Charlotte Prodger, SaF05, 2019. Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London, and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow

C.P.

Figures of attachment, constellation of relationships 

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021
Fluidity

For four years Charlotte Prodger worked on an impressive autobiographical trilogy, in which her keen interest in language blends with a sophisticated and sensitive use of technology. The final part around mourning, attachment and queerness is still on view for a few days at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

In psychology, “attachment” refers to the deep and enduring emotional bonds that connect one person to another across time and space. In the video works of Glasgow-based artist Charlotte Prodger, she frequently evokes female and queer attachment figures through narrated voiceovers, such as the Neolithic goddess Bridgit, a manned lioness in the Okovango Delta, media theorist Sandy Stone, singer Nina Simone, or science fiction writer Samuel Delany. She likewise names her harddrives after admired female artists, symbolically entrusting them with the care of the raw data of her work; MAYA [Deren] and PAULINE [Oliverios], for example, respectively hold the visual and audio files of her latest video SaF05 (2019). These figures also find themselves in the company of Prodger’s closest friends, whom she affectionately refers to by name or initial, and through the recitation of correspondence, conversation or moments they’ve shared.

Getting to know Prodger is to encounter her practice of recording; be it with her iPhone, zoom microphone or the simple request to write something down so she can remember it later. This recording, however, is not so much done to gather but to pinpoint, to secure a specific moment or turning point in place. Accumulatively, these moments become handholds, used to map a constellation of relations and movement that draw an image of the self.

It is little wonder that language, one of human kinds most ancient technologies to reproduce the world, has been an underpinning interest. From references to learning British Sign Language, to a close up of a mouth performing an act of speech, to her persistent use of voiceover. These read texts are laid over images always unrelated to the words—sparsely populated landscapes or interiors, scenes of industry, or animals—which form a personal lexicon, each image and text exceeds the limits of the other.

This is perhaps most concretely expressed in one of Prodger’s earliest works, the 16mm projection, I Was Confused About the Dancefloor Code (2009). The work comprises individually photographed letters, which cumulatively spell out a friend’s recollection of dancing together at a bear club in Berlin, but which flicker by at such a speed that any easy attempt to catch meaning is frustrated. Transmutation of material matches her frequent descriptions of altered states, be it under the influence of recreational drugs or through giving over to the sustained rhythm of trance music.

Assisting to formalise these interests is Prodger’s strict adherence to the grid, with the tension of its geometry enabling the material that finds itself within its confines to be express itself in stark relief. Subjects are captured frontally, centred or placed on the rule of thirds, landscapes perfectly cut the screen in two, or she tilts the camera 90 degrees so that it is positioned flat and adjacent to the ground or sky. Thresholds and framing devices also come into view, with Prodger filming through windows in the interior of homes she’s lived in Glasgow, or whilst in transit on planes or trains or boats. The moment before a shot is finally set, or directly after it is captured, is also often privileged in the final edit, with the shifting of zoom, focus or aperture revealing the process of making an image.

Charlotte Prodger, SaF05, 2019. Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London, and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow

Over the past five years, Prodger has concentrated her efforts on the production of a trilogy of single-channel video works, Stoneymallon Trail (2015), BRIDGIT (2016) and SaF05 (2019). Each clocking in at 30 minutes or more, together these works form an autobiographical cycle that chart the artist’s passage through grief at the loss of a close friend to cancer and a reckoning with the formation of her own identity. This trilogy is also that for which Prodger has become most well known. In 2018 she was awarded the Turner Prize for an exhibition of Stoneymallon Trail and BRIGIT at Bergen Kunsthall in 2017, and subsequently represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale with SaF05 in 2019, to be presented at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from late May to August 2020.

While each of the videos are linked in form, they are distinct in the technological apparatuses used to record them and editing structure employed. Stoneymallon Trail unfolds as a disorientating collage of disparate footage mostly drawn from the artist’s archive of miniDV tapes recorded between 1999 and 2013, and is complemented by HD footage produced in her studio and on her iPhone that shift [xxx]. Throughout the video the ratio shifts, while the degradation of the miniDV tapes shows up as bands of pixels that corrupt the image. BRIDGIT on the other hand plays out like a well-crafted song, each image surging forth and receding in episodic waves, which carry the viewer along in a manner reminiscent of the soft haze of anaesthesia and languidness of recovery that provides the work’s temporal arc.

