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On Jubilee: Melanie Manchot by Charlotte Cotton

It is exactly ten years since Melanie Manchot began working in film and video and this curated selection of her moving image work begins with her first experiment with film, For a Moment Between Strangers (2001). Made with a ‘buttonhole’ camera hidden in the strap of her rucksack, Manchot approached strangers on city streets from London to Los Angeles, ingenuously asking them for a kiss. In this succinct video, loaded with rejection, delight and generosity, only the Los Angelenos in this pre-social media moment asked where the cameras were. Manchot acknowledges that her films of the early 2000s, (including Metro Dogs (Moscow) (2002), where Manchot followed one of Moscow’s feral dogs as it journeys on subway metro trains, increasingly agitated as it tries to find and rejoin its pack), were prompted by her desire to open up her artistic investigations of portraiture into new areas. By 2000, Manchot was an internationally exhibiting and published contemporary art photographer based in London, well-known for her exacting approach to portraiture. Her early films make a significant nod towards Conceptual Art practice in their openness to the happenstance and almost randomness of her subject’s responses to her, and demonstrated Manchot’s conscious embracing of artistic territory outside of her acute control and preconception.

The harnessing of a conceptually tight and preconceived cinematic framework with a subject or subjects that are impossible to then direct to a fixed conclusion is a dynamic that continues to play out in increasingly ambitious ways in Manchot’s moving image works. Perhaps Manchot’s most ambitious conflation of concept and chance is not shown here: In Celebration (Cyprus Street) (an excerpt of which can be viewed at Manchot sets up the parameters of a single camera tracking shot along Cyprus Street in East London. The 150 or so residents and friends respond to, ignore, move with, pose for Manchot’s film camera, and their reactions within the ten minutes of continuous filming were ultimately beyond her true control. The resulting film is brilliant because of its permanent state of oscillation between documentary and directorial modes.

In its early incarnations within her practice, moving image offered Manchot ways to circumvent her inevitable finesse and control that she had developed in her still-photographic portraiture. This prompted a decade of practice where Manchot has researched and creatively experimented with the relationship between photography, video and film – both specifically, as the devices to create a diverse lexicon of portraiture, and also as constantly evolving set of visual value-systems as photography and photographic prints become more rarefied and high-production digital film-making more affordable and commonplace.

While her videos Security (2005) and Shave (2007) offer two entirely different viewing experiences, they seem connected by their temporal spilling out of the confines of the single, still-photographic moment. They are joined by Manchot’s desire to use temporality and the lack of a ‘decisive moment’ to expand her portrayal of her subjects. Security consists of seven locked-off unedited scenes, within each of which a bouncer working in one of the many clubs on Ibiza stands in broad daylight outside their place of employment, undresses, stands for a moment, and then puts back on their clothes. Manchot’s locked in, classically photographic frame and the seven repetitions of this silent and unexplained act, confidently holds together the cascade of unanswered questions and speculations that these time-based portraits trigger. It would have been impossible, in the condensed form of the photographic still, for a viewer to really grapple with the full extent of these portrayals of contradictory masculinity.

Similarly, in the 75-minute film Shave, no sequence of still photographs could have as eloquently narrated the visceral fragility nor the symbolism of stripping and shaving away to portray how our bodies mis-represent and fail us. In both these video projects, Manchot was expanding a photographically determined idea of portraiture through the temporality of the moving image. At the same time, Manchot was beginning to develop projects that were less routed in photographic essentialism and could only be realised in the medium of film. Stardust Rehearsal (2007) and Four Moors (Sardinia) (2008) both combine four film sequences, each portraying a musical performance and time spent preparing and waiting. Manchot commissioned the four Berlin pop bands to write and perform a piece responding to the theme of ‘the future’, each band interpreting the concept in their own way from teenage nihilism to poetics and social activism. Each band’s ‘performance’ of their rehearsals and waiting time leaks out their personalities and mindsets that, unbeknownst to them, gets played out to the soundtrack of their contemporaries in Manchot’s final installation. In Four Moors (Sardinia), four members of staff at the Sardinian Ministry of Culture are shown gridded and in profile, mimicking the Sardinian flag of independence. In turn, they each sing, acapella, a folk song – a nursery rhyme, a marching song, a battle song and a love song.

The cluster of films that comprise Chapter Two in this selection reveal another and different thinking through of the relationship between photography and film. This grouping is completed with two films from 2006, Dancer and Tightrope Walker; which are short, unedited films of strange and serendipitous urban episodes. In both films, Manchot quietly captures the lovely, talented performances of two strange and out-of-kilter young men in public parks. They are, quite simply, observations captured on video. As with all the works in this final part of the selection, there is a profound sense of the shift from photography into moving image of the potency of observational image-making. The video camera rather than the SLR becomes the default tool for representing the unexpected, magical scenarios that happen all around us in the city.

Kiss (2009), Spat (2010) and Fight (2010) are all reconstructions of scenes that Manchot saw in the course of her daily life, each of which treads the finest of lines between the conventions of the cinematic and the latent episodic nature of city life. Manchot re-materialised her observations using untrained actors and her light style of directing a scene that Manchot has developed to an art in her previous photographic projects. Manchot hired a 16mm film camera for these three projects – consciously creating a material relationship with cinematic moments. I can’t help but think of the way that Bill Brandt staged and re-materialised his observations of London in the early 1930s and how the relationships between photography, film and portraiture continue to be such a rich, creative territory.