Runa Islam
India, 1970
In the 1990s a generation of visual artists began to appropriate film techniques and explore their potential to generate works which, though they fractured the narrative structure of traditional film, harnessed the capabilities it offered for editing and manipulating images. This trend, whose origins can be traced to historical avant-garde movements, had already taken hold as far back as the 1960s, when art was undergoing various transformations, and has even led to the coining of the term ‘exhibition cinema’. Starting from quite different premises, cinema and the visual arts converged, radically transforming conditions for the articulation of images—a development that has led to the proliferation of black boxes in museums alongside the characteristic white cubes of modern art. This is the backdrop to Runa Islam’s output. Her work examines the material and technical properties of film that shape our perception of reality, which is also permeated by our collective memory of filmic images and forms. Influenced by European and American experimental film and the ideas of filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Robert Bresson, the artist works on images by manipulating their constituent elements—light, colour, time, and gesture—while also engaging with the formal element of film, its physical quality. Not only the images themselves but the set-up of her works—projection devices are always visible—draw attention to the materiality of film. Through the use of disruptive devices—such as fragmentation of images, overexposure, and sudden changes of colour or fades to black—Islam destroys the filmic illusion, undermining the impulse that drives recognition on the screen. The medium of film also allows her to work in diachronic timeframes that alienate viewers, to present different perspectives on the same screen, and to offer conflicting views of reality: two different cities, two people performing the same action, a play observed from two points of view, an architectural model of a building that reflects a dream of progress, juxtaposed with the real building in a state of deterioration, and so on. Islam’s work produces a distancing effect, a sense of unease that challenges viewers, who are confronted with nonlinear time, various levels of fiction, and in many cases with images that are anachronic but recurrent or at the edge of visibility. In Assault, a video installation that runs for five minutes, a face is violently illuminated by a powerful spotlight that constantly changes colour. The individual tries to evade the beam, which grows increasingly intense and aggressive as the film progresses. The vampiric quality of photography and film, its immense power of attraction, is another subject the artist has explored in her work. Islam has said: ‘Film to me, lends itself as an art form. It is image-based, condenses or stretches time, and is a framing device: it has the ability to frame an idea or a concept. Film also has a transformative quality.’
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