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Ian Breakwell - Profile

By Mike Sperlinger

1. The Observer

In 'The Summit', Ian Breakwell's first published piece of writing, a passer-by glimpses an indistinct colony of creatures on a mountaintop plateau, but assumes this is 'an everyday occurrence'; later, realising that he may be the only person ever to have seen this summit, 'this chance observer – was now forced to think again about something he might otherwise have forgotten'.

Recollecting the piece years later, Breakwell observed: 'It's a parable because the words can't quite capture what it is [that the passer-by has seen], so inset into the publication is a colour transparency of a painting called Summit which illustrates the story visually. It's a good example, early on, of saying, 'What can you do in words and what can you do in pictures?'

That Breakwell has never settled on an answer to this question is clear from a body of work comprising films, videos, books, paintings, collages, performances and installations - each borrowing freely from one another. And although he was associated with the London Filmmakers' Co-op from its beginnings, he was perhaps the earliest among his contemporaries to make inroads as a gallery artist. If one thing unites all his various activities, it is the standpoint of the 'chance observer': the curious eye alert to the marginal, the trivial, the absurd - everyday events which might otherwise have been forgotten, or never noticed in the first place. In fact, the category of 'the everyday' itself is what much of Breakwell's work contests.

Breakwell detests the humdrum procession of time, the thoughtless repetitiveness that desires - as a slogan in one of his painting series puts it - to 'keep things as they are'. He looks askance at the minutiae to which habit and social decorum usually blind us, reframing them so they appear ridiculous, shocking. The anarchic and absurd aspects so prevelant in Breakwell's work are almost invariably drawn directly from elements of his everyday environment - in this sense, he could fairly be characterised as a surrealist.

In his early film Repertory (1973), a camera circles the outside of a closed theatre while a voice reels off a daily programme of 'imagined presentations': a domestic interior covered in melting slabs of butter; an old aeroplane, an illuminated fish tank, etc. Extrapolated partly from Breakwell's frequent visits to Nottingham Playhouse in the late 1950s, the film plays out with peculiar effectiveness his interest in the relationship between words and pictures. He has subsequently published the script separately, as something self-contained, but this doesn't imply the primacy of the text; rather, the flat formality of the images is in constant tension with the barely-plausible descriptions of the 'presentations'.

The walls of the theatre are bare and decrepit, but voiceover helps to suggest a figurative importance for them too: they are, so to speak, the limits of dramatic licence. Theatre audiences suspend their disbelief only because they are in the theatre: what, then, are the magic qualities of this shabby building? The dialogue's insistence on noting, for each day, whether the curtain and footlights are up or down emphasises that even the wildest stagings are still under the same 'conventional proscenium arch'. With its unresolved tension between the image on screen and the voiceover, Repertory remains ambigous; theatre is presented as at once a healthy eruption of the absurd into drab daily life, and at the same time an arbitrary confinement of it.

2. Diary

Breakwell is perhaps best known for his Diary works.

Originally, from the mid-1960s onwards, these took the form of entries variously written, drawn, photographed or collaged, and then published and exhibited in gallery spaces; subsequently, in 1984, Breakwell himself adapted the format for television in Ian Breakwell's Continuous Diary and the follow-up Christmas Diary for Channel 4. It is important to understand that Breakwell's 'diaries' are not personal recollections being made public, nor are they records of significant dates in the diarist's life - quite the opposite. Indeed, many of the texts are written in the third person, rather than the first person as one might expect; rather than enjoying the confidences of the author, the reader is forced to imagine the motives of this often detached and sardonic observer - as Breakwell puts it, 'you can get a mirror image of the person behind the Diary based on what he chooses to comment on'. A not untypical entry from the written reads:


Travelling in a taxi past London Zoo. Over the wall is a big cage, in the centre of which is a tree without leaves. Two men in boiler suits are crawling towards each other on their stomachs along the branches on either side of the tree.

