British Artists’ Films: Chris Welsby Review

Anthony Nield reviews the second release in bfi Video’s British Artists’ Films series which focuses on the work of Chris Welsby, landscape artist and pioneer of the moving-image installation in Britain, whose subtle meditations are exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.

Following on from last year’s excellent package devoted to William Raban, the latest in the BFI’s ‘British Artists’ Films’ range does much the same for Raban’s contemporary (and one-time collaborator) Chris Welsby. As with that earlier disc we get a cross-section of Welsby’s cinematic output: we begin with his two earliest ventures, River Yar (1971/72, co-directed with Raban) and Wind Vane (1972), and conclude with 1994’s Drift. Furthermore, the titles included collectively encompass the range of Welsby’s concerns and techniques; the major themes are all present and correct whilst we’re also witness to some of the personal and political digressions which he has made over the years.

Essentially, Welsby is a proponent of the landscape film, although such a term isn’t strictly correct. His primary concerns are with that of nature in general and the weather in particular, as the titles included on this disc aptly demonstrate: the aforementioned River Yar, Wind Vane and Drift plus Park Film (1972/73), Seven Days (1974), Windmill Three (1974), Stream Line (1976) and Sky Light (1988). Effectively, Welsby tries to encompass his subjects in these works so that they imbue every last frame. In Wind Vane, for example, the camera (or rather cameras given that this particular piece is a two-screen projection) becomes exactly what its title proclaims. Meanwhile, many of the films have a self-reflexive quality so that we’re continually aware of both the camera and what it is pointed at. Its reflection is readily apparent in both River Yar and Windmill Three, whilst its shadow forms an integral part of Seven Days. Moreover, Welsby’s efforts are ones which draw extensively on the rhythms of that which he is shooting. The real time take which makes up Stream Line’s entire duration is fitting languorous; likewise, River Yar’s 35-minute running time is perfect for allowing its audience to soak up and luxuriate in its document of the spring and autumn equinoxes.

As such these aren’t really films which operate on a dramatic level, and yet they’re also rife with their own tensions. When not utilising the single-take approach Welsby opts for the strictest of editing patterns. Seven Days is the most notable in this respect, a film which captured a single frame of the Welsh landscape every 10 seconds during the sunlight hours of an entire week and saw its camera angle changed depending on the visibility of the sun. Thus we’re drawn into an engrossing piece whereby we’re never entirely sure as to where the next cut will come; oftentimes the film descends/ascends into pure abstraction, at others it’s beautifully serene.

The alternate side to all this is the more overt technical dimension in creating these works and it’s true that a number of these films must have been almost Herculean tasks for their maker. Seven Days, as said, saw one frame being shot every second during the daylight hours of an entire week; Stream Line traces 10 yards of a stream in real time at an astonishingly steady and even pace; and River Yar encompasses both the spring and autumn equinoxes in time lapse fashion. Furthermore, there are also the flawless soundtracks to consider, made up as they are of natural sounds from the time of the films’ productions. Only in the cases of Park Film and Windmill Three does this not apply – these particular works being completely silent.

As such there’s no doubting Welsby’s convictions when it comes to these films, but then it may also be true that the audience doesn’t always share them quite so fully. Certainly, the aesthetic and formal appreciation is there, but then if we fail to match Welsby’s enthusiasm for the sea as seen in Drift, for example, it means that the film itself simply cannot seem so rich. Indeed, in this respect it comes as no surprise to find Sky Light, a “post-Chernobyl” effort, as the most effective of the disc’s inclusions. Shot in the days following the nuclear disaster, this is a film which sees the director demonstrating far more urgency than is typical (after all, most of his pieces are for the most part gentle meditations). Similarly the avant-garde impulses are more intense, with both a more cut-and-paste soundtrack in place (all Geiger counters and foreign radio noise) and a number of visual techniques (overexposures, stop motion effects) being utilised with the intention of lending the images an added tension and therefore the film as a whole a more political edge. The result is a piece which easily stands out as the disc’s highpoint, yet this shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of the works elsewhere. As a documentarian, pure and simple, Welsby presents a distinctive, singular voice which shouldn’t be undervalued, whilst as a filmmaker per se he’s something of an unsung figure and for that alone this compilation becomes especially covetable.

The Disc

Following the pattern set by the previous ‘British Artists’ Films’ set, this compilation places all of the films onto a single dual-layered disc, one which also includes a 29-minute interview with Welsby, and accompanies it with a meaty 20-page booklet which offers notes on all of the director’s films, not just those included here. In terms of their presentation, it’s likely that we’re getting the shorts in as good a condition as is possible. Certainly, many are grainy, scratchy and have picked up some dirt and damage over the years, yet with Welsby’s personal involvement it’s unlikely that better prints exist. Furthermore, they are no technical problems on the BFI’s account; all of the films come in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, whilst those which are two-screen projections (River Yar and Wind Vane) have been anamorphically enhanced. As for the soundtracks, each comes across especially well. Presented in DD2.0, we’re able to discern the details really quite well with background hiss and the like being impressively minimal.

With regards to the additional material, both the booklet and the interview are equally welcome. The former proves to be a wealth of information given how obscure Welsby is (at the time of writing he doesn’t even have an entry on the IMDb) whilst the latter takes us a little deeper into the filmmaker and the films included on the disc. We do get some discussion of his more recent installation pieces, but for the most part it’s the eight shorts which make up this compilation which take pride of place. That said, this allows for a great deal of discussion of Welsby’s concerns and techniques and easily aids our appreciation of the films contained within.

Anthony Nield

Updated: May 28, 2006

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