Review: Ruskin Shorts at Modern Art Oxford

Ruskin events are always good-value, even if the Art isn’t. Often, it’s more fun to observe the attendees than their work; and I wasn’t disappointed on entering Modern Art Oxford’s strangely swanky basement to find a sea of people fitting the same description. Wishing I’d worn darker, better-cut clothing and a (slightly) ironic hat, I took a seat on the first row, feigning a sense of unashamed entitlement to make up for my comparatively sloppy dress.

The night kicked off with Helen Benigson’s confessional garble ‘Cashino Desert’. Knowing the artist’s work beforehand, discomfort was both expected and fulfilled – making the piece probably quite a good prelude to the rest of the show, actually. I wouldn’t say the film was really all bad, but her stylistic choices, without doubt, appeal to a particular taste, but not mine. The influence of Ryan Trecartin is clear (if not a little too clear) and the film panders to certain ‘on trend’ aesthetics characteristic of the young, popular contemporary art practices of the moment: the use of early 00s graphics, a computerised voice, and neon, candy or pastel colours. I’m bored of this look, and unless you’re Hito Steyerl, you’re not nailing it. In fairness, the film was never going to dodge this intentionally-tacky feel with footage taken in Vegas; perhaps the form is just fitting of the content (but this doesn’t mean I either).

The first half was punctuated with Paul Crook’s be/a/musing gesture ‘Indeterminate Facade (Hitachi)’. The start of which is made to appear as a fault with the projector, only to reveal, through the insertion of an arm into the space, that the effect is a green-screen, which the artist then tears leaving a black crevice in the skin of the projected image. I can’t decide whether I quite liked this ‘token’, or whether the piece is just a gimmick. Both probably ring true, but what I particularly enjoyed was the fact that the Ruskin crowd didnt fall prey to the idea there might be a problem with the projector, which left me wondering how long we would have all been sat there watching nothing, truly believing it was art, if there had been.

The stand-out was undoubtably Patrick Goddard’s ‘Difficulties in Impression Management’, where the wit was as sharp as audience member’s haircuts. This film made the whole event worth going to, as well as showing the other films up a tad. Discomfort, again, was an initial response, but this time used to enhance Goddard’s humorous script, which teased a good few ‘knowing’ chuckles out of our serious(ly edgy) crowd, at least. Speaking to the camera in a broad Scottish accent, the slightly greasy-looking character portrayed ruminates on societal roles, ‘social mores’ and pissing on toilet seats, whilst recounting an anecdote of a night spent at a dinner party. The intelligent lines seem to be delivered with equal amounts of bitterness and smugness, making our protagonist strangely likeable in his sheer unlikability. The word-play is smart, particularly the contemplation of the incorrect pronunciation of ‘mores’ used to infuse the piece with a self-awareness our character lacked, and without which, could have risked being a 15 minute session of intellectual masturbation along with many of the other films screening…

The second half had more films of a shorter length, including Virginia Russolo’s ‘Venezia’, which though beautiful, I did wonder whether the content really suited the medium of film, over an exhibition of text-and-image, a slideshow or book. Electra Lyhne-Gold’s work ‘Playing The Game’ was definite eye-candy as well as gently touching on big themes (gender identity in children, exposure to and in technological advancement) all within three minutes, and has left me thinking some thoughts.

Aaron Tan’s and Fritha Jenkins’ works are mentionable for all the wrong reasons. Strangely, both were placed at the ends of each film roll – Tan’s ‘Let us begin again’ at the end of the first half, perhaps understandably as a gesture to the work’s title, and Jenkins’ ‘Chamber 2’ the last film to screen. It seems odd to end on the worst of notes. Perhaps they were strategically placed here allowing people to run off without missing much. Both films seemed like lazy amalgamations of wobbly camera shots of various random things. Jenkins’ was taken on a significantly higher-quality camera, but this added nothing to the overall effect of the poor-quality film, which seemed as though it could be footage from a camera left on in a pocket, or a washing machine. Paired with magnified sounds of camera movements, of objects hitting other objects, water plunging sounds, by the time the lengthy short-film was, thank goodness, over, I felt like my eardrum had burst. If there was a concept behind either work, it was certainly not discernible, and probably not very interesting. Unless I’m missing something, and, despite my obvious attempts to integrate with the trendies in that darkened room, I might well be.