An evening of films, sound-works and readings by film-makers Robert Vas and Werner Kissling, artist Kurt Schwitters and poet Ivan Blatny, with special appearances by film-maker and cultural activist Andrea Luka Zimmerman, poet and translator Stephen Watts, curator and film-maker Peter Todd and poet and co-organiser of ‘Refugee Tales’, David Herd.
All these makers found themselves in Britain for various reasons around the same time in the troubled middle of the twentieth century, and this event marks various anniversaries attached to these distinctive makers.
Werner Kissling, who died thirty years ago on 3rd February in Dumfries, was a remarkable self-taught ethnographer, photographer and film-maker. Of aristocratic parentage, and despite a huge inheritance, he died pursuing his passions, penniless in an old peoples’ home. He was second secretary at the German embassy in London when the Nazis came to power and he resigned soon after. He is most renowned for his remarkable photographs of the Scottish Western Isles and his film Eriskay, a Poem of Remote Lives, made in 1934 on the island and the first film in Gaelic.
In somewhat different social cirumstances, iconic and multifarious collage, sound and Merz artist Kurt Schwitters fled the Nazis in 1937 arriving finally (after internment on the Isle of Man, like Kissling, at exactly the same time) in the Lake District, where his famous Merzbarn was made. He died there in January 1948, the same year that Ivan Blatny, an acclaimed young Czech poet, declared he would not return to his homeland after the Communist coup there.
Ivan Blatny, an acclaimed young Czech poet, declared he would not return to his homeland after the Communist coup. He had been invited to Britain by the British Council and was immediately stripped of his citizenship, denounced and even declared dead on Czech radio. He suffered from severe mental illness and spent the rest of his life (he died in 1990) in various asylums in the east of England. However, he continued to write and is now widely renowned as one of the major Czech poets of the century for his lyrical and surreal associative works, often written in Czech and English within the same poem.
Hungarian film-maker Robert Vas came to England for similar reasons, after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. A key documentarian, friend of Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, his important and strongly autobiographically informed film Refuge England was included in the pioneering Free Cinema programmes at the NFT. Despite his untimely early death in 1978, his socially engaged, poetically insightful films are rightly remembered.
Tonight’s programme includes readings by poet Stephen Watts of work by Ivan Blatny alongside original footage of the poet; an original sound piece recited by Kurt Schwitters himself, the films Eriskay, a Poem of Remote Lives (Kissling) and Refuge England (Vas), as well as two artists’ film works inspired by Schwitters: Merzschmerz by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, and Knots by Adam Chodzko.
Fairy tales are handed down from mothers to daughters, and from fathers to sons. As they are passed on, the tales grow in the telling – or gradually depart from the original, as new elements get added, or others get cut. Steeped in memories of childhood, nursery rhymes and other bedside stories seem to speak with the authentic voice of pre-history, and forge a direct link to that bygone past. Although this is an enchanting notion, the reality is that these age-old fables are always something of a patchwork: the product of different authors, at different times.
The party line about Kurt Schwitters was that he was many things: poet, performer, painter, prankster (and permutations of the above). It’s less often noted that he was also a writer of children’s stories – a playful, avuncular spirit with a penchant for the macabre and the absurd. A number of Schwitters’ captivating children’s tales form the basis of Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s Merzschmerz, a series of short videos in which children revisit what they remember of each recently-read story, and relay it in the company of an adult (family member, neighbour, guardian or friend). As the children furrow their brows in concentration, or smirk in advance at the funny things they are about to impart, their excited faces are echoed by the indulgent, quizzical smiles of the adults, creating a moment of togetherness, and adding to the pieces’ infectious charm. (FVU)
Merzschmerz was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella as part of the group project MerzBank.
In Knots, Adam Chodzko focuses on the remote but important relationship between the artist Kurt Schwitters in the final years of his life in the late 1940’s, living in poverty (and exile) in England’s Lake District, and J. Edgar Kaufmann, the wealthy owner of the Kaufman Department Store in Pittsburgh, USA. Kaufmann had arranged for money to be wired to Schwitters so that he could develop a new Merz structure.
Chodzko, playing with the idea of trying to draw everything together and tie up the loose ends of this narrative (for an exhibition at the Tate) imagines the now empty Merzbarn (Schwitters final work having been removed to a Newcastle museum in 1965) as a vacuum, sucking in thoughts, desires and matter, as though all caught up in the vortex of a surreal dream.
Kaufmann’s had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design his Pittsburgh office, a structure that itself was also later displaced, donated to the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Chodzko sees the interior spaces that Schwitters and Kaufmann worked within as unstable, flowing, collaged together, as though becoming a Merz themselves, whilst the form of the video itself also echoes this process of construction and deconstruction.
Knots is a mesmerising combination of fact and fiction, text and moving image building a story about longing, creation and fragmentation, endings and beginnings, networks of people and isolated individuals, separations and notions of home. (LUX)