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Laura Mulvey examines Sutapa Biswas' Birdsong

The cinema is essentially a medium of temporal duration. But within this duration, depiction of time may vary. Usually, the cinema's depiction of time is tied to the illusion of movement. The appearance and aesthetic of natural movement, and its extraordinary ability to mimic human perception of human life, has made the cinema into the great story-teller and recorder that it is. Of course, as everyone knows, this mimicking, this aesthetic of natural movement, is an illusion that is achieved by filming and projecting a series of still images, the film strip, at approximately 24 frames per second. But the history of cinema, almost from its very beginning, has also seen explorations of a complex temporality that the mass of, mainly narrative, film has tended to conceal. In the first instance, there is a basic contradiction between the cinema's movement and the still frame of the celluloid strip. Stillness and movement: while the moving image echoes human perception of the world, stillness echoes the frozen image to which human production of art (including photography) has been tied for so long. One has the familiarity of nature, the other the familiarity of culture. However, in between these extremes are a range of other temporalities that have little or no connection with human perception of time or its realisation in naturalised movement, for instance, repetition, reversal, stretching time by slowing the image, extending duration. With devices like these, the iconic element, the content, in a specific image may begin to recede and be replaced by the heavy weight of temporality itself materialised in all its uncertainty. And this effect may, in turn, generate a glimmering awareness that human consciousness creates pattern and order to avoid the unspeakable and intractable nature of time itself, of its passing and, ultimately, of death.

Time has always been a significant theme in Sutapa Biswas' work. But in her new installation, Birdsong , time has become a more explicit theme and she uses the formal attributes of the moving image to evoke questions about the relation between temporalities and human imagination. Form and content not only alternate in visibility but one also enhances the other, so that the moving image's own temporal attributes lead to themes and motifs about time and its representation and then back again. This is a piece of great thematic richness. It is organised into four shots, each of which is shown doubled, placed next to one another inside a black screen. The piece opens and closes with a shot of a little winged horse, exquisitely made from folded paper, that hangs from a string and rotates on its axis in front of a blurred window frame, in extreme close-up. These two shots of the paper horse 'book-end' the other two shots. In the first, a small boy is shown, in close-up, sitting on floor, with a well-furnished sitting room visible in the background. After some time, a large, shadowy presence looms over him, which, with a flick of its tail, reveals itself to be a real live horse. In the second, a long shot shows the horse, standing alone, next to a pool of sunlight that spills onto the floor from the large windows. I want to discuss each shot in turn and then consider the place of time and space also in some of Sutapa's previous installations.

The first shot establishes a framework for the representation of time, the key theme throughout the whole piece. In the first instance, the paper horse's movement appears to be seamless as it rotates, creating an effect of timelessness. It does not seem to be a segment of a defined action, something set in motion that will in due course return to stillness. But, as the image persists, as an effect of the duration of the shot itself, the presence of the actual of passing time itself begins to come into play. Theorists of avant-garde film have often pointed out that, conventionally, a shot is cut according to the length of time needed to absorb its content. Once its duration is pushed further, the spectator can then be brought to consider other key aesthetic elements in its construction. In the case of Birdsong, the image begins to suggest the inexorable nature of time's passing, indifferent to human desire or modification and outside cultural or human order. But it is at this point of concentration, at least in my experience, that two further factors come into play. First of all, as the paper horse rotates on its axis, a beam of light catches its body twice as it passes with a silver glow. This moment of highlighting creates the illusion of a slight halt or pause in the seamlessness of the movement that brings a fractional fragmentation to the forward drive of time passing. Secondly, the movement in the separate frames is very slightly out of synch, so that the interaction between the two images of (the same) horse sets in motion another kind of rhythm.

The beam of light first catches one horse as it rotates and then it catches the other, creating a sense of sequence and separation between the two. The images are, however, one and the same. The passing light beam draws attention to the 'now' of an original moment at which the horse's movement had been registered on celluloid, inscribed by the impact of light itself. A photograph preserves the 'now' of its original moment of registration suspended in time which then, as time passes, evolves in to a 'then'. But, as Roland Barthes and other theorists have pointed out, the magical and fascinating quality of the photograph lies in the continued presence of the original 'now' that maintains the presence of past and present in one image. It is this aspect of the photograph that defies the logic of time experienced as inexorable sequence and it produces a temporal conundrum that evades the rules of past present and future as distinct grammatical forms. It is here that the mechanical nature of photography seems to push towards the edge of a human ability to grasp the nature of time. In Birdsong, this kind of complexity, inherent in the still photograph, is taken further as film, a medium of duration, necessarily exists within a system of series and sequence. As the two, identical, images are slightly out of synchronisation, the original moment of the photographic 'now ' is doubled so that impact of the light beam on one horse seems slightly ahead of the other. On close inspection, they appear to move in sequence. The original moment of registration, its preservation in time, is both doubled and ordered by the moving, as opposed to the still, image. On the one hand, the beauty of the effect stems directly from the non-human nature of film, its mechanical production and reproduction. On the other hand, the illusion of temporal order or sequence owes everything to culture and to the rhythm, or beat, that the two images generate between them. Just as events in narrative film impose their own fictional time on top of the presence of the past, so, in Birdsong, the doubling of the image creates a beauty that belongs to the human imagination. Ultimately, the image becomes a vehicle for fantasy and reverie. As the light slows the horse's movement, the temporal pause seems to mutate into a spatial promise. An apparent pause in the continuous movement of time suggests the permeability of surface and the power of the imagination literally to travel through space.

