“This is a chant for the eternal present. Punctuated by bass drones and mouth harps and Black Metal shrieks, articulated in the alchemy of light spilling across a series of silvered screens, this is an ode in praise of Now.Drawn from various latitudes and populated by commune-dwellers, animists, wanderers, time-travelers, and You and Us – this is where ley lines converge, where a new song springs into being. Herein is cinema-as-space: a chant for the present, a spell to ward off the darkness.”
Ben Rivers & Ben Russell

Ever since it started, Solar – which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2015 – ended up being known for introducing a number of hitherto unknown artists in our country, whose work reflected the will to try out a method of artistic creation that anticipated the way of presenting this work publicly – whether in the gallery, in the movie theatre or in performative situations –, as were the notable cases of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming Liang, Gustav Deutsch, or Matthias Müller and Christoph Girardet.
Throughout these years, in which Solar distinguished itself as a permanent exhibition space, it sought to develop a strong tie with authors that gradually emerged in the context of Curtas Vila do Conde International Film Festival. Two prominent figures in that context were Ben Rivers (UK) and Ben Russell (USA). Their films have been extensively screened at the festival, both within the international and the experimental competition.
The focus of their research, within experimental cinema, crosses the border between documentary and fiction – revealing, however, a very distinct style of their own. In Rivers’ work, what stands out is a world of solitude, reflected in a film aesthetic that favours the use of 16mm film, by means of which he reveals a concern with the idea of community and utopia and with the research of alternative or hermetic ways of life in marginal social spaces. The focus of his work is, in a way, the relationship between man and society.
Russell, in his turn, is a multimedia artist who creates installations and performances that interweave his interest in history, rituals and the semiotics of the moving image by means of very contrasting visual experiments. His research links the beginning of film history with visual anthropology and structuralist film.
Over the last years, on the side of their individual projects, both filmmakers began working on a feature film together: A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which ended up being released in 2013, with its world premiere at the Locarno Festival. In this feature, despite its stylistic idiosyncrasies, both filmmakers made an effort to move beyond their fundamental cinematic semiology and search for a kind of transcendental “realism”, by making a synthesis of modern ethnography and materialist aesthetics, which is witnessed by the physical attributes of the film. This experimental documentary became a fascinating blend of both artists’ methods, without, however, jeopardising the individuality of each one. Meticulously structured into three parts, the film’s starting point is rigid and predetermined, which contrasts with the exploratory nature of both their work. However, it gradually unwinds with a nameless character – starred by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – who travels through different environments: a commune in Estonia, a forest in Finland and a Black Metal performance in Norway. This film led to the creation of installations intimately linked to the universe developed for it. To venture into the exhibition space always interested both and, through some partnerships, gained shape in the creation of installation works.
Solar – Cinematic Art Gallery was from very early on interested in the worlds of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, as well as in their collaborative work. In that sense, it decided to challenge both artists to create an exhibition within the spaces of the gallery, complemented by a parallel programme that would be included in this year’s festival programme. The exhibition that is now presented voiced a mutual will to develop an experiment that would somehow explore a possible link between the physical space of the gallery and a set of films previously directed by the two artists/filmmakers. The concept developed implied defining an idea for a group of works that shared a common thread; these works could, however, be subject to new readings within that space, in view of their recontextualisation. One of the aims was also to offer the viewer/spectator a view on freedom and movement that would allow him/her freedom of choice and to establish a relationship with the space, the chosen route and the different films/media presented.
The exhibition takes two individual projects as its starting point.
The first, “Ah, Liberty!”, directed by Ben Rivers and winner of Curtas’ experimental competition in 2008, is presented in a device that embodies, within the darkened room, a 16mm projector and its corresponding projection in scope format. This way of presenting films, often explored by Rivers in the context of exhibitions, refers the spectator to the ritual of projection, offering a moment of magic, where children and animals live moments of rare beauty and freedom amid junk and nature. The second film, “ River rites”, directed by Russell in 2011, is presented in a different device, as it seeks to embody the projection within the space of another room, employing a distinct sculptural logic. The bodily element of his images, originally shot in 16mm film, is here carried onto a game that explores their transformation and scattering by matter itself in the place of projection. The device of the movie theatre is abandoned and a new object seems to want to acquire a magical meaning. The viewer is led to watch a ritual of projected and reflected images, in a sequence played in reverse, of a set of everyday gestures and rituals of a group of men and children in a river in Suriname.
In an area set apart from the gallery space, the central piece of this exhibition is presented - “A Spell to Ward off the Darkness” -, which includes three projections (Black Metal, Commune and Solitude). This piece seems to want to break with the original architecture of the gallery. Taking the rigid structure that was the starting point from which this feature film was developed (exploring a character’s movement through three distinct sceneries), this installation is structured around the above-mentioned projections, placed inside three triangular constructions. These constructions allow the viewer to wander randomly throughout the projection space, as well as throughout the spaces in which the character moves in the film itself. This spatial logic thus conveys a new dimension and reading to the film, as well as to the role of the viewer/spectator who, in that apparently magical place, can, just like the character, wonder in solitude through the beauty of those utopian places. Finally, in an isolated area in the basement of Solar, another work developed by the two artists is presented. In this one, we are led into a number of rituals and fights between a group of Vikings, who are interrupted by the loud, piercing sounds coming from six vinyl record players playing Black Metal tracks.
After freedom and utopia, we are confronted with the ritual of death.
Rivers and Russell chose four pieces: two individual projects and two joint ones that document moments/gestures/tastes/concerns that somehow reflect a number of common interests and gave rise to some “occasional” collaborations, as both like to say.
In RUINS / RITES / RUNES, Rivers and Russell ask the spectator to live “cinema-as-space” and, within that experience, who knows, discover the spell to ward off the darkness.
Nuno Rodrigues

© 2021 Curtas Vila do Conde