Runa Islam – Magical Consciousness

Artist filmmaker Runa Islam combines a rigorous conceptual process of reflexivity, reflecting upon the formal grammar and materiality of film, with a poetics of sensuality and imaginative projection. Her austere, minimalist installations lay bare the technical apparatus of film production and display, alongside structural investigations into the medium itself and the narrative conventions of cinematography, but this conceptual rigour is combined with a subtle engagement with the sensual qualities of film, along with the personal associations of film histories, which gives the work a particular subjective quality – a sexuality. Thus we experience her films with our whole body, inflected with our own memories and desires, counter to the supposed schism between body and image that has prevailed in the so-called ‘society of the spectacle’.

Runa Islam This Much is Uncertain

In This Much is Uncertain (2009-10) the close-up abstraction of the wet black sand of the volcanic island of Stromboli, grainy in the starry darkness of night, seems to merge with the granularity of the silver emulsion on the surface of the 16mm film itself, picked out in repeated cuts by a sweeping slash of light, which might equally be perceived as scratches on the celluloid stock running through the projector. Flickering in the back of one’s mind is an awareness that this mythic Italian island has been the location for many iconic art-house films, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) or Roberto Rosselini’s Stromboli, terra di Dio (1950) (where the latter’s extra-marital affair with actress Ingrid Bergman began, the scandal of which kept him out of Hollywood for the rest of his career). The focus on the dark shimmering surface in Islam’s cinematography, with its limited depth of field, shifting in and out of pure abstraction, forces an awareness of the materiality of the film itself, and the physical process of light being projected through a translucent skin of silver particles. As we alternate between black-and-white and colour footage, and the reversals of ‘day for night’, the perspective shifts from gritty close-up to smooth rocky formations then out to sea, and a panoramic view of the island as a whole, bobbing rhythmically on the Mediterranean swell – our body, along with the camera and its functionary, slaves to the rhythm of this filmic, oceanic space of ‘the image’.

Runa Islam Stromboli

Islam’s fascination with the idea of ‘the image’ is influenced by Vilém Flusser’s text, Towards a Philosophy of Photography. [1] According to Flusser, human culture is currently experiencing a fundamental transformation which he ascribes to the invention of “technical images”, as a reaction to the last major cultural shift away from the image, midway through the second millennium, with the invention of “linear writing”. Images, as abstractions of the four dimensions of space and time down to the two dimensions of “significant surfaces”, require our imagination to project them back into space and time. Flusser describes the act of scanning an image, engaging with this significant surface and re-animating it in time and space, as a “magical consciousness”, as opposed to the linear world of writing, and of history, in which everything has causes and will have consequences. Flusser says, “the struggle of writing against the image – historical consciousness against magic – runs throughout history.”

Runa Islam Magical Consciousness

In the work, Magical Consciousness (2010), Islam conjures a meditation on the image as ‘significant surface’. The black-and-white film is a wide-screen, anamorphic 16mm projection that upon first glance seems to be comprised of a sequence of abstract vertical bands of white, grey and black. The image is in fact of the back of a six-panel Japanese folding screen in the collection of the Freer-Sackler Galleries in Washington DC. The screen itself is a rare and important historical artefact, prized for its elaborate narrative front but also notable for its gilded backside, as the reverse of such screens were generally regarded as a purely functional element and rarely embellished to such an extent. Thus, one of the first considerations in reading the work might be to understand it as being literally concerned with the ‘backside’ of traditional narrative. Formally, the film is structured in six sequences, each opening with a frontal view of the fully extended six-panel screen. Each ‘episode’ then moves through a series of constellations in which the screen gets folded in and is lit from different angles, thus creating a sequence of differently lit vertical bands, ranging from the white glowing plane of a screen placed almost parallel to the projection surface to a narrow black line created by the crease of two panels fully folded together. In the spectrum, black is the total absence of all oscillations contained in light, white the total presence of all oscillations. In theory then everything visible should be black or white or a mixture of the two; in other words, grey. Such a colourless theoretical world, however, belies our sensual, imaginative projection of the image. In Magical Consciousness, Islam’s critique of both the narrative and structural aspects of cinematography coalesce in the metaphor of the ‘silver screen’, where the golden back of the Japanese screen is projected as a black-and-white abstraction, registered on the silver halides of the film stock, but which still carries the hidden image of the brightly-coloured, story-telling front within it.

Runa Islam

In CINEMATOGRAPHY (2007), Islam takes the derivation of the word photography – ‘drawing with light’ – quite literally, using a motion control camera like a pen to write the word ‘cinematography’ into space. Following this method the shape of each letter determines what is actually filmed by the camera. Rather than following the usual logic of directorial intention, therefore, where our view of the world is editorially constructed, we experience instead what at first seems like an arbitrary cut through visual space, with random appearances of objects and location, but soon reveals itself to be a new, open relationship to the space surrounding the camera and the things around it. Rather than ‘reading’ the world depicted, de-coding the director’s intentions, we are liberated as embodied subjects to perceive the world afresh, through our own imagination, magically re-animating the image before us.


== Text by Tom Trevor, first published in Black Sun by Ridinghouse, London (2013), ISBN 978 1 905464 84 5 ==

[1] Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 1983, translated by Anthony Mathews, 2000, Reaktion Books, London


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