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Ian Breakwell
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.

Still from Repertory by Ian Breakwell, 1973
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