The air, like a stone pairs a new commission by Ōtautahi-based artist Emma Fitts with a feature-length work by the London-based painter and filmmaker Rosalind Nashashibi. Fitts’s work, From heat to translucence / your mineral touch (2023), a painting-slash-wall hanging, is installed in The Physics Rooms’ window space, awash with abundant natural light and facing out onto the arts centre courtyard. Nashashibi’s video, Denim Sky (2018-2022) has been sectioned off by a makeshift black box, and is projected onto a curved fabric screen that ripples slightly, adding a painterly quality to the work. The film is long for a gallery context. Run time is almost an hour. It’s winter, light bleeds in from the curtain, the docent is always moving around opening up the back-room door, letting in more light. They’re going about their routine. They’re noisy, disruptive and yet pleasant enough. It’s not the most accommodating context in which to watch a film like this. You might say it’s a challenge. You also have to time it right. The film loops, when’s it to start? Do you have to watch it from the start? When’s it best to go? I went once and the gallery was closed for a lunch break. It was raining, it was wet. Then, after I couldn’t chance it anymore, I opted to go right when the gallery had opened. But when does a gallery like that actually open? A cold Sunday morning. Who wouldn’t blame them for wanting to get a coffee first? But actually, none of this really matters. Nashashibi’s film is intermittent, fragmentary. Interruptions are fine. I recall what John Cage said about the joy of rediscovery. About how interruption affords it. You could always just look at Fitts’s painting through the window.
Denim Sky revolves around a story structure about nonlinear narratives, kinship groupings and memory itself. That it’s paired with Fitts though, reminds us how Nashashibi is a painter, and sets up not only the painterly affectations of her cinematography but also the structural role that painting plays within the film. With scenes of Nashashibi working in the studio, walking through galleries, confronting paintings, and leafing through books about painting, there is a case to be made that Denim Sky—whilst ostensibly a film about non-linear narratives and kinship groupings—is also a film about how a painter stretches her practice to incorporate (or accommodate) the moving image.
Cast with friends and family, Denim Sky elaborates on speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella The Shobies’ Story (1990). The film opens with the group holidaying in a coastal home and discussing Le Guin’s story, in which an experimental form of space travel allows astronauts to travel beyond the speed of light without radically ageing. What enables this, as Nashashibi’s characters discuss, is the newly found ability to switch off linear time, to disengage from time’s unidirectional flow. Importantly, this occurs at the moment at which the film intercuts between the group’s discussion around a coffee table, and a scene of a man wading out to sea to fish. This splicing of the mundane with the speculative comes to define Nashashibi’s film, an aspect reinforced by her preference for filming in locations surrounded by the ocean (the Orkney Islands and the Baltic Sea). Moreover, these scenes set in tidal zones are often foregrounded by her use of sweeping filmic scans of the horizon, constantly taunting this liminal mood as a kind of acoustic background to the ongoing discussion around time and linearity. In one such panoramic scene, the protagonists’ voiceover teases at the narrative strands of The Shobies’ Story, recalling that by switching off linearity, space travel has become possible, but as a result, all comprehension between the travellers on the spaceship has broken down. It is only by lighting a fire and re-establishing a form of linearity through shared storytelling that the group is able to recompose itself. In this sense, the act of fishing that occurs within the tidal zone—a single line cast into the ebb of the tide—is also an act of solidarity, a confirmation of communal life. Time and again, the protagonists come together in these liminal zones that are so often set around eating and drinking—these half-way spaces, not quite home, not quite permanent—to affirm their sense of belonging, their evident joy in being with one another.
Through Nashashibi’s prioritising of the communal grouping, we are reminded that, even in The Shobies’ Story, it isn’t possible to travel in space without forgoing the rhythms of Terran life. It is at this point that one of the characters points out that love functions similarly to this splicing of linear time. To fall in love is to fall into what the political philosopher Antonio Negri calls kairòs, an immediacy of time that is all-encompassing, to be consumed by the moment of its embodiment.(1) As Nashashibi’s protagonist puts it, this kind of love is all consuming, you lose your sense of self by turning yourself over to the love felt for the other. And yet, it’s so subconsciously attuned as to be problematic. To be in kairòs is to be embodied with time, to function without forethought, without self-reflexivity. As we hear from the film, it is often only when love ends that we find ourselves comprehending what it meant in the first place. When it ends, we feel a sense of loss. Love becomes a sentiment, a memory. Here love functions like time in the philosopher Michel Serres’s example of the napkin, in which he explains how an expanse of time is never necessarily linear, but capable of being crumpled, of being compressed and pulled together.(2) Like time, love is full of crossover, of zones bleeding into one another, of containing multiple contact points that elude linear conscription.
