memory and (re)discover the objects and situations. Without an explanation, this second screening shows us extensions that may or may not clarify an image. Or simple alternatives to the previously seen shots, including some unprecedented ones. Finally, and taking into account the text of the exhibition, Newitt intended to create an “immersive installation” where we could experience the atmosphere of Fossil.
Finally, there are also two situations (or details) that we should consider, as they are relevant to another understanding (of the extent) of the film. The first is the lack of evidence of passage of time and the second is the fact that Newitt designates as performers and not as actors those who play the characters. The film does not have a sequential narrative, there is no traditional unfolding of the action, because there is no (evident) temporal fit that unites the actions, nor a link (obligatorily) between them. There are different situations, which may be part of a single day (or even an afternoon) but may also have been recorded on different days. As mentioned above, Fossil is a record a testimony, not a story told. On the other hand, having performers and not actors underlines Newitt’s intentions concerning what we can take from Fossil and how this is not limited to trying to provoke commotion in relation to disorientation, lack of memory and/or mental illness. From the beginning of the film, I had this feeling: it was going to be something about gestures and textures, and although we identify the plot relatively simply – the rediscovery of the world and how to operate in it –, these two details (among others) lead me to consider Fossil a pantomime show. Where, despite the (continuous) presence of voices and dialogue between the two characters, the expression and materialization happen through vast and clear gestures.
Open until August 29 at Carpintarias de São Lázaro, Lisbon.