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Jayne Parker

By A.L. Rees


"In my work I try to see and understand what the body can do.. Inanimate objects can also be the body."

"I like the physicality of film and its precision; I like the sense of space within the frame.. Filmmaking allows me to make connections between seemingly unconnected images or events. There is a strong element of performance in all my work."

Jayne Parker discovered film as a medium when she was a sculpture student at Canterbury College of Art (1977-80). Objects, performance and gesture were combined by the camera to explore space, duration and the physical body. Soon the films became independent works. Free Show (1979) is 'a film in three acts' in which domestic events have overtones of threat as well as the circus (cutting liver, ironing a fly, plucking eyebrows). In RX Recipe (1980), a large eel in a bath is stuffed with vegetables and bandaged by a woman who then similarly binds her own leg, to whispered instructions on the soundtrack. I Cat (1980) was the first of a series of roughcast but sharply drawn animations featuring a woman, a cat and a fish.


By the time she went to the Slade (1980-2) for her postgraduate degree she had, in these early films, begun to explore some unique aspects of the film medium, such as its framing of the subject in space and its potential for the shaping of time. The film she completed at the Slade, I Dish (1982), retained and expanded this direct and photogenic style, in which ordinary actions are also enigmas. The sparse events in the film - such as cooking and eating a fish - are shown 'out of sequence'. The two protagonists are divided in film space but linked by editing, so that the viewer connects them imaginatively even though they never appear together in the same shot. Finally, a naked young woman in a rock pool sifts stones and hooks, at the very edge of the frame that contains her.

The images in the films were both literal and metaphoric, depicting exact events but also creating physical and personal associations for the viewer. Ideas are evoked in images rather than words (as the puns in the film titles may suggest, in their play with the ambiguity of language). This was to characterise much of her later work, although she also made a long 'talkie' video with her mother called Almost Out (1984), whose title and theme suggest birth and beginnings. Here, the naked mother is filmed and questioned by the daughter in a TV studio, surrounded by monitors, while the daughter is similarly filmed and questioned by an unseen cameraman (her former tutor and mentor at Canterbury, Pierre Attala Lapierre). The search for identity borders on transgression in this striking video, whose documentary rawness is equally shown as mediated within a formal structure that reveals its own artifice.


With the exception of En Route (1986) - 'a video about transition and trying to find the right track' (JP) - she then returned to 16mm film for a series of short, intense films that make up a trilogy; (K. 1989, The Pool, 1991, Cold Jazz, 1993). Each contains acts and objects that evoke the fluids and forms of the body. Stark and literalist black-and-white cinematography depicts in K. the knitting of a garment from guts that seem to have been disgorged by the naked performer. Blood splashes from the naked protagonist's nose in The Pool and drips down her torso as she stands in an empty swimming pool. A graphic dance sequence with a male partner leads to the graceful movement of a fish in an aquarium, and to a final scene of release in which the performer swims in a pool now full of water. Cold Jazz contrasts an older woman slowly coaxing a tune from a saxophone while a younger woman cracks oysters to drink their juice and 'removes small stones from her body, washed there by the sea' (JP).

In these 'chamber' works Jayne Parker plays the central role in front of the camera, working with a small team on camera and sound (including Belinda Parsons, Anna Campion, Patrick Duval, Peter Scoones), and with Pat Fogarty as associate producer until her untimely death in 1999. The films also included the dancer Donald MacLeary (The Pool) and the jazz musician Kathy Stobart (Cold Jazz). The intense themes and imaging of the 'trilogy' were expanded along with other collaborations in the longer and more cyclic film Crystal Aquarium (1995). Evoking music hall stunts as well as contemporary art, this film includes a drummer, a swimmer and an ice-skater. Jayne Parker herself performs underwater tricks and is the subject of a muted drama, seen in fragments, in which she visits a room and finally sits on a bed that has been set alight. Although the performers are never seen together, 'they are inextricably bound up by their actions' (JP).

The implied narrative of Crystal Aquarium, which follows a series of shorter films in which protagonists hover on the verge of action and gesture towards freedom, is similarly about performance achieved over doubt and risk. These themes are evoked as visual concepts or signs. The drummer frowns in sharp-etched close-up as she thinks and listens, the skater digs her heels in ice, the swimmer's body creates abstract space, and Parker defeats gravity to eat and drink underwater, as in a circus act. At the same time, the room sequences which punctuate these events, repeated from different angles and focal planes, assert a literal figure of 'the interior', in which melting ice, empty space and unexplained fires are disturbing and perhaps melancholic emblems.


Her next two projects were commissioned for TV as dance films. While some of her earlier films were shown on television after they were completed, The Reunion (1997) and The Whirlpool (1997) were conceived for broadcasting. In The Reunion, Donald MacLeary and Lynn Seymour dance an imagined aftermath (choreographed by Ian Spink) to their roles as young and doomed lovers in the 1966 ballet 'The Invitation'. Here, the ageing body and the theme of time are paramount. Shot in the as yet unrefurbished Hackney Empire, the film is framed by an objective placement of the viewer in the theatre, before the camera enters the imaginary field of the dance. The Whirlpool, a 'dance spectacle' (JP), is a short lyric psychodrama in which a swimmer is lured into danger by the magic of light and water.

