by Jonathan Griffin
Ben Rivers makes films about latter-day hermits and pioneers – usually men – who have chosen to exist at an ideological and geographical remove from the rest of society. The London-based artist journeys into the depths of private, imperfect, perhaps misguided but defiantly hopeful worlds. His use of a wind-up Bolex camera and hand-processed film seems not just to be a matter of interpretation, but the only appropriate response to the jerry-rigged and hamstrung lifestyles he is permitted to witness.
Take, for instance, the 14-minute black and white film This is My Land (2006), in which Rivers’ camera follows a long-haired and bearded figure as he potters around his ramshackle cottage. A tractor belches black smoke, snatches of bluegrass emerge from indoors, and the man explains how he buries empty cans and ‘any kind of junk that I can’ in his garden (‘it’s bound to have some kind of mineral or something in it that’s some good for something’). The film is a tender and respectful character study that does not seek to ridicule the eccentricities of this self-sufficient lifestyle.
Time, and the variable rate of its passing, is a preoccupation of many of Rivers’ subjects. In Origin of the Species (2008), a man’s voice explains that ‘evolution’s been my bag for an awful long time’. While he struggles to convey his reflections on Charles Darwin, quantum physics, Earth ‘before man came along’ and the uncertain future of the human race, the camera explores his wooden hut, his overgrown garden and drawings for his inventions: all far more eloquent articulations of the man’s world-view than his own words. The film rattling through the squeaky projector at 24 frames per second highlights the disjunction between the timeframes discussed – and inhabited – by the subject and our own.
In this exhibition (titled, without explanation, ‘A World Rattled of Habit’), as with other recent installations of his work, Rivers showed the films in huts cobbled together from salvaged wood and corrugated iron. The constructions resemble the dilapidated shacks in his film Sørdal (2008), leftovers from a 1970s Norwegian film set. That these visions of escape all teeter on the edge of fantasy is more successfully revealed in the films themselves, however, than through their presentation; as stagings of artifice, the huts are reductive, even twee.
At root, Rivers is concerned with the construction of hermetic worlds. For earlier works in this exhibition, such as We the People (2004) and House (2005), he made intricate models of buildings that, when filmed, became almost indistinguishable from reality. These works lack the complicated richness of his more recent films, brought to them by the tension of real social situations. (Even when there is only one person in the film, we are constantly aware of the dynamic between filmmaker and filmed, the confidence that Rivers earns from his subjects and their need to explain themselves to him.)
These films might almost be taken as documentaries if the medium (and Rivers’ errant focus and wandering attention) didn’t put so much hazy distance between us and his subjects. In the most striking work shown at A Foundation, Ah, Liberty! (2008), children range over piles of tyres in a debris-strewn farmyard, pose in horrible masks made of sheepskin and fall out of a home-made go-kart (Rivers doesn’t rush to help). Out here in the wilds there are no rules, but neither is there room for comfort or sentimentality. As the rain lashes the lens of the camera, we are aware that, in this desolate hinterland, freedom comes at a price most of us wouldn’t choose to pay.
First published: Frieze, issue 128, Jan-Feb 2010