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Gill Eatherley

By Malcolm Le Grice


Gill Eatherley began her artistic career studying painting. She began making films in 1971 working at that time through the London Film Makers Cooperative.

Eatherley's first two films, Chair Film and Deck, established her interest in exploring simple content and the medium of film itself. This apparently formal direction was always deceptive and masked the significance of the subject matter. Chair Film, later to be developed into an installation work takes as its subject a simple wooden Chair Filmed so as to be completely isolated from its background. If the sparse subject of the chair itself was what first motivated the filming it was the resulting image on the film, the effect of the negative image and a sequence of film slip - the unintended result of a camera fault - that ultimately became the main interest and content of the work. At this period, Eatherley's films evolved as screenings which particularly explored different projection formats. Chair Film became established as a four screen work shown in a simple rectangular format. The image of the chair, initially a single chair, but then two or three chairs printed through a blue filter, but always with no evident background, is occasionally interrupted by what seem to be drawn lines - arrows connecting or swirling around the chairs. At one point in the film the photographed chairs themselves disappear and become instead just outline drawings in light prefiguring a technique later taken up by Eatherley in Hand Grenade. At another point the image of the chair in negative is extended vertically down the screen by the slipping image - then, it is moved, appears to hang and dance as an insubstantial ghost - an ectoplasm chair appearing, like those old fake photos, at a seance.


At the same time Eatherley was working on a longer film, Deck, again exploring the medium and the structure of film process.

It began as a short sequence of a woman sitting in a deck chair on a liner as Eatherley travelled from Sweden to Finland en-route for Russia - still then a visit to the Soviet Union carried with it the tension and uncertainties of the cold war. The footage was shot on standard 8mm - then transformed by re-filming and re-filming again from the projection screen in 16mm. The film incorporates the repetition of the initial image but also establishes a screen within a screen, a device that became a major feature of reflexive work by Eatherley and others at that time.

Her next two works, Pan Film and Hand Grenade, explore the possibilities of multi-projection, each conceived for three screen presentation.


Pan Film begins from a deceptively simple continuous black and white sequence - a series of slow camera pans across a sparsely furnished room with a potted plant, a lamp, a chair - maybe the same chair - and a window where the view outside is hidden by a patterned blind.

The sequences are then printed as negative and positive and shown in various combinations on three adjacent screens. The pans are shown with movements that are in the same direction and then counter-pointed by screens where the pan direction is reversed. The visual effect of the combined and counter-pointed movement is to establish an unexpected reading of the three-dimensional experience of the space. This uncanny, almost unconscious shifted experience - a sense that the actual space has become more plastic, less solid - I assume to be a result of adding a comparative time and movement dimension to the perspective of each individual screen image. The juxtaposition of the panning images of the same shot, particularly when very slightly out of synchronisation makes us aware that spatial experience is not independent of the time and movement through which we view it. The formal and perceptual aspect of the work is so strong that for a while we may be unaware of the significance of the represented content. However the simplicity of the room and its furnishing is both symbolic and autobiographical.

This work was made at a time when few women were making film and at the very beginning of a period when this was to become a major matter of debate and action by women artists. Pan Film is not didactic in its reference to a feminist content - it is under stated - the brassiere draped over the chair back can go unnoticed, taken for granted as simply 'what happened to be in the room when the sequence was shot'. But from the moment the film was made it has been a signifier - the intimate object of clothing belonging to the artist and a symbol that the artist is a woman. It is placed deliberately on the back of the char - as if 'worn' by the chair - it has not arrived there by accident. It also plays its part in the formal aspect of the film - acting as the measure of one extremity of the pan and changing from white to black as the film shifts from negative to positive.


Whilst Pan Film is an engaging but formal work, the similarly three screen Hand Grenade is playful and spectacular.

It reminds us that though the development of experimental cinema in Britain at the time was engaged in structuralist theory and political aspiration it was also closely linked to rock music and to experiments in life style. At first sight Hand Grenade is an abstract work in the tradition of Hy Hirsh or Mary Ellen Bute. The fast swirling coloured lines accompanied by music by Neu look a little like patterns from an oscilloscope or perhaps might be mistakenly seen as computer generated.

However this short energetic extravaganza was the result of a massively laborious but traditional film-making process. The initial material was shot on 16mm black and white stock in a pitch-black space. Each single frame was exposed often for several minutes with the camera shutter open whilst Eatherley drew around various objects in space, including her own body, using a single low voltage flashlight bulb. She would than move a little in space and repeat the action for the next frame. It was a process of animation where the subject moved progressively in space. The objects being drawn were never seen directly - they could only be sensed or inferred by mentally linking the consistent end points of the light traces. As a result the object became a ghost - an absence defining a presence. This first process produced just two or three minutes of black and white negative - black lines on a white background. Using the contact printer then installed at the London Film-makers Co-operative, Eatherley made a new high contrast negative and positive - strong white lines on dense black. The next stage involved reprinting this black and white footage onto colour film, using colour filters which transformed the white lines into strong colour. Colour filters were also used to transform the negative image, creating black lines on a coloured background. Eatherley did not end the process there but went on to superimpose the coloured negative and positive images to produce coloured lines on a coloured background. She then edited all the material so that the three screens, following different but symmetrical variations, were orchestrated to fit with the music. The work belongs as much to the environment of a rock club as the cinema or gallery.


During this period Eatherley increasingly became part of the Expanded Cinema movement that began to make an impact in the UK.

