Rachel Maclean in her 11-minute film ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

When the Jarman Award for avant-garde film-making announces its winner on Wednesday at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London it will be the end of a nine-month process involving more than 300 scouts. One artist from the final shortlist of 10 will win a £10,000 prize and a broadcast commission with Channel Four, and three further shortlisted artists will receive broadcast commissions. At which point the hundreds of disparate curators and programmers, distributors and fellow artists working in moving image across the country who first put those names forward in March will start looking out for the next 10 nominees.

It’s a very Derek Jarman approach. If you ascribe some of the director’s continued prominence, close to 20 years after his death, to the deep admiration of the many fans, friends and collaborators who remain vocal advocates for his legacy, then the way this prize goes about its business fits like a glove. Unlike most art prizes, and unlike almost all film prizes, the Jarman celebrates the artist rather than just one piece of work. The award was launched six years ago – by the Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network, an organisation that supports London-based artists working in moving image – to be the UK’s first truly avant-garde film prize.

For the Jarman, an artist film-maker using anything from triple-screen projection to movies made entirely inside a computer has, unlike say for the Turner Prize, their whole body of work nominate, rather than any specific film or latest exhibition. (In fact, Spartacus Chetwynd has found herself on the shortlist for both the Turner and Jarman.) In the very fluid area of moving-image work, the Jarman tries to navigate the terrain between experimental film and installation art or “gallery” film by placing them all together under the same rubric of moving-image art – and does a pretty good job at it. You just know a Jarman-y film when you see it.

Technically, a nominee for the Jarman – essentially a leg-up award – must be a UK artist whose film work “resists conventional definition”. They must have been working using film for at least five years and yet be “at the cusp of breaking through to greater definition”. So, an established director such as Jonathan Glazer with his resoundingly art feature Under the Skin (extremely opaque, at times close to an installation) would be overqualified for the award, whereas the thousands making and posting guerrilla video art online are not quite visible enough.

Seven women sit on this year’s shortlist. People tell me that this is terribly significant, given the sexism of the art world. Is the art world really sexist? Any more than any other sector or industry? Many of the nominated artists I spoke to said they weren’t all that interested in the debate. Perhaps, faced with the testosterone-led struggles of a commercial feature film set, a disproportionate number of women prefer smaller-scale video-art work. But even that statement is riddled with exceptions.

A frame from Jessica Warboys’ ‘Pageant Roll’, filmed in Cornwall

Much of the work in the award is exceptional. Jessica Warboys’ Pageant Roll, filmed on 16mm at a stone circle in Cornwall, seems directly inspired by Jarman’s 1971 short film A Journey to Avebury: the grass, the stones, the sense that this was a place of very performative ritual, with Warboys setting a fabulously shaggy green parasol madly adrift across a spring-green field. “The film rolls one way and then rolls back,” Warboys tells me. “And it’s as if you were seeing the other side of the film, because actual film is a strip, a ribbon, and I always kind of wanted to see both sides.”

In Beatrice Gibson’s gorgeously nostalgic “crime thriller” The Tiger’s Mind (also shot on 16mm) the camera moves about the shadowed and vacant rooms inside a Brutalist villa with a hard stare reminiscent of Soviet film-maker Tarkovsy. The work came about when Gibson first invited colleagues simply to talk together. “Halfway through the process I said that I was bored of talking,” says Gibson. “It was getting too lofty. The art world is so hermetic, it chases its own tail. It can be too exclusive. Limiting.”

She has a point. No matter how hard an award tries to be free of convention, clichés often creep in. Some of the artists here do lapse (one explores “the physical, cognitive and virtual dimensions of surplus capital and its global accumulation/valorisation”) and some films are rather predictably anti-state and pseudy.

But if there is an element of intellectual vanity to the award, there is also a thrilling confidence, a seam of lunacy and romanticism, that pulls you along. Sculpture, painting, costume, the savage, the whiff of the school play, it’s all here. None more so than in Rachel Maclean’s 11-minute masochistic but on-the-button film The Lion and the Unicorn, in which the artist, dressed as a lion with a prosthetic nose, mimes impeccably to a recording of Jeremy Paxman interrogating Alex Salmond (also played by Maclean) togged up as a unicorn. Nobody is going to nod off in this movie.

At the Whitechapel this weekend, nominees will be showing whatever they like, including new work: demonstrating that the form and their career is ongoing, not stuck in a gallery or even belonging in a gallery full stop.

The most interesting aspect of this kind of art right now is its relationship to long-form narrative cinema. Studios are eager to talent-spot artists who might furnish a mainstream hit, and, like Sam Taylor-Johnson, or Steve McQueen with 12 Years A Slave, a “future in movies” looms over video artists. But not every artist working in film has aspirations to take that larger canvas. Jarman himself, towards the end of his life – bone-weary with HIV – turned to abstract painting from film, claiming that he saw no difference in the two forms. As one of the judges, visual arts editor at Dazed and Confused Fran Gavin says: “It’s vital that there are opportunities outside a commercial environment. That’s very Jarman.”

A weekend of Jarman Award talks and discussions starts Saturday at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. whitechapelgallery.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.