The archetype of Breakwell's diaries is the tableau: everything resolves itself into an image. As much in his writing as in his other work, Breakwell tries to present daily life with the sudden violence of a snapshot; his writing aspires to illuminate, like a flash of lightning, the contours of the frozen habits and societal masks he sees all around him.


The woman in the blue trouser suit walks around the thickly carpeted Bond Street art gallery, inspecting the expensive prints on the wall. She ignores the small, long-haired dachschund which grips the bottom of her right trouser leg with its teeth. She drags the dog along the carpet as she moves from print to print.

In fact, the Diary began in 1964 as a purely visual sketch of the day's events and many of the most striking pieces are those originally exhibited in galleries. In The Walking Man Diary (1979), Breakwell produced a series of collages based around photographs of a man who passed regularly and inexplicably beneath his Smithfield flat window; beneath each photo was a description of the man's route ('past the windows filled with automatic tea makers'), the calm observations punctuated with occasional interjections ('mad as a brush!').

One precursor to Breakwell's Diary is Mass Observation, the group founded by Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings in 1937; aiming for 'an anthropology of ourselves', they and their recruits turned the instruments of anthropology, usually reserved for quasi-colonial studies of the third world, upon the inhabitants of Bolton and other British towns, cataloguing their work and leisure activities. The resulting 'reports', characterised by their elaborately alienated descriptions of quotidian British life, became a kind of conduit for European Surrealism into provincial England.

What Breakwell particularly shares with the Mass Observers is a hostility to rigid scales of value. In one episode of his 'Christmas Diary', he gives a '1984 Review of the Year' in which, mocking the glib convention of the annual round-up of notable events, he concentrates solely on the ups and downs of his own year (breaking for a moment the impersonal tenor of the Diary). Similarly, his video piece 'The News' (1980) has a television newsreader solemnly delivering absurdly trivial items fashioned in the style of the most provincial local newspaper.

If some of these television pieces, including the Diaries, seem less successful than his other Diary work, it is partly because they don't offer the same rigorous relation between word and image as his other work, too often merely reenacting scenes from the written Diary. Perhaps too, they are affected by the rise of the video diary, which has radically recast the whole diary tradition within which Breakwell is working, albeit oppositionally. But even so, these experiments in television led directly to Public Face, Private Eye (1988), Breakwell's subsequent essay series for Channel 4, which marked a new direction in his work.

3. Variety

In an episode of his 'Christmas Diary', which focuses on the long-vanished Hengler's Circus in Glasgow, Breakwell comes unusually close to a manifesto: 'my circus – is a custard pie in the eye of that normal, rational, repressive world in which everything has its proper place – the rabbit in his burrow and the top hat on the businessman's head'.

It is no coincidence that, in trying to explain his project, Breakwell reaches for an image from the magician's repertoire: his work is suffused with allusions to the circus, music hall, fairground, pantomime, magic and illusion.

His most recent film, Variety, takes its name from the variety theatre tradition, which encompasses all of these. Variety constitutes a direct return to some of the preoccupations of Breakwell's own early films. Produced during a residency in the National Film Archive, while Breakwell was researching a gallery show, the film consists of of twelve short, unconnected episodes made from manipulated footage of early variety performers. If there are echoes of Repertory, with its affection for a vanishing theatrical tradition, there are even more suggestive affinities with 9 Jokes (1971). Like Variety, 9 Jokes is constructed of unconnected episodes, like a variety bill, each with their own title; and at times, the later film seems even to unconsciously recapitulate moments of the earlier one - the 'swallow' section of Variety, in which the camera seems to disappear into a performer's mouth, recalls the 'Gulp' section of 9 Jokes, with its close-up of a bobbing Adam's apple. What really connects them, however, is a strong sense of the avant-garde qualities of some performers in the despised genres of 'low' comedy (another preoccupation Breakwell shares with the Surrealists). Whether it is a pantomime horse emerging from behind a bush and trotting into a field (9 Jokes), or footage from a sitcom about a henpecked husband edited into a staccato series of slaps (Variety), Breakwell relishes the absurdity which audiences once readily accepted and laughed at as entertainment, but which now, in its very datedness, seems enigmatic and even sinister.

