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Lis Rhodes' Dissident Lines at Nottingham Contemporary

5 June 19 words: Daniel Welton

Thanks to the Freelands Award 2017, Dissident Lines is Rhodes’ first-ever survey, and will span almost 50 years of work. This is the first time that Nottingham Contemporary has ever dedicated all of its galleries to a retrospective. The exhibition will span Rhodes’ entire career, from iconic pieces such as Dresden Dynamo and Light Music to a specially commissioned new work. Daniel got down to check it out...

In 1985, Lis Rhodes travelled to West Virginia alongside her friend and filmmaker Mary Pat Leece to research the effects opencast coal mines were having upon the State’s drinking water. Soon after they arrived, however, their focus turned to the region’s migrant  population and the desperate circumstances in which they found them. For these wretched men and women there was no distinction between living and working conditions; they were agricultural labourers who slept in the rundown barns of the armed American farmers who had stolen their identification papers, tying them to the land like serfs. Faced with this servitude, both artists agreed that filming would be too ‘intrusive’ and chose instead to record the testaments of the dispossessed migrants and the sounds of the deprivation which surrounded them. These recordings would later become Running Light (1996), just one of the many works which make up Dissident Lines, Rhodes’ first-ever survey exhibition. Throughout this collection, Rhodes bears witness to similar acts of cruelty, imploring us to share in her distress and reflect upon the everyday horrors which pervade modern life.

In the main, Rhodes' practice is dominated by film, compiling stark imagery into dizzying, greyscale montages, strategically inflected with sharp reds and yellows. Rhodes overlays these films with her own penetrating voice, filling each gallery with scathing social critique; the feature-length film Journal of Disbelief (2000-2016) is perhaps the clearest example, detailing a twenty year history of conflict and suffering, whilst Dissonance and Disturbance (2012) examines the standardisation of violence in daily life.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Rhodes investigates the material qualities of light and sound, most notably in Dresden Dynamo (1971-72), where both are made intrinsic to each other. This was achieved by placing coloured images over the optic soundtrack of 16mm film, creating kaleidoscopic projections with irregular, thumping rhythms. Gallery 2 is devoted to Light Music (1975-76), an immersive installation which experiments once again with optic soundtracks, this time by superimposing them with musical scores to produce a visual symphony. In themselves, these works are relatively innocuous, yet intermingling with the scathing voices of the nearby films, they only add to the macabre atmosphere.

Perhaps the exhibition’s most pertinent work comes towards the end of gallery 4, along a sombre corridor. Upon the left-hand wall are huge lists, each concerning migrants who have died attempting to enter Europe. The rows of each list contain a name, a location, a date, and the circumstances of each death. The wall is covered and as I read the names the corridor seemed to grow interminably long, whilst the notion of a liberal Europe grew remote.

Dissident Lines is a sobering experience but not one to be turned down. Rhodes’ art is an extended reflection upon human atrocities and their universal nihilism. Rhodes draws attention to the senselessness of these horrors but also mankind’s persistent failure to negate them- this is clear in the protracted quality of her work. Within this fatal contradiction, Rhodes teaches us not to turn away from these harsh realities but to stare them down; to chew over our nausea and hope it gives way to a hunger for justice.

More information about the exhibition here

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