Thoughts about Things
Read Patrick Langley's response to Ben Rivers' Things, commissioned for FVU's Stay Where You Are project.
Shot entirely within the confines of Rivers’s flat, using materials already at hand – the books, sculptures and domestic utensils that comprise his most intimate source of material – Things, as its title suggests, is a reverie of objects and found images. The disparate material of cave paintings, science fiction illustrations, film stills, personal photographs and a carved stone head from the Pacific island of Vanuatu are situated within a private, personal realm, revealing the surprising dynamism which can emerge from isolated contemplation.
Laced with snippets of sound plucked in a magpie fashion from Rivers’s own and others’ films, Things embraces the apparent limitations of the personal, the local and the specific in order to reveal complex connections and far-reaching associations. Thoughts of ancient cultures, mythical lands and interstellar voids emerge from the experience of domestic stillness. Shot exclusively on black-and-white film, Rivers’s chosen medium imposes a locality of its own – the aesthetic equivalent of “staying put” – on the roaming sequences of imagery, and reveals the textures, be they porous stone or decaying film stock, that attend all encounters with our immediate, physical world.
As the film develops, motifs emerge and suggest that we, as viewers, are not experiencing a free flow of unrelated images, but rather the record of an individual’s drifting mind. Despite the aura of domesticity, scale is in a constant state of flux. The black circle of a makeshift “moon” is later transformed into the pupil of an actress’s eye, returning again as a solar eclipse, a magician’s white hoop, and so on. The rugged dynamism of cave paintings is counterpointed by the transparently staged arrangements of film stills, culled from the domestic dramas of Hollywood’s golden age. These coincidences belie a focused sensibility that underpins the apparent free association.
Sometimes described as an idle, even degenerate activity, daydreaming becomes, in Things, an exercise in building worlds. Rivers appropriates ancient or “primitive” cultural artefacts and images culled from science fiction. The gulf between the distant past and the equally distant future, the space between shrunken heads and alien moons, collapses into a meditation on the present moment; and by collaging these disparate sources together cinema, like thought itself, becomes a ritual of illusion.
First published in 1971, Larry Niven’s short story collection All the Myriad Ways was among the first works of science fiction to explore the “many worlds” hypothesis of quantum mechanics. This theory posits the now-familiar concept of parallel universes, and implies that everything that can happen has happened already in some other universe. Indeed the book itself could be construed as a kind of portal, allowing us access to alternative (if only imagined) realities. The cover of an early edition of this book feeds into the flow of imagery in Things, cropped and scaled in such a way that a tatty paperback resembles a grand and somewhat apocalyptic scene. As the camera pans skywards, the burning ring of a menacing sun is revealed.
Filmed in the depths of winter 2013/14, Things (superficially at least) is an emphatically interior film. It is “on location” in the very space that most films leave behind: the director’s own home. The notion of elsewhere, however, is never far away; in fact, the film could be construed as a kind of voyage. Rivers’s trip through a personal archive is equally an occasion for larger thoughts and broader contemplations. By staying where we are, we are nevertheless able to travel.
Patrick Langley is an editor at Art Agenda and a contributing editor at The White Review. He writes on art, literature, and other subjects for various publications. His first novel, Arkady, was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2018.
This text was written in response to Things (2014) by Ben Rivers, commissioned by FVU as part of Stay Where You Are. With thanks to Temporary Gallery, Cologne, Arts Council England, Jerwood Arts, Gareth Evans and Aldeburgh Music.