The winged horse is extraordinarily evocative in its own right. It not only evokes the winged horse of Greek mythology, Pegasus, but also that other mythic means of transport, the magic carpet. Both are associated with the kind of travel and adventure that was rarely available to people in ancient times, and with stories and flights of fantasy with which travel is rarely associated now. The paper horse is beautifully folded into the shape of flight and the rhythm set up by the recurring beam of light seems to add a beat to his wings. This is an image that belongs to the storehouse of the human imagination but it is also, in its own right, an object of reverie. From this perspective, it is a figure for the power of imagination, that is, for the human mind's own ability to travel huge distances within seconds, to dream and to conjure up the fantastic. There is something about smallness, the miniature, which seems to be particularly suited to triggering dreams or encapsulating desire. This is, of course, partly to do with the experiences of childhood when the miniature is of an appropriate scale to capture a child's imagination. The horse's connotations of flight and travel necessarily lead out of the framework of time into that of space. The slightly asynchronous movement, that creates a moment of pause in the smoothness of time, blends into another figure that creates a slight opening, a chink or crack, in the smoothness of the paper horse's rotation. Time mutates into space. But this space of passage or transition only really materialises with the surprise of the following shot.

The second shot of Birdsong begins with a fade -up from black into a medium close up of a small boy. The resonance of daydream, desire and the suggestion of childhood reverie that were all associated with the paper horse can then be attached to his figure. Again, the doubled image and its asynchronous timing add a further level of significance to the image of the child and once again it suggests sequence. But here it evokes a relation between an interior space of desire and its external expression in bodily gesture. The moment of delay between one image and the other marks the gap between thought and action as though the usually invisible connection between the two could be materialised. The repeated look seems to enhance a sense of anticipation, as though the child's desire builds expectancy into a premonition of something to come. That is, the world of imagination, created by the previous shot, is transformed into an active wish. As the child sits still but continues to look around him, the shot shows enough of his surroundings to suggest a rather formal sitting room. When the horse appears, he immediately introduces magic into the scene. While the human imagination, however vivid, can only conjure up its desires internally, transforming them into images and myths, the materialisation of wish-fulfilment and fantasy has long standing associations with the cinema, suspended as it is somewhere between magic and reality. Marina Warner traces the connection back to the early days of film history:

'The new, moving, flux of images held out the enthralling possibility of passing beyond the visible to the (normally) invisible, from the real to the supernatural. What is interesting is how often the supernatural was understood to be subjective - produced by the imagination - and how the communication of internal fantasy became one of the central enterprises of the new 'movies'.


'Filmmakers utilised the medium in order to pass through the outer forms in order to reproduce fantasy in almost palpable terms. They explored film's unprecedented power to conjure up the inner workings of the mind.

Birdsong draws on and evokes this rich cinematic tradition in which children's stories and folk tales found new life. The horse's literal materialisation into a space, which is not only interior, but also domestic and even bourgeois, introduces an element of incongruity that once again draws attention to the spatial dimension of the imagination. Folk and fairy tales constantly return to the theme of travel, of leaving home and a transition to another world, which may or may not be a magic one. And the horse, especially the winged horse, as suggested in the opening shot, is a frequently recurring figure enabling travel from the natural world to the supernatural. The hero's journey takes him from the familiarity of home, both its comfort and its constraint, into strangeness and adventure. In Birdsong's third shot, the horse stands quietly at the end of the room, next to a French window that leads to the outside and also allows the outside sunlight to pour into the interior space of the room. The poetically productive opposition between interior and exterior also underlines the way that the horse's presence has bridged the gap between imagination and reality. The creature that should belong to the space of the outside has strangely occupied that of the inside just as the figure of fantasy occupies the imagination. On the other hand, the horse offers the opportunity of an escape, a journey into the outside world with its attractions and its dangers. He stands there as an invitation. For Sutapa Biswas, La Belle et la Bete (Jean Cocteau, France 194 ) has been an important point of reference in the construction of Birdsong, for its extraordinary evocation of the transition between worlds, from natural to supernatural, also between folk culture and cinema and finally between storytelling and the imagination of childhood. She has described the impact of the film in the following terms:

'When Belle's father walks through the door of the Beast's palace into a darkened space, a series of hands, on the left side of the frame, hold an exquisite display of candelabra. As he moves through the space, the arms move towards the interior, as if in invitation. It is the sheer magic of this moment that I love. Although it is of course the sheer magic of the film itself that I love. Also wonderful in La Belle et la Bete, and similar to Edward Lear's poetry, is the introduction to the film which brings to life the idea of the possibility of the impossible. Written in chalk on a simple blackboard are the words: 'Children believe in stories they are told. They have complete faith. They believe that a plucked rose may bring tragic consequences to a family. They believe in the smoking hands of a beast who kills.... and in the shame he feels before the maiden who is his guest. They believe in the countless other artless things. It is a little of this artlessness that I ask of you so that the omens may smile upon all...Let me pronounce four magic words, that veritable open sesame: "Once Upon A Time"'.