Further collaborations emerged from these projects, with Lynn Seymour in The Reprise, 2000, and with Katharina Wolpe, the pianist seen in The Whirlpool. A stunning result was Thinking Twice (1997), in which Katharina Wolpe plays three pieces for piano by her father, the composer Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972), the first of which is called "Piece of Embittered Music", (from the Zemach Suite). The sardonic title is characteristic of this experimental, argumentative and influential musician. In parallel with the stripped and spartan music, and its fierce intensity, Parker strips the rich colour sequences of her TV films down to black and white in deep tones. In its lucid editing of piano keys in motion, and especially in close up shots of the pianist's hands and face, Parker "attempts to reflect the rigour of the music" (JP). Although she is a highly subjective filmmaker in her personal themes, and in linking ideas that are embodied in the physical world, Thinking Twice seems to draw out her classicism in its formal shaping of visual concepts.

Wolpe's music evokes directly the world of radical modernism in which he spent his life as an itinerant avant-garde composer and refugee, in Europe, Palestine and the USA between and after the two world wars. Along with John Cage he was a formative figure in the rise of the 'New York School' of composers in the 1950s and 1960s. In a series of short films made with the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, Parker took further the filming of post-serial music based on this legacy.


Up to this point, her films had occasionally used music as a fragment of the montage ensemble. The early I Cat, for example, includes bursts of a mediaeval French song and Inuit imitations of animal noises. Parker herself plays the cello in En Route, as one of that film's performative actions. Later, the composer Max Eastley contributed a subtle soundtrack to the aquarium section of The Pool, although the 'natural' sounds in that film - such as the sound of moving bodies in the dance scene and of water in the swimming pool - are also semi-musical counterpoints to the image.

More recently however, in short works from 2000 to the present day, Parker has focussed directly on this relationship of music and film. The cello makes up a second body within the films. In Foxfire Eins, by Helmut Oehring, the cello is plucked and struck by both hands to play the abrupt and percussive score. Another contemporary composer, Volker Heyn, requires the cellist to play with two bows - one on the underside of the strings - for Blues in B-Flat. "The film opens in a music repair shop and we see the interior of the cello - the space where music resonates" (JP).

In Projection 1, by Morton Feldman, the graphic lines of the cello and strings, crossed by the moving bow, "mirror the graphic score from which this piece is played" (JP). The piece is played twice, seemingly without a break. In an illuminating essay on music and Jayne Parker for the catalogue 'Filmworks 79-00' (Spacex 2000), the painter Joan Key wrote that "Parker's films use slight dislocations of angle and viewpoint, like a cubist painting, to open up performance's continuity to speculation." This is thematized by a sequence in which the close-up bow cuts a diagonal line across an empty screen, in a dialogue between vision, motion, flatness, space, sound and picture.

Repetition is differently treated in 59 1/2 Seconds, by John Cage. Parker shot and edited several versions of this one-minute composition, and in projection they can be cut together in different orders. Because they repeat the music, and compel repeated viewings, these two films are more easily shown in gallery installation, as they were for screenings in 2000/1 at Spacex (Exeter), John Hansard Gallery (Southampton) and the Aldeburgh Festival, as part of a comprehensive tour of Parker's exhibition Foxfire Eins.

The most recent film in this series returns to Stefan Wolpe, with Stationary Music (2005), featuring his Sonata 1 of 1925, again played by his daughter Katharina. This is a strong and spiky but intricate and 'formal' piano work, as the title indicates. A flat wall panel behind the pianist's concentrated face, and stark angles of construction throughout, seem to echo the bauhaus-cubist culture that stands behind the music, just as inserted shots of a magnolia bud and a flowering branch subtly insist on the organic element in abstract sound and imaging.

As with the earlier music films, the continuous flow of sound is shown in related visual fragments built around the gesture and movement of the performer. The film performance appears uninterrupted, but is in fact the product of many shots taken with a single camera, so that the rhythms and counterpoint of the editing also imply or point to the film's construction as a process in time. In their purity and intensity, these highly figurative films are both portraits and lyric abstractions.


Jayne Parker's films, videos, photographs and installations reveal a central core of concerns that are explored in many ways. Her hallmark is the focussed gaze of the camera on the body and its actions, combined with editing that draws out inner rhythms from the shot to mould an unfamiliar sense of time. A running theme is the making of art and the production of selfhood, mirrored in the performance itself and in the formal shape of the film. By embracing such nonverbal arts as music and dance, meaning in the films is produced - and questioned - by the clash or fusion of images seen from changing viewpoints and angles.

Quotations from 'Jayne Parker; Filmworks 79-00', Spacex Gallery, Exeter, 2000.

A.L.Rees, January 2005

A.L. Rees

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