Plato's Cave

By Pier Luigi Tazzi, ​Capalle, 2003 – 2004

The First Time

The first time I saw Singing for the Sea was at an exhibition in Antwerp that had an unusually long title, starting with Vertrekken vanuit een normale situatie, and was curated by Yves Aupetitallot, Iwona Blazwick and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. It was 1993 and the exhibition presented the unequal structural composition typical of the time. This consisted principally in the fact that each individual work was of a different density, and the space occupied by the exhibition reflected this condition of unequalness, if you will permit the neologism. This makes the world an empty expanse, and the works of art are nuclei of meaning no longer contained within frames - or parergon, to use the term preferred by Kant and Jacques Derrida. As a result, the works expand or contract, no longer by virtue of their inner energy and within the bounds of a predetermined field, but only by virtue of their own - material and conceptual - compositions within the void. Consequently, the experience provided by that exhibition could be (alternatively or at the same time) light and trivial or testing and earnest. Significantly, Bethan Huws' film occupied its own separate space, which only came alive during the projection and had no apparent connection with the rest of the exhibition.

The Cinema

The cinema played a major role in my development.

Literature, and fiction in particular, was the reservoir of western imagery throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. The cinema had already overtaken literature by the 1930s and 1940s, and it gained unquestioned supremacy after World War H. It was more directly accessible and its powers of persuasion were greater and more far-reaching.

Principally thanks to these specific qualities, it was held in high regard by the power system that had developed between the two wars. That period witnessed the formation of a cluster of ideological, political, economic and cultural power that encouraged the rise of a mass culture in direct opposition to both popular culture and so-called high culture, and it used this to assert and extend its control in and over the world. Films played an active part in this process - propaganda films, from Dziga Vertov to Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Riefenstahl, films by 'authors', from Charlie Chaplin to Karl Theodor Dreyer, and above all the film industry, from Hollywood to Cinecittà.

[From the age of eight or nine (1949-50) to around eighteen or nineteen (1959-60), my film consumption was intense, up to the point of averaging six films a week - amounting to more than three thousand films in just over ten years.] As we all know, the cinema was overtaken by television, which by the late 1950s had commenced its unstoppable ascent.

Cinema and The Visual Arts

Major contacts existed between the cinema and the visual arts from the very beginning, especially as regards research and experimentation. These became more obvious in the periods when art was seeking new directions in terms of linguistic tools, and particularly so at the time of the old avant-gardes and the neo-avant-garde. However, the introduction of the filmic language always appears in what could be called a secondary phase of the truly artistic experimentation and research. It occurred in the 1920s, from Vertov to René Clair, Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dalí and Hans Richter, and again in the 1960s, from Andy Warhol to Michael Snow [1] . It nearly always came to retrospectively retrieve/represent what had been dropped, lost forever or rendered irrelevant because vanished without trace in the gaps between historical turmoil, the continuum of individual and collective existences and constant artistic research. Actually, with its strict procedures, and reductionist purism in particular, artistic research often produced such scarce results that it was unable to account for the vital flux that had filled and triggered it. So the cinematic language performs this narrative, representative and formal function, regardless of the extreme minimalism or complex articulation peculiar to the various authors and their works.

Bethan Huws

Another epoch was rapidly being spent and consumed when Bethan Huws presented her film. It was just after the 1980s, which, although divided on several fronts - from Neo-expressionisms to the civil rigour of European artists, from Remo Salvadori to Thierry de Cordier, and the more sceptical American manipulators of the visual language, from Jeff Koons to Haim Steinbach - had considered western art and culture unique. Whether this attitude stimulated growth or, on the contrary, a reflection on the substance of art is irrelevant here.

