Looking for Clues: Mary Helena Clark’s First Films

by Sam Warren Miell

At a certain point in the career of an artist, early work will begin to be regarded as a repository of clues to understanding what follows—rough drafts of what will be fully integrated in a ‘mature’ period, that is in turn cast as the fruition of a promise latent or only intermittently present in that early work. If this tendency risks imposing overly neat teleologies on oeuvres whose internal heterogeneity may seriously resist them, it can also provide a way into work which, in its achieved form, offers no immediately obvious route of critical redescription. Such is the case with Mary Helena Clark.

In light of the rest of Clark’s career so far, And the Sun Flowers (2008) and Sound Over Water (2009), her earliest works, have become outliers: two motivic-thematic films based on straightforward formal conceits, both essentially bipartite. They are far from the enigmatic, copious, paralogical mosaics Clark has created since. All the same, it doesn’t feel like a backwards projection, from the other side of a body of work that now fills around two hours, to discern already in these short works the intently de-centred, or even a-centric, quality that Clark’s work invariably evokes—a feeling as though peripheral vision has been sharpened into focus and is at the same time exercising its right to retreat back into blur.

And the Sun Flowers (2008)

And the Sun Flowers is composed of shots of a floral wallpaper that is subject to a slow and continuous flux by means of image overlays, gradual zooms and exaggerated video static. This results in an open-ended morphogenesis that registers like the visual equivalent of a Shepard tone, the auditory illusion in which a sound appears to ascend or descend in pitch but ultimately gets no higher or lower, arrives at no apex or nadir tone. Around halfway into the film, a large, desaturated flower emerges, overlaying the wallpaper, cycled through tints and timelapse so that its ridges and furrows take on alternatingly papery and porcelaneous qualities. 

Clark’s close attention to texture spans both the objects and surfaces she films and the artefacts specific to her chosen media, whether adventitious or the product of deliberate manipulations. In Sound Over Water, hand processing renders sky and sea indiscernible, speckling, blotting and scarring an expansive, almost vertiginous blue. Clark’s refusal to select or assemble her images rhetorically ensures a relative equality of what appears, deferring any idealising fetishism of  ‘grain’: as she has said, ‘I’m not interested in film as a patina’.1 The objects that are recorded and the accidents of the recording material—as well as deliberate interventions upon that material—are not superimposed but folded together; mediation and presentation occur simultaneously on each plane, a binocularity of looking at and looking by means of

Sound Over Water (2009)

Indeed, on an affective level these films impel not so much a discipline of looking as one of gazing, staring, distraction, those forms that exist at odds with any well-defined spectatorial empiricism; what Jean-Claude Rousseau has simply called vision:

[…] those disorienting moments where someone you’re with seems ‘out of it,’ when his vision’s taken him somewhere else. And when you ask him, then, ‘what are you looking at?’ it’s always the same reply: ‘nothing.’ Suddenly he’s there again, as if the question had broken a charm. That’s what it is to see the image: it’s an absence. 2

Within this frame, glinting sunlight may look bewilderingly similar from both above and below the surface of water, and its apparent image may even dissimulate what are in fact rephotographed shots of a murmuration of starlings; stationary wallpaper may undulate as though it sits between solid and liquid states, may beget stony petals. All this may transfix, may sum to the ‘nothing’ that makes up a vision, but whatever Mélièsean illusionism carries Clark’s poetry is counterweighted by something else, something which engages, from a different angle, the moment Rousseau mentions, and which at first apprehension may appear as straightforward structural irony. 

Two minutes into And the Sun Flowers, a musical flourish introduces a homely male voice: ‘It is a beautiful day that you have chosen in your mind in your imagination’. What we are hearing is a guided meditation tape, re-edited to push it gradually into the discomfiting. We are told (to imagine that) we are ‘under a blue sky, with a brilliant sun’. Eventually we are ‘inhaling from the sun the sound of my voice’, which, ‘acting like a magnet […] penetrates the skin and the muscles and the nerves and the bones’. What begins as kitsch—fragments of a form in self-conscious discordance with the art video—slides towards something else. An implicit mobilisation of problems with spectatorship, of a passivity which the viewer enters and is entered by, drawn into participating in affective processes over which they have given up control? A call, then, to critical self-reflexivity? Perhaps. But one cannot help feeling this would be too easy, so easy that it would have eventually to misrepresent the totality of the work. The film denies by its global effect the solution that one of its elements dangles before us. For to land on these conclusions is to close prematurely a dialectic of engagement that Clark has from the start gone further than most to keep open. Such a reading re-focuses, re-centres, and so denies what remains interstitial and ambivalent in the weird, unaccountable moment Clark’s film dilates, the sort of moment she has been able to find again and again since. Lyrical rapture divided by auditory distanciation will not yield this final product.  

