Lis Rhodes’s Films Are an Active Outcry Against Exploitation

Lis Rhodes, Journal of Disbelief (2016) (Still) (all images courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary)

The British experimental feminist filmmaker Lis Rhodes is being recognized in England, at Nottingham Contemporary, with a survey entitled Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines. The exhibition spans 50 years of her career — from the iconic early films that passionately attacked the patriarchal structures of the British society and of the English language, to the recent work focused on the migrant crisis, slave labor, and student protests. What unites these diverse works, which range from 16mm experimental films, film installations, photography, and works on paper, is Rhodes’s obsessive concentration on language as a system of signs that reveals but also reinforces the oppressive structures faced by the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Lis Rhodes, Light Music (1975-76) (Still)

Since the 1970s, Rhodes has repeatedly called the public’s attention to women’s disempowerment. Her early feminist phase is represented by works such as the black and white Light Music (1975-76), inspired by gender imparity in music composing. The work plays in Nottingham in its original form — a two-channel 16mm projection, in which the beams of light from the projectors intersect and play off of each other. The installation is also partly immersive, since visitors can move through the stream of lights, becoming part of the configuration. The work arose directly from Rhodes’s experiments with creating simultaneous 16mm sound and image (commonly recorded separately). In this case, with a rostrum camera, Rhodes filmed a series of drawings, which she then printed onto the optical soundtrack of the film. What we see is then the visual manifestation of the soundtrack: rectangular black-and-white bands move vertically across the screens, widening and narrowing — an optical dance that amazes with its inventiveness and forceful aural cacophony.

Installation view of Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, Nottingham Contemporary, 2019 (photo by Stuart Whipps)

Rhodes furthered her interest in feminism with films such as Light Reading (1978), a 20-minute 16mm film composed of strips of negatives and of photographs shown in extreme zooms.  Partly inspired by the writer Gertrude Stein, Light Reading dramatizes the process of reading as a cultural and social construct. Rhodes draws our attention to the subjectivity of framing and cropping in film, as well as of grammatical constructs, such as subject and object. The Nottingham exhibition also features six printed stills from Light Music (1978/2019) showing strings of letters, capturing Rhodes’s obsessive desire to deconstruct language to its primary elements.

During her career Rhodes has collaborated with women artists and filmmakers, including the American Mary Pat Leece, on Running Light (1996), filmed in an opencast mine in rural West Virginia, which employed migrant workers, many of them illegally. The film’s black and white images echo such iconic visions of poverty as Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) — ramshackle farm interiors, but here cropped or blurred to protect workers’ identities and synchronized with spoken accounts of abuse.

Lis Rhodes, Dissonance and Disturbance (2012) (Still)
Lis Rhodes, Dissonance and Disturbance (2012) (Still)
Lis Rhodes, Dissonance and Disturbance (2012) (Still)

Rhodes’s lasting concern to use film as a tool for contemplation — and as an active outcry — against exploitation returns in her more recent two-channel installation, Dissonance and Disturbance (2012), a mix of her three previous films, in which she attacks the British economics from the 1980s, which she calls “taxing for living,” while also showing student protests against cuts in education and the economic devastation resulting from the Palestinian occupation. In yet another work, Ambiguous Journeys (2019), a 40-minute single-channel video, Rhodes links her investigation into how the British underground economy profits from exploiting migrants, to slave labor in Myanmar. In all of these, she often speaks directly in the voiceover, to dissect stories in which poverty generates cheap, vulnerable workforce.

Installation view of Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, Nottingham Contemporary, 2019 (photo by Stuart Whipps)

In the 1980s, Rhodes tried to move her work beyond the gallery setting, with a highly dynamic series, Hang on a Minute (1983-1985), of one-minute collage videos co-directed with Joana Davis, which were shown on Britain’s Channel 4. Highly political, this experimental series was discontinued after six episodes. Rhodes’s latest attempt to bridge the gallery and public space, List of Deaths (2019), comprises of a panel running across a single wall, with a list that enumerates when, where, and under what conditions migrants and refugees have died in Europe (the list is ongoing, and is being compiled by a nonprofit organization called UNITED for Intercultural Action). And while this latest attempt does not possess the electrifying quickness of thought and image shared by Rhodes’s earlier works, it is a testament to her enduring desire to reactivate and reinvent cinema as a viable expression of protest. What emerges forcefully from the entire exhibition is the degree to which Rhodes has been able to merge her lasting interest in language as a living and malleable thing — and therefore also prone to manipulation — with her broader socio-political concerns. Her career has been fueled by the ardent belief in cinema’s potentialities, in the fact that, as Godard has said, images indeed think — and it is the artist’s task to investigate and to question the solidness of their thinking.

Installation view of Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, Nottingham Contemporary, 2019 (photo by Stuart Whipps)
Lis Rhodes, Riff (2004) (Still)

Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, curated by Irene Aristizábal, is on view at Nottingham Contemporary (Weekday Cross, Nottingham NG1 2GB, UK) through September 1.

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