Charlotte Prodger, SaF05, 2019. Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London, and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow

Charlotte Prodger, SaF05, 2019. Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London, and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow

In contrast SaF05, progresses as if excavating layers of sedimentary rock. Of the three videos SaF05 is the most linear in terms of narrative progression, being composed of titled chapters which move chronologically through clear stages of the artist’s life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood to the work in questions making. Images produced by the cool and surveying eye of a drone, alongside the high definition of an ARRI AMIRA operated by a camerawoman, also create a distinct distance [xxx] from the handheld immediacy of Prodger’s own camerawork in the previous two works.

Underpinning SaF05, is the artist’s unfulfilled search for the last manned lioness known to be alive in the Okavango Delta of Botswana; SaF05 subsequently died of natural causes in 2020. Taking her scientific code as the videos title, SaF05 appears in footage caught in a camera trap, ghostly in her ambivalence to her apprehension by a watching eye. Remains as a cipher for queer desire, set against descriptions of various territorial delineations—the Calvinist church in rural Aberdeenshire, the final years of the Cold War, and the nuclear submarines housed in a military base Loch Long, Scotland—and imaged landscapes, the Scottish Highlands, Okavango Delta, Great Basin Desert and the Ionian Islands. Territorial limits and their crossing.

Charlotte Prodger, SaF05, 2019. Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London, and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow

These most explicitly overlap in the video’s chapter “X”. In the voiceover, Charlotte recites scientific data detailing sightings of SaF05—the time, GPS co-ordinates, habitat, terrain and behaviour such as rubs, grooming, moving, marking, vocalisation. Her cool listing, brackets a recollection of her first sexual encounter:

In daylight, lying on her bed, up against the window in her room, inside the student halls in Paisley, I looked down at the dark triangle of her pubic hair for the first time and thought what I was seeing was her underwear, then realised her underwear wasn’t on anymore. For a split second I saw my mother’s dark triangle. Then it switched back to hers again.

The dark triangle of Prodger’s description is reminiscent of the charged eroticism of Gustav Courbet’s painting Origin of the World (1866), but with a staunchly female and psychosexual gaze.

Coincidently the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once owned Courbet’s painting. Famous for his conceptualisation of the mirror stage, the developmental moment when an infant recognizes themselves in a mirror, and representing the turning of oneself into an object that can be viewed from outside themselves. Throughout the film Prodger appears reflected amongst her smudged fingerprints on her laptop screen, or as she walks into frame to hang images of the Assyrian Palace relief on a widow in or studio, or through the more subtle presence of her finger obstructing the cameras lens so that the pulsing red of her blood illuminated by the sun fills the screen.

Charlotte Prodger, SaF05, 2019. Courtesy the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London, and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow

Returning to “X”, the voiceover plays out over a single-take shot filmed along a gravel road in the Great Basin Desert of Utah. Filmed standing through sunroof of a car as the voiceover ends, the car takes a 90-degree turn to the right with the footage finishing just before Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels come into view. A recurring motif, Holt’s four concrete cylinders a framing device which circle ends match the scale of the human body and perfectly frame the sun at winter and summer solstice. Of particular inspiration to Prodger’s work is Holt’s video Revolve (1977). Across 75 minutes, Holt’s friend, the Canadian filmmaker David Wheeler, recounts his battle with leukaemia as he is shot from multiple cameras. [Metaphysical and aesthetic reflection]

In one voiceover passage from Stoneymallon Trail, Prodger describes a scene from a film for which the camera is trained on a fisherman at work on a trawler, recalling:

He repeatedly hoists a rectangular cage up from the sea and over his head and onto the deck. The cage is the scale and shape of a plasma screen. Over and over again it comes from the sea, being lowered to head height in front of the man with the changing sky behind it. He holds its sides to guide it in, each time crammed full of stuff from the seabed. Each time it comes in he unfastens it and the contents spill onto the deck, transfiguring from a vertical pictorial plane into horizontal scattered entropy. Each time he kicks about sorting through it, and every time I want to see everything, all of it, to know the contents fully. And this goes on and on, this continuous sequence. And it felt like the end of the film, although it wasn’t, and there were other parts to the film, but I would have liked it to have been just that. I could have watched it for hours, the rectangle being lowered in over and over again with different contents each time.

When thinking about Prodger’s work, I like to return to this passage and image her own act of creative labour. Positioned with her camera against the immense and unfathomable swell of life.

Susan Gibb.

Susan Gibb
is director at Western Front Society in Vancouver

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021