In all her work, Huws' position is certainly closer to the civil and cultural commitment of the second than to the catastrophism of the first or the scepticism, if not the cynicism, of the third. It is, yet again, a sort of critical reflection on the essence of art as it has been shaped by its western history and on which it stood when this artist became an active participant. This does not occur by starting from a theoretical assumption that is then reflected in the work or on which it is based, but manifests itself directly in the work: the substance of the work is this reflection in corpore vili. Moreover, and this is fundamental, it is a highly unusual starting point because she is a woman and belongs to a minority linguistic community, the Welsh one. These conditions create a mise-en-distance that is not a personal distancing - I am not like you - but rather the positive verification of her position, which, thanks to this verification, becomes a favourable one. Le différend, to use the term coined by Jean-Francois Lyotard [2] , is on the inside, not the outside. This distance/différend hendiadys forms the basis for Huws' jeux de langage and those of her art. Her favourite fields of investigation -language, writing, text, space - and the symbolic motifs adopted each time by history, the history of art in particular, and tradition can be traced to this 'interiorisation'.

When Huws came to the cinema with Singing for the Sea, she rediscovered Plato's myth of the cave [3] .

In those years, television had reached its maximum levels of expansion within mass culture (the portrayal of the Gulf War), and photography and video were emerging as fully mature media in art culture. Resorting to the cinematic medium signalled a difference - with hindsight, some could see this as a foretaste of a phenomenology that was to spread increasingly shortly afterwards. What seems more certain is that a mark of differentiation was applied. It seems equally clear that the history of the cinema - and may I also say, on a personal note, my own particular history of the cinema - and, indeed, the history of the longstanding relationship between cinema and the visual arts suffered a hiatus, a linguistic hiatus, with the appearance of this work. Although the cinema had had its own evolution, which started when narrative (literature) and image (painting and photography) converged on the frontal plane of the spectacle (theatre, performances of all kinds, opera), Huws skipped this derivation to reconnect with the figure in the cave in Plato's myth, which had been an unspoken backdrop to all representational concepts although never so explicit in its meanings and theoretical implications. Huws embraced its symbolic structure, but undermined its meanings. Plato used it to indicate the lack of substance in apparitions, which he declared were nothing but empty shadows of being, but also the only forms granted to the artless experience of the prisoner in the cave of the sensitive world. Huws, instead, reconstructed it - the dark cavity of the cinema with a bright screen and moving images at one end - to produce an epiphanic event, in the sense attributed to the word epiphany [4]  in Greek myth, namely the manifestation of a meaning in an apparition that transcends itself, whether this is to be considered sacred or the start, beginning, or sign, of truth or revelation: "ex incessu patet dea" says Virgil. Far from being illusion, as it was in Plato, the apparition in the cave is the vehicle of a meaning that word and narrative are, in this case, unable to translate.

Huws travelled through Bulgaria when preparing the whole project, of which the film was merely one of the possible results; she visited the singers and studied their technique. She then organised the concert in a bay on the North Sea coast in Northumberland. The film, basically, reports a constructed event that is the spectacular outcome of research. The Welsh artist did not merely modify - to paraphrase Susan Sontag [5]  - "the terms of confinement in that cave, which is our world". By reconstructing the picture of the cave in her own way, and as made possible by the cultural, linguistic and technological evolution of the world we live in, and which the artist therefore employs, she constructed a work, her work. It is the work, its existence in that specific form - the concert happening, the film - and how the project was realised, that involved a shift in time (a song with a tradition that is still alive and goes back a long, long way) and space (from the village of Bistritsa in Bulgaria to the North Sea coast) that alters the status of art, within the bounds of which Huws includes her own activity, and of its linguistic forms, in this case the use of the filmic medium. This occurred at the very time the artist was, with this work, interrogating herself about art and its meaning in time and in the culture of time.

This essay is taken from the publication Singing to the Sea available from Cornerhouse.

[1] Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and the entire underground cinema, American in particular, occupy a different position as their production lies on the strictly cinematographic side. Art observes them with interest and curiosity, but they do not interact directly with it. We could force the argument and say that no few artists actually draw on some of their solutions and effects.
[2] cf. Jean-Francois Lyotard, Le différend, Paris, 1983.
[3] cf. Book VII of the Republic.
[4] For the concepts of epiphany, and the similar and more specific ones ofhierophany and cratophany, cf Mircea Eliade, Traité d'histoire des religions, Paris, 1948, passim.
[5] See Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York, 1977, p.3.