Four recent video works by Bangladesh-born British artist Runa Islam were shown in the Museum of Modern Art New York’s (MoMA) Projects series—a project implemented in 1971 that showcases new works by emerging artists. The exhibition created an environment that focused on the animation of images instead of the images themselves. Unlike movie theaters where one projector would be hidden, nestled high within the back wall, Projects 95’s space was dominated by three projectors, placed centrally in each room, much like a showroom, as if to allow viewers a glimpse of these technological marvels. The Kinoton, Eiki Superslim Slotland, and plexiglas-encased Elmo LX 2200 demanded the attention of the viewer, and diminished the impact of Islam’s imagery.
Of the four films on view, the commissioned 35-millimeter film Emergence (2011) was the most prominent within the gallery. The only screen larger than its projector, at approximately five-square-feet in size, it shows a 1900s glass negative being developed in a chemical bath, in a darkroom. Projected onto a large red screen, we see the photograph run its life from a blank sheet to an emerging image of dogs consuming a horse carcass in a square in Tehran during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-11), before finally blackening from overexposure. Islam uses loaded images that are abstracted within the film, challenging the viewer to research the history and cultural significance of that which she has briefly given life to.
Tucked in the back corner behind Emergence was This Much is Uncertain (2009-10), which easily lends itself to a narrative construction, unlike the other films that rely heavily on texts to clarify their meaning and subject matter. This four-minute film alternates between images of gray rock formations, shimmering stars in the black of night, and an atmospheric perspective of Stromboli, which depicts the smoking volcano from the sea, bobbing up and down with the camera as it is throttled by the waves. The montage shows elements of salvation after shipwreck at sea, raising age-old questions of mortality.
The other two films, Magical Consciousness (2010) and The House Belongs to Those Who Inhabit It (2008) lack the visual stimulation of the others. While one might expect cinematic grandeur, given the title Magical Consciousness, and the piece’s use of six silver Japanese screens, the projected images were little more than dull gray blocks in a dark room, lacking engaging composition or movement. The camera in The House Belongs to Those Who Inhabit It simulates a spray can marking the side of an abandoned building, like graffiti, but this act of transgression is abstracted to such a degree—the viewer sees only erratic movements of the camera through an undefined space—that the accompanying wall text must be read before the work’s intentions are clear. The film, in fact, reflects on the issue of property rights for squatters living in Northern Italy’s abandoned factories.
Islam’s films stay firmly on the abstract end of the medium’s capabilities, as she tries to combine it with other forms of visual art, such as photography and graffiti. However, the nature of these hybrid media at times eclipse the intended film itself. The exhibition’s curator, Christian Rattemeyer, intentionally arranged the projectors, film and supplementary texts in order for the viewer to pick up on subtle cues in Islam’s culturally complex works. More than just images, Islam’s films offer a contemplative puzzle for the viewer to piece together.