The second part of Sound Over Water presents a similar case. A final processed image switches to its unprocessed original: deep ultramarine gives way to a grey indifference of sea and sky; bright, sidereal flecks are positivised into dark birds on the water surface; the artefacts dancing across the image are stilled. Following this is a series of amateur photographs taken during a whale watching trip. Formally, their documentary objectivity pierces the abstract colourism of the preceding four minutes. But this formulation in no way describes the actual experience of looking at these, someone else’s holiday photos. There is a pathos that inheres in the objectivization of what is arbitrary—this strand of hair, this dull, settled light, this pink smudge of finger over the lens—that is at the same time, and by the same token, the pathos of the fugitive arbitrariness of the subjective—a moment that, closing in on itself in the image, must be imagined as barely more possessable for those who experienced it than it is for us, a moment whose unmediated presence is all the more lost for its permanent capture. What we are left with at the end of this five-minute film is in no way as schematic as a subjective manipulation of materials ironized by objective documentation, even if that schema provides the stable point from which viewing diverges.

Sound Over Water (2009)

Clark has usefully characterised her work in terms of ‘metonymic thinking’, defined as ‘a series of connections based on associations, rhymes and reductions’; metonymy is ‘freer and broader than metaphor’.3 If it is hard to find language for her work, it may be useful to recall that Roman Jakobson’s famous polarisation of metaphor and metonymy first emerged in an article about aphasia:

Of the two polar figures of speech, metaphor and metonymy, the latter, based on contiguity, is widely employed by aphasics whose selective capacities have been affected. Fork is substituted for knife, table for lamp, smoke for pipe, eat for toaster […] When the selective capacity is strongly impaired and the gift for combination at least partly preserved, then contiguity determines the patient’s whole verbal behavior, and we may designate this type of aphasia similarity disorder […] Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder.4

It is when metaphor becomes unavailable, unutterable, that the unusual nature of metonymy within language and thought is clarified. From Jakobson’s bipolar model it was only a small step for Lacan to suggest that the production of meaning was essentially metaphorical—signification coming to rest vertically, in a discrete instance—whereas metonymy was the structure of meaning’s lateral displacement, from signifier to signifier, coming to no clear terminus.5 It had been immediately clear to Jakobson himself that the displacement Freud described as integral to the dream-work was essentially metonymic;6 a few decades later, Franco Moretti pointed out that, in the classic detective story, clues, as ‘associations by contiguity’, play a metonymic role, to the extent that the criminal becomes author of ‘an audacious poetic work.’7

Thus, while the metonymic nature of Clark’s work may become more obvious later on, in dream-films like By Foot-Candle Light (2011) and Figure Minus Fact (2020) and quasi-detective stories like The Plant (2012) and The Dragon is the Frame (2014), as soon as we understand metonymy as an a-metaphorical, peripheralizing logic that replaces the unitary excavation of meaning with the multiple, oblique relations of association, proximity, misrecognition, deferral, touch, and approximation, we can begin to glimpse the drive that has animated Clark’s films from the very start, in which figures never seem to condense into anything like stable external reference. Our training in the dialectic of tenor and vehicle will do us no good here, where we must learn to skate on a surface of unforeseen textural variations. We enter her films already embarked, and any mental attempt to arrest the longitudinal elaboration of image and sound by appeals to senses rooted in condensation, symbol or reference can only be experienced as a truncation. Faced with such work, the critic may feel both disarmed and seduced. Emerging from the cinema in that precious state of mind that is least amenable to their ordinary processes, they are perhaps left with the task of simply leaving the right clues behind.  

  1. Dan Brown, ‘Outside the Text: An Interview with Mary Helena Clark’, INCITE, October 2016. ↩︎
  2. Cyril Neyrat and Jean-Claude Rousseau, ‘Entretien avec Jean-Claude Rousseau’, in Lancés à travers le vide…: ‘La Vallée close’, ed. by C. Neyrat (Nantes: Capricci, 2009), p. 24. ↩︎
  3. Enrico Camporesi and Benjamin Léon, ‘A Short Trip Through the Mysterious World of Mary Helena Clark’s Films’, La Furia Umana, 9, p 77. ↩︎
  4. Roman Jakobson, ‘Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances’, in Selected Writings, ii (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 250, 254. ↩︎
  5. See Jacques Lacan, Écrits, translated by Bruce Fink (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), pp. 421-423. ↩︎
  6. See Jakobson, p. 258. ↩︎
  7. Franco Moretti, Signs Taken For Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, translated by Susan Fischer, David Forgacs and David Miller (London: Verso, 1988), p. 146. ↩︎

Sam Warren Miell is a writer on film and art from Lewisham, South London. 

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