Breakwell sees parallels, too, between the strain of variety humour and performance art. As he puts it, 'I like novelty acts, I like the absurdity of someone who can do just one very odd thing. I love that, because they're very close some of them to the absurdity of Dada or Fluxus.' This is particularly evident in 9 Jokes, which is effectively a series of one-liners - for example, in 'Yes / No' where a man and a woman argue silently, he sticking his tongue out to reveal a painted 'yes', she closing her eyelids to reveal 'no'.

Breakwell's approach to the tradition has not remained constant, however. One very noticeable difference in Variety is that the sense of variety as a dead tradition is much stronger, and there is a concomittant attention to the defects and deterioration of the footage that records its original practioners. Whereas 9 Jokes was really a conceptual piece and not especially concerned with the material of film, as other contemporary Co-op films were, Breakwell's time in the archive brought out a hitherto well-concealed interest in materialist film practice. In the 'swallow' section already mentioned, in which the camera disappears down a man's gullet, the black of the inside of the mouth seems to swarm with film grain, as if the viewer were at the same time being brought closer to the surface of the film itself; in fact, Breakwell created the effect by sampling the grain from other bits of the film and grafting them into the monstrous mouth. In this way, Variety is as close to contemporary works like found-footage artist Bill Morrison's recent film Decasia (2001) - a kind of symphony of decaying film - as to Breakwell's own work of the past.

4. The Margins

In the episode of his 'Christmas Diary' in which Breakwell discusses Hengler's Circus, he compares the circus hierarchy - ringmaster, specialists, skilled artisans, troupes, clowns and animals respectively - to that of society at large.

In doing so, he makes no bones about his preference for the lower end of the pecking order, or, as he puts it, 'the world of he who gets slapped'.

Breakwell's interest in the marginal and the unnoticed embraces the socially marginalised too, which is his work's political dimension. The Diary is full of chance encounters with the homeless, and perhaps its most consistent theme is isolation - in The Walking Man Diary (1979) particularly, the twin impulses of curiosity and compassion towards those who confront us as strangers, present in all the Diary works, become particularly pronounced. There is often something uncomfortable and challenging about his encounters, the detached observer's alienation sometimes seeming as shocking as the subjects it depicts.

In the later 1970s, Breakwell, along with John Latham, Hugh Davies, Roger Coward and others, was part of the Artists' Placement Group: an initiative to place artists within government departments aimed at involving them in decision-making. Breakwell's placement was in the Department of Health, researching ways of treating the mentally ill outside of large-scale institutions; his work culminated in a report co-written with a group of architects about the high-security hospital Broadmoor, recommending reform of its management and day-to-day organisation. In the same period, Breakwell made The Institution with the performer Kevin Coyne, a portrait of a man seemingly just released, or escaped, from a sinister hospital, prowling the confines of a room and locked into a private dialogue of which we only seem to catch snatches.

Breakwell clearly sees an affinity between the socially marginalised and the artist. In Public Face, Private Eye (1988), a five part series made for Channel 4, he interweaves autobiography, art history and meditations on the nature of madness in a kind of television essay. With Goya as his model, he finally suggests that an artist must possess sharp, analytical self-knowledge and total candour, in order to confront their audience with the fissure between their public masks and the selves they dare not show. The risks of such candour, of such fluidity between inner and outer, Breakwell suggests, are evident in those we call mad. Not coincidentally, Public Face, Private Eye is perhaps Breakwell's most personal work, and it is a reminder that in some of the later Diaries, or in the film the Journey (1975), Breakwell has not been afraid to plough a more overtly autobiographical furrough.

Mike Sperlinger is a writer and the distribution manager for Lux.

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