There is, however, quite another dimension to the scene depicted in Birdsong. As the artist's own son is the child whose daydream comes to life, the piece also bears witness to a mother's perspective and a mother's ambivalence towards the passing of time. The horse represents the fulfilment of a child's fantasy and the excitement of its journey, but also the persistent sense of loss felt by a mother, not only as her child begins to dream of a world outside the home, but also as she feels the gradual impact of separation. According to psychoanalytic theory, particularly, that is, Lacanian theory, the bond between mother and child has to give way to the child's ultimate need to break away from this most satisfying of relationships, both emotional and physical. In Lacanian terms, the mother is marginal to culture and stands in opposition to the father who offers entry into language, knowledge and self-sufficiency. This pattern creates an impermeable binary between father and mother, between a relationship based on language and one based on pre-language, between the world of culture and that of the body. Birdsong makes two important contributions to modifying this account of the Oedipal moment that feminist psychoanalytic theory has tended to accept as a description of a strict patriarchal culture but has also challenged the necessity of its terms. In the first instance, Birdsong creates a world that is in transition, that belongs to childhood and the imagination rather than maturity and the law, that can be of the maternal but is not external to cullture. It is located on a kind of threshold, where the logical rules of time and space do not apply, but the rich culture of fantasy and the imagination flourish. Perhaps what gives this world a special appeal is its relegation to the margins of formal or high culture, bringing together the 'primitive' world of childhood and the 'primitive' traditions of folk belief. Both storytelling to children and folk story telling are associated with an oral, rather than a literary, tradition and, as Angela Carter, points out, both are associated with women, from a mother's bed-time story to 'old wives' tales'. A number of feminist writers and artists have looked to this world as a source for ideas and images that have great emotional and aesthetic significance but are not fully integrated into 'official' culture. From this perspective, the pre and post Oedipal phases are not so rigorously divided, and the binary oppositions mutate into a pleasing, intermediate, space of liminality. Work that draws on this kind of culture not only benefits from its very specific aesthetic but can also build up an alternative to the traditions of art that have excluded women. Furthermore, the time and space of motherhood can become the source of creativity and a site for investigation so that the myth of a marginalised state, in which both mother and child are 'outside' language may be eroded by the process of creativity itself.

However, stillness is the predominant mood of the two central shots in Birdsong. Not only are the two interior scenes shot with a still camera but the movements within the frame are also quite minimal. There is a sense that the artist is trying to hold back, or at least hold on to, the passing of time that gradually distances the closeness between mother and child. From this perspective, the piece may be understood as a Pieta, but one that comes directly from the feelings of the mother, in all its complexity, rather than one that represents such feelings as eternal, immutable and inaccessible to self-expression. The painterly quality of the images, the rich colours, the sunlight and the composition of the figures enhance their stillness. Although, the last shot of the piece returns to the little paper horse as it rotates on its thread, its implications are different from those of the opening shot. Gradually, it becomes clear that the horse's movement is slowing down until, just before it stills, the image fades to black. In the first instance, the slowing down relates to gradual maturing of the child and his inevitable move out of the world of play and the imagination. But it also has a formal significance as, once again, thematic and formal threads weave together. The passage from movement to stillness evokes the stillness of 'the end' when a story or event that has been set into movement by an opening push, that carries forward into sequence, begins to return to inertia. The representation of ending with an image of stasis has a particular resonance for the moving image. While movement in a story is an effect of narrative, often in folk tales finding a figuration in the hero or heroine's journey, movement is the essential characteristic of cinema. Here, to slow down, or to return to inertia, hints at an equivalent slowing down of the machine itself and threatens a crisis of representation. As the magic of the cinema begins to fade, it takes on a metaphoric dimension suggesting that endings tend to coincide with, or stand in for, human ends. Both the stilling of the image and the stilling of human life evoke an awareness of the filmstrip's own stillness and its closeness to the photographic image, with its own connotations of the past and the preservation of life after death. While the still photograph, or, indeed, a painting, can capture a movement in suspended animation, the cinema's destiny is to reanimate the inanimate, bringing it back to the illusion of movement, life and temporal duration. In Sutapa Biswas's Birdsong, the representation of time, its aesthetic and thematic dimensions, are examined but within a world that defies logic and creates a temporal and spatial framework of great beauty and complexity.

Laura Mulvey
stills from Birdsong by Sutapa Biswas (2004)
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