This is a useful moment at which to consider Fitts’s painting From heat to translucence / your mineral touch. Here, Nashashibi’s probing of linearity finds a timely resonance in Fitts’s technique of assemblage. The painting hangs from the wall by a number of horizontal rods, each one counterbalanced by the other’s weight. This, then, is an elaborate string game. The feminist scholar Donna Haraway, herself inspired by Le Guin’s “carrier bag” theory of storytelling, has made much of string figures as “thinking as well as making practices”, elaborations that are “not in the world but of the world … pedagogical practices and cosmological performances.”(3) It’s in a similar manner that Fitts deploys this counterweighted apparatus to hold up a melange of canvases that have been quite literally turned loose to the sky. Its panels are composed from an earlier work, Lapping at Your Door (2022) in which the artist wrapped Objectspace in Tāmaki Makaurau in pastel canvas, exposing their fabric to the weather, to that humid urban atmosphere of grit and carbon dioxide and salty sea air. The fragments that now hang in The Physics Room are a testament to time itself. In a way, they have become Serres’s crumpled napkin, elaborately strung up, overlapping as fragmentary components of time’s indentation, its weathering. From heat to translucence / your mineral touch is then a pedagogical device in Haraway’s sense; it is not simply a painting placed in the world but composed of the world itself.
Fitts’s string device, with its assemblage of soft hues, mimics and mines the liminal scenes of Denim Sky. Tidal zones generate a potency all of their own, and yet Nashashibi’s panoramic focus on the horizon magnifies these places time and time again, reinforced by the diaristic and fragmentary nature of her approach to storytelling. The film moves between scenic shots and dialogue; it is shot on the fly, intimate and full of the nuance of everyday banality. Dishes abound, unmade beds, children are scuffling about, parents running on the beach, companions drinking, making jokes. All of this life is intermittent, threaded around and through any sense of narrative progression. It is like Fitts’s assemblage—strung together, counterweighted. The napkin is an expanse of time in which occupation occurs. It happens in that moment of overwhelming kairòs but it’s also there as testament, as a body of time. Fitts’s work is a type of mesh that makes memory such a crucial aspect of lived time, where fragments overlap in that self-reflexive moment of composition.
In the second act of Denim Sky, the characters are summoned by the fictional “Story Institute” to undertake a study to determine whether narrative can survive when linearity is suspended by travelling at the speed of light. Where we have previously seen the assembled cast on holiday, here in the city, they are distracted, absent-minded, squabbling amongst themselves. Eyes glazed over, they inattentively register the physical risks of space travel as detailed by an instructor who intones from a lectern: boiling blood, vision distortion, g-force. Instead, the film again focuses on the interstitial zone of sunset, cutting away to a shoreline at dusk, the red separation of the sky portending a change in atmosphere. Overtop, a voiceover recites a poem about a flower blooming and dying, regenerating over and over long after the author is dead. Here Denim Sky enacts a key tension, an interregnum between collective time and the moment of kairòs, that generative immersion in embodied time. Suddenly the cast have a purpose. They are to be specimens. Their idle holiday mode is ruptured. Newly attired in semi-professional outfits of some sort, they walk with purpose down a corridor, enthusiastically embodying their new roles.
Yet such purpose doesn’t last long, and intent quickly reverts to its former mode. Now we’re on the Baltic coast, a distinctly winterly tone. There is an element of retreat to these scenes, one of refuge. The cast soak in spa baths, their conversation is confessional. One man tries to recall a poem and can’t. Children fight and play. There is a ploy of narrative investigation. Wearing headphones, they are distanced from one another, their former unity becoming fragmentary. Like a string game, they are the puppets of an intermittent director—not just of the world but in it. The narrative breaks down into individual multiplicities; it needs to be recomposed, to be retold around the campfire. Nobody seems happy.
Part three of Nashashibi’s film abruptly jumps forward in time: The children are older, the cast is different, the group dynamic has changed. Now we’re walking with Nashashibi through the rooms of the National Gallery in London. Old Masters and Impressionist paintings abound. It’s here that the artist insists upon the painterly tropes of the film. She recounts the beginning of a new relationship, discussing the different shapes that the persona can take on. The camera seems to isolate the paintings, focusing on their component parts. The famous galleries becomes less of a coherent collection than a more motley assortment of lemons, cows, bull horns, bowls of fruit, seascapes. The collective idiom breaks down into something more personal, as the progression of time collapses into the instant. A voice recalls eating an apple that had been in a fruit bowl with quinces. The apple no longer tasted like apple but had taken on the flavour of the quince. The supposition here is of the constant tension between the collective and the individual. This is made explicit when the protagonist confronts an Impressionist portrait and begins to recite a poem, which is really just a list of miscellaneous intrusions upon one’s time. The competing demands of the individual and the collective are thus mapped onto the autonomy of one’s own time and its conflation experienced within the communal; the poem finishes with the strident declaration that these demands simply “go away,” but with the rejoinder that “I will join you in the street at 8pm.”
