Nashashibi and Skaer - On a different plane

This article is from 2009

Paul Nash - Flight of the Magnolia

Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944 (c) Tate, London 2009

A shared belief in experimentation brought the creative talents of Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer together. Neil Cooper talks to them about the wartime painting which has inspired their new filmed collaboration

Up in the sky, the clouds seem to be circling as they float on air, seemingly ripped asunder by the vapour trails of long-past Spitfires. The clouds' flight path is tumbling wide open, morphing into something else, resembling a just-unfurled parachute perhaps, but one that’s blossoming slowly but surely into a pure-white, dove-light flower. Appearing in 1944, Paul Nash’s painting, ‘Flight of the Magnolia,’ seemed to anticipate the peace that would come a year later at the end of the Second World War, especially as the Dorset-based Nash was himself a war artist of some magnitude who experienced the frontline first hand a quarter of a century earlier in the First World War trenches.

Sixty-five years on from its first appearance, ‘Flight of the Magnolia’ is the starting point for the latest film-based collaboration between Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer who have previously joined forces for a trio of works that peek behind closed doors to explore not-quite private lives in public spaces. Nashashibi/Skaer’s first film, ‘Ambassador,’ focussed on the British Consul-General of Hong Kong, a man forever on duty and effectively on display in an equally well-turned-out residence awash with all the ancient finery such a post requires. Shown over two screens, one above the other, all that was missing was a box of Ferrero Rocher.

The follow-up, ‘Flash in the Metropolitan’, zeroes in even further on a public display which is conversely kept out of view or in storage. A series of still-life close-ups of assorted vases and African statues, already distanced by the glass cases that contain them from potential butter-fingered breakages, are filtered through a slow pulse of light that lends them an even more exotic mystery. The pair's most recent work, ‘Pygmalion Workshop,’ seemed to have forced its exquisite way out of the screen to make a massive installation involving a Venice priest transforming himself as he dons his vestments.

This new piece, then, sounds loaded with a similarly spiritual dimension. 'Our shared interest in the Paul Nash painting seems to be the way that the flower pictured in the painting stands as an analogy,' Skaer says. 'Nash writes of the idea of flying as felt in dreams. This seems to distil into an idea of natural objects becoming free from meaning, detached, floating and able to be seen anew. This use of an image to take on a new meaning seems very contemporary and specifically related to film, where images of real things are given an idiosyncratic meaning through being part of a train of thought or narrative. Our work will follow the idea that film is the artform most akin to this consciousness.'

Nashashibi concurs, stating that 'we find Nash's particular use of visual analogies, his surrealism routed in landscape painting and a use of natural phenomena to suggest something much more temporal, sophisticated and constructed such as warfare or art objects themselves very relevant. We start by filming the painting and putting it in the centre of the film. The film orbits around this, and takes in wildlife, photographs and video sequences, in an interrogation of the painting that might end up some distance from it.'

With Nash’s painting coming at the end of the Second World War, a multitude of meanings and associations to do with flight, war and peace appear to be at play. Nashashibi/Skaer aren’t, though, interested in imposing any kind of literal interpretation on their own work. 'The painting has many resonances,' Skaer notes. 'Our interest really comes from what the painting actually does as an image, how Nash uses the magnolia as a surrogate or analogy. The displacement of the opening flower into the sky makes it available to be re-read. Our film will explore this idea rather than take a thematic direction.'

Nashashibi points out that they are interested in what analogies do to things and whether we are all learning a language from them that is taking us further in our thinking. 'That all things can be related to all other things is an unsettling thought. Nash seems to be able to depict ideas through things in a way that makes them collectively understood and important, rather than endlessly transferable. In our film, a signed photographic portrait of a well-known face – tapping into our childhood memories sat in front of the TV – becomes an image from a dream, just as Nash's landscapes do.'

Nashashibi and Skaer began their collaboration following a dialogue about each artist’s individual works. As they talked or wrote about their methods, this mutual respect later developed a public profile, the logical conclusion of which was to work together with what Skaer describes as a 'shared intent to experiment'. In their previous works, Nashashibi/Skaer have focussed in different ways on the relationship between public and private spaces. 'In those works,' says Skaer, 'the film makes the viewer very aware that their viewpoint is manipulated or transformed from a neutral transparent view. The film in some senses contains a private view of a public subject.'

Nashashibi explains further that their collaborative films enhance the camera's transformative role. 'You never see the camera as a transparent eye, it always has some effect that you palpably feel. Whether that is turning an object or person upside down, or flooding them with flashes of light; the way in which the film is made is primary and the subject is affected by that. This new film seems at the moment to be a kind of contained collage, and so will be more constructed than our other works.'

Beyond their look at 'Flight of the Magnolia', Nashashibi/Skaer will continue to be a going concern. The pair will show later in the year at the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis, while Nashashibi is also working on a solo show at the ICA in London. Skaer, meanwhile, has the little matter of being nominated for the Turner Prize to contend with. In terms of how the nomination has affected her practice, though, Skaer maintains that it’s 'business as usual'.

This is the case too for Nashashibi/Skaer, an alliance as organic as the work itself. 'We work in an increasingly instinctive and intuitive way,' notes Nashashibi. 'We find a consensus between us and that is what forms the work. In earlier works we've agreed beforehand about a concept that the film will follow, but more recently our collaboration has become more experimental. Our method of allowing ourselves to go from one thing to another instinctively is making our collaborations more and more difficult to talk about while we are making them. We don't try to second guess the meaning of the work before we've gone some way forward with producing it. This stops things getting stuck and boring and stops us making things we already know about.'

Nashashibi/Skaer, doggerfisher, Gayfield Square, 0131 558 7110, 1 Aug-26 Sep, free.

Nashashibi / Skaer

  • 4 stars

Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer have been collaborating since 2005. For their first solo exhibition in Scotland they will exhibit a new 16mm film, specially commissioned by doggerfisher. The film takes as its starting point the paintings of the early 20th century British artist, Paul Nash and in particular his…