Throughout the 1970's this movement included a number of artists associated with the LFMC, for example Mike Dunford, Lis Rhodes and Sally Potter. However, as a result of an invitation to produce work for an exhibition 'A Survey of the Avant-Garde in Britain' at Gallery House in October 1972, an informal grouping of four artists - Gill Eatherley, William Raban, Annabel Nicolson, and myself - began to show together, helping on each others projects developing multi-projection, installation and performance works that focused mainly on the gallery rather than cinema context. Though never formalised and without any manifesto this group became identified as 'Filmaktion', actually the title collectively chosen for an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool that included work by a much larger group.

As a result of a number of opportunities to make and present work in gallery spaces, as well as her multi-projection films, Eatherley made a performance work, Aperture Sweep and two major installations, Chair Installation and Sicherheits.


Aperture Sweep is a playful work that also reflects on the interplay of the real, the shadow and the cinematic representation.

The initial image involves a white screen sometimes projected at an angle. After a short while Eatherley goes to the screen with a broom wired up with a microphone linked to an amplifier. She sweeps the screen paying particular attention to edges and any dust that is forming in the films frame. The impossibility of cleaning the image by sweeping the screen - a kind of visual joke - is the first reflection in the work on the conflict between actuality, image and illusion. After a while, a new feature enters the play - film of a previous 'sweeping of the screen' concentrating on film of the shadow cast rather than the performer. Eatherley the live performer then enters a movement dialogue with her previous shadow. The shadow is distorted through lighting at an extreme angle - a continuity with anthropomorphic distortion that fascinated artists as early as Leonardo or Holbein and was a significant feature of many of the optical toys in cinema's prehistory. Aperture Sweep reconstructs and re-presents fundamental aspects of the lure of cinema - the shadow taken as real, the object and its illusion - but makes these problematic for us through the 'light' touch of a humorous work.


Chair Installation, also first shown at about the same time, involved an arrangement of plain wooden chairs painted white and placed in a gallery space.

This installation was variously lit by spotlights or a strobe light and takes forward Eatherley's combined formal and symbolic interest in the chair. Simple objects, but particularly chairs, have had a consistent place in Eatherly's iconography - they are a feature in Pan Film, Deck and Chair Film. They have an archetypal quality in the scale and fit with the human body that has also intrigued artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and in the formative theatrical representation of absence in Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs. In philosophical debate the chair or table - and in 1974 Eatherley also made Table Film - often comes to represent the minimal object. In retrospect they have this 'philosophical' object quality in Eatherley's work. But the sparseness of the wooden chair also seems to symbolise a minimalism in lifestyle, a lack of comfort and a lack of possession, a restless travelling and uprooting that has been a frequent feature of her life.


Sicherheits is a large scale, aggressive and scary installation.

Eatherley's title derives from the words printed on the sprocket edges of the found-footage film fragment used as the basis of the installation. 'Sicherheit', German for safety, indicates non-inflamable film stock. However in Eatherley's installation the title takes on an ironic quality as the image is of bombs being tested in a wind tunnel. Presumably the found material originally came from some German, World War 2, bomb factory test footage. In the installation two of the strips have been mounted as slides, shown extremely large scale in four columns interspersed by two columns of moving film image of the same material. The moving image, projected from loops, shows the bombs swaying gently expressing their relative instability against the wind-tunnel effect. All the images show a background of calibration - the underlying scientific logic of instruments of death. The electronic soundtrack reinforces this threatening image by a persistent, aggressive and uncomfortable drone.

Eatherley's first period of film making covered just a very short period between 1971 and 1974. In that time, as well as the performances, multi-projections, installations and longer works like Deck, she also made a series of poetic but reflexive films, sometimes, like Doubles Round, projecting on more than one screen. The series entitled Light Occupations includes a number of works that focus on the relationship of the filmmaker to her environment through devices like Eatherley's hand pointing out the horizon. Though more poetic than didactic, these works continue a philosophical encounter between filmmaker, film and audience but hint again at an autobiographical content. The person behind the camera is seen only through a hand or foot - Eatherley intentionally hides herself from the spectator.


Her long break from film-making is only explained by reference to Eatherly's life.

Though continuing to write and draw, she chose to live in a remote part of the French countryside, bringing up her children outside the context of the modern industrial city. Her next film Like a Fox was made some fourteen years later in 1988 as a section of my own TV work Sketches for a Sensual Philosophy. Like a Fox was edited as a collaboration but the film was shot and the monologue written and spoken by Eatherley. It is a poetic not documentary chronicle of this decade or so of her life. Ultimately it reflects on the difficulties, if not impossibility, of stepping outside the mainstream of culture and the economics of consumerism. "The industrial society has paid us a visit we shall never forget" she narrates of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl even reaching her remote sanctuary - and what can you do about it " can take the next train to Paris and back - I'm drinking gin and you can't come in".

Since making Like a Fox Eatherley has largely concentrated on drawing and painting but has recently shown a new long video work Caraibe. She says of this video that it is a work in progress. New material is being shot and the existing version re-edited. As the title suggests it is mainly shot in the Carribean.. Though Eatherley is a little less hidden and it is more overtly autobiographical than in her earlier work it continues many of the formal themes and devices first seen in Light Occupations. Many of its sequences are visually sumptuous - less restrained than before - but they still imply a presence through partial absence and the inability to possess a moment through its recording. They reflect Eatherley's priority for experience over possession and her continued restlessness as a person and artist.

Malcolm Le Grice is a filmmaker and writer. His seminal essays and texts are now collected in Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age (BFI Publishing, 2001). He is a featured LUXONLINE artist.

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