Later, in one of the final scenes of the film, we will see Nashashibi banging a drum in the middle of the street. Here there is a similar push and pull, but one that is also felt as a sense of time and scale. There is a relentless winding of time, of the immediacy of one’s own time, the insistence of the drum beat that is set against the more fractious time of the group where everything melds into a kind of blurred seamlessness. Perhaps they are losing time, or time is going too fast. Because this group dynamic involves us so much, there is no longer a self-reflexive conditioning of time, no awareness of its individual rhythm nor the privation of one’s own time. Which in a way, also goes to the case of representation: A medium that is linear by its very nature, the film needs to circle back, to create a narrative that loops upon itself. One that is composed from vignettes. And it might go some way to explain too, the omnipresence of Nashashibi’s lens. It is always looking down onto the group. It is never first person. Never a soliloquy, but always communal, reflective. Any monologue is always in the context of talking to the others. Poetry is recited in the spa. When they talk of love, it is around a table. Like so many of the panoramic shots of the horizon, these moments incorporate the group as a continuum. The final shots capture the characters walking through a Stonehenge-like formation in the Orkney Islands. It’s like that earlier poem about the regenerating flower—an echo of life’s continuum, of a linear time that is also circular. It turns back on itself, only to be repeated again.
This adjudication of time as it abuts the physical manifestations of culture comes to rest heavily on the scenes within the National Gallery, where Nashashibi is seen pacing through the rooms, confronting one painting after another. It’s here that you realise the primacy of Nashashibi’s practice as a painter. (We’ve seen shots of her paintings hanging on the walls, judiciously placed.) There is too, of course, her painterly approach to the work’s cinematography. Hazy is a lazy way of describing it. But it’s sensorial rather than exacting, and seems to approach representation not as a faithful record of events but instead as a circumnavigation, an ambulatory process. The film is gauzy. Details bleed into one another, which Nashashibi allows to layer up. In a sense, representation becomes more lifelike the more she turns to non-representational strategies. The audio and the visual aren’t cued together; they’re almost different films. There isn’t direct action so much as a kaleidoscope of agential participants. Denim Sky has a swarming painterly lushness to it. Like Fitts’s painting in the foyer, it strings up a narrative through its skeletal framing, but it’s not just a representation of the world, it is also immersed in it.
There is, I think, a much more oblique interpretation of Denim Sky, which has less to do with its narratives around time and familial groupings than with Nashashibi’s residency at the National Gallery during the filming of the work. As part of this residency Nashashibi was invited to hang her own paintings within the gallery. Initially daunted by this prospect, she eventually settled on the Spanish room.(4) It is possible then, that within these scenes of Denim Sky, we see Nashashibi wrestling with the decision to place her own paintings into this collection, with its particular tradition and idiom. Echoing the oscillation within the film, you can sense the artist’s trepidation that her works will also surrender their individual qualities to its collective authority. Nashashibi’s approach to this challenge is quite telling. As she states:
The thing I was quite worried about was that it would just not work, nevertheless I thought I would do this, that I would choose this room because the risk is an extremely important part of the process. The risk that, either it works or fails, means that if it does work then it is much more on an interesting edge than if it was always going to be fine. So, it’s not just about doing it because it’s risky, but the fact that it’s risky adds a certain importance to actually going through with it, because, I suppose, I believe that experience of transgressing a boundary of my own will somehow come out in the work as a strength.(5)
Another way of describing this is to expand upon Antonio Negri’s concept of kairòs. In his telling, to be enthralled with kairòs is always to be on the edge of the “to-come”.(6) It faces onto a void, onto the “interesting edge” in which something is always about to happen. As in The Shobies’ Story, linear time is suspended. For Negri, this links both the eternal and the communal—to be constituted within kairòs is to be not just at the “tip of the arrow” of time but embedded in the “to-come”. We see this throughout Denim Sky, as it moves from one location to the next, never settling except to communicate the importance of the communal. That this is grounded in storytelling, in a shared sociality, a coming together again and again, is not then simply a narrative about different forms of familial responsibility, but about a kinship grounded in lived time. Like Serres’s crumpled napkin, the familial grouping at the heart of Nashashibi’s film is pulled in different directions at different times. That these are always composed on that interesting edge, on the moment of the “to-come” grants all the more import to their decision to remain as a group. Much as Nashashibi’s paintings interlude within the Spanish room, there is a flux within the communal grouping that points to a time outside of linearity, to a liminal crumpling of time. That these moments do pose a type of risk, as Nashashibi suggests, isn’t necessarily detrimental, for it is through that risk that the generative strength of the communal is renewed afresh.
The air, like a stone was on view at The Physics Room, Ōtautahi Christchurch from 16 June to 30 July 2023.