WORDS, PLANETS, Laida Lertxundi, 2018.
Laida Lertxundi’s new film WORDS, PLANETS (presented as a three-channel installation at LUX until 7 July 2018) borrows words from R.D. Laing and Lucy Lippard (via a Spanish translation: Yo veo, tú significas). It also features a number of motifs (aural, visual, narrative) that have consistently accompanied her work during the past decade. Here is an attempt to discuss some of them.
An incomplete list of words, for WORDS, PLANETS.
Although Lertxundi’s 16mm films are generally associated with “landscape” as an idea and a genre, bodies have been a captivating presence in Lertxundi’s cinema since her debut Footnotes to a House of Love (2007). Bodies sleeping, longing, desiring. Often lying down, like the couple in the sun in Footnotes, or, like Tanya Rubbak in My Tears Are Dry (2008) or Josette Chiang in A Lax Riddle Unit (2011), in a Los Angeles bedroom (the filmmaker’s own). Waiting for something to happen, listening to music in the meantime. Although they don’t say much, and we never learn anything about them, these mysterious bodies are always a compelling presence. When they do speak, it is to read: Lippard in WORDS, PLANETS, Adolfo Bioy Casares in We had the Experience but Missed the Meaning (2014). Awkward performances by non-actors for the bodies that appear in her films are often those of family and friends. They are the bodies that have physically helped her to make the film. Their images are another way for Lertxundi to depict the invisible labour behind filmmaking. Lertxundi herself appears in all her films, if only as a fleeting figure. But even when her image is not present, her films are inhabited by her presence. Lertxundi often films in her own apartment, using personal objects as props. Domestic space – in its evocation of women’s daily domestic life – is a recurrent theme in her oeuvre.
In WORDS, PLANETS we not only see the people who have made the film, we also see the film in its making. The central section of the film – the universe dancing – is a hand-etched animation, one which we’ve seen created by two girls scratching on film on a balcony, and someone’s hand (the filmmaker) punching holes in the film strip. Self-reflexivity has always been important for Lertxundi, her work deals with and demystifies film process, but it’s never been as direct as here.
WORDS, PLANETS is the result (the culmination maybe) of two separate but undoubtedly connected developments in Laida Lertxundi’s work: on the one hand, an evolution towards working with text (not only with text on screen, but with text as score, using literary sources as references and structuring devices) and on the other, using the body (her own) as material, challenging misconceptions about her work and thus proposing the possibility of a totally “embodied” cinema. For years, her films were interpreted as being “personal” when they were not. “Personal” was a claim that she, as a female artist, felt was too obvious and dismissive and which she resisted. But in recent works, such as 025 Sunset Red (2016) and Vivir para Vivir (2015), she has resolutely decided to “go personal,” using her own body as site for production. Bodily expressions – her menstrual blood, a cardiogram, an orgasm – have become “material” in the same way as sound, landscape, recording devices and props were used in her earlier films. In the course of making WORDS, PLANETS, Lerxundi became pregnant and gave birth. This transformation of her life and her body deeply affected the filmmaking process. WORDS, PLANETS concludes the statement, “and my life from now on is two lives.” It’s too soon to speculate in what direction the two lives will take Lertxundi’s practice, but WORDS, PLANETS feels like the conclusion of a cycle, completing a trilogy of the body started with Vivir para Vivir.
C is for Cacti, and L is for Lemons. In plural, as there are many in this film and they are recurring totems in Laida Lertxundi’s work. Lemon (1969) is also a film by Hollis Frampton that she has often shown together with her work. Frampton’s Lemon looks very much like a planet, the effect of the lighting being akin to that of the Sun on the rotating Earth or the Moon.
There are also many bananas in Lertxundi’s work, but none on this film.
The TV monitor made its first appearance in Lertxundi’s Cry When It Happens (2010), in what has become an iconic image of early 21st century avant-garde film. A solitary monitor in front of a desert mountain range which remains defiantly ‘on’ as the night comes, darkening the image. For someone who works with analogue 16mm film, the monitor introduces another material medium into her practice, that of analogue video.
The monitors also insert a new image into the image of the film, collapsing two images (and spaces) into a single one, something Lertxundi also does through superimposition and projection. In We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning, a deserted landscape is projected onto a book, folding two different places and temporalities onto one shot, allowing Lertxundi to stretch out and blur time. We might see an image that was just part of the film again, but “reframed”, like the couple’s embrace in 025 Sunset Red, which is seen first as a full image, and then on a monitor – watched by Lertxundi herself, lying naked on an empty studio floor.
In WORDS, PLANETS some of the shots of the film which we’ve just seen are projected in a dark room, a small screen in the distance. They become “rushes”. In Listening to the Space in my Room (2013) by Robert Beavers, we see him at work, editing a different film, The Suppliant (2010). This mise en abyme confuses time. The Suppliant (2010) is still then in the future; it does not yet exist. But it is in fact the past, for it would in fact be completed long before Listening to the Space in my Room. In WORDS, PLANETS, the rushes are of the very same film that we are watching; a gesture reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which film historians like to joke should have been called Woman with a Pair of Scissors.
The monitors in WORDS, PLANETS are not in the film, but in the exhibition space, bringing materiality and physical presence to the image, and more importantly to the text in the film. The image is multiplied and the film expanded across the gallery.
How to dissociate Lertxundi’s films from their music and the particular songs that she uses? Remember (Walking in the Sand) by the Shangri-Las, Hoagy Lands’ My Tears Are Dry (in a film that implicitly references another song, Ella Fitzgerald’s All My Life) … In WORDS, PLANETS the song is Faine Jade’s Just Can’t Let You Go.
Songs were her first foray into “words.” For because of the emotional intensity of the lyrics, the words are impossible to ignore. Music cannot only be a background for the images. These are songs about heartbreak and loss which require one’s full engagement.
And here’s the irony: Lertxundi exposes the process of making a soundtrack (here quite literally, as someone plays music to the projection of the film’s rushes); a technique that should put the spectator in a distanced, analytical, self-aware position. But because of the choice of music, one cannot help being carried away by feelings, having exactly the kind of emotional response that music in (narrative, industrial) film is expected to produce.
Throughout her work, there is friction between two opposite and opposing forces: one distanced, intellectual, conceptual, ironic even; the other sentimental, intimate, sensuous, intuitive. Foregrounding the tensions between construction and reality inherent to the process of filmmaking, her films read as open narratives. They also read as poems.
Maria Palacios Cruz is a film curator and Deputy Director at LUX.