When it comes to making their feelings known, Oliver Payne, 23, and Nick Relph, 21—two British video makers who describe themselves respectively as “failed” and “expelled” from art school—don’t beat around the bush. About the English art world, the duo claims, “The only shocking thing about British art is its total insignificance to anything going on in modern Britain. Young British art speaks a dead language. It resides in London”—which they denounce as “a city so assured of its brilliance that it constantly forgets to do anything noteworthy. Madonna has moved here because it’s so fucking boring.” They brand the British press’s regular adulation of English artists as a “weekly congratulations card to smug Londoners, fooling the capital into believing that Emin and Hirst are suss and savvy.”
Payne and Relph’s video trilogy, now on view at Gavin Brown, vividly portrays the pair’s misgivings about life in present-day Great Britain. Stylistically, Driftwood, House & Garage, and Jungle are part documentary, part surveillance video, and part tirade. Together they form a kind of howl or lamentation—a love song to their native London, albeit sung in the key of spleen. Throughout the trilogy, but especially in Driftwood, the first and best part, the duo’s antipathy for artiness is evident, but their compassion and grace are unmistakable. Their condemnation of the vapidity of much of today’s architecture suggests Driftwood ought to be required viewing for all architects—especially those currently drooling over the opportunity of building on the burial mound that is the World Trade Center site. The freshness, fluency, and fearlessness apparent in Driftwood and House & Garage make these videos recommended viewing for anyone interested in the medium.
Payne and Relph rely heavily on attitudinal posturing and an array of influences, from MTV and BBC documentaries to Dan Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans. But they do so with tenderness, intelligence, and dash. All three videos, each about 30 minutes long, lambaste the British powers that turned London and its suburbs into “a heaping mass of degradation.” House & Garage, the impressionistic middle section, exudes an entropic pall and deals with forlorn suburbia. Rilke’s line “Joy gone astray” could be its subtitle. Employing laconic, Wim Wenders-like camera work, blurry shots of joggers, line dancers, and wayward youth reading Oscar Wilde or idling in bedrooms, House & Garage is all but devoid of narration and ends with a resolutely neoromantic image: fireworks screened in reverse. In the background we hear the Sex Pistols’ nihilistic anthem “No Future,” and the voice-over’s admonition-cum-benediction: “This isn’t a joke, so don’t you dare laugh. . . . Drugs and violence, and joys of London life. Youth disappeared in the night, leaving a void filled only with regrets.” Jungle, the weakest installment, focuses on the region just beyond the suburbs, and comes off as a muddled Blair Witch Project made by animal rights activists. Murky and piecemeal, it examines the pettiness and complacency of regional politics—in this case, country factions divided between those who approve and disapprove of fox hunting.
Driftwood makes the whole trilogy worthwhile. A 33-minute knife in the side of what Payne and Relph call “the gleaming, blustery . . . grotesque waste of marble and steel” that is modern London, it speaks to those who have seen their ideals “reduced to slogans and buzzwords . . . watered down and sold back at a price,” and centers on skateboarders who have commandeered sections of the city for their own purposes (despite numberless official attempts to foil them). Driftwood fuses indictment, investigation, poetry, and plea. It exhibits the pair’s gifts for speaking—or appealing—directly to an audience and getting around the barriers of art and cleverness.
Although Driftwood relates to “downward spiral” films like Sid and Nancy and Naked, and is almost unrelentingly bleak, it also seethes with empathy and ardor. After Rock My Religion, Dan Graham’s 1982-84 magnum opus, Driftwood‘s closest living art relative is probably Johan Grimonprez’s coolly gripping 1995-97 pseudodocumentary, Dial HISTORY. However, rather than relying on appropriated footage or a script cobbled together from novels, as Grimonprez’s tape does, Driftwood is an entirely original work. Composed of rhythmic cuts and deadpan shots of cement embankments, fluorescent-lighted buildings, sleeping bums, strolling businessmen, and sunless skies, Driftwood has all the drawbacks of insipid high school level existentialism. But a dirge-like soundtrack and eloquent narration—one of the best I’ve ever heard in a video—prevent it from devolving into cliché, and propel it into a more ecstatic realm. Driftwood is an invitation, in the words of the narrator, to “navigate your city by alternative means.”
“Nobody knows London. There is no knowledge which can understand it,” a voice intones, as we see images of South Bank—that district a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern. A drab reminder of the havoc wrought by architects, bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians, the area is an overbuilt, understimulating, market-driven quasibunker of pedestrian walkways, subterranean concourses, upscale malls, office complexes, apartment blocks, and culture fortresses—the very sort many New York architects are already talking about building on the “ground zero” site. Driftwood is a warning to these people and their “zero-sum game.” House & Garage and Jungle, while not up to this level, are tough enough to hammer the point home.