Mark Lewis's short films reshape narrative conventions

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Mark Lewis: 8 Days
At Offsite until March 30

Mark Lewis
At the Charles H. Scott Gallery until February 16

I was sitting on a cold bench on a cold night, viewing one of Mark Lewis’s short films at Offsite, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s outdoor public art space. There, on West Georgia Street, cars, buses, and pedestrians passed by me as I watched cars, buses, and pedestrians pass by Lewis’s camera in his five-minute film Little Tree. Shot at Walworth Woods in London, England, it opens with a long, still image of brick walls, green lawns, and bare trees, then slowly pans toward a busy street. In downtown Vancouver, surrounded by steel and glass towers, my eyes are distracted by a row of slender trees adorned with Christmas lights. In Lewis’s work, the camera zooms in on a scrawny sapling, planted beside a sidewalk and tied—almost bandaged—to a thick stake. In London and Vancouver—and every other big city on the planet—the natural world has been effectively wiped out, then reintroduced and reconfigured in culturally dictated ways. In ways that may be decorative or pathetic or both.

A Canadian artist based in London, Lewis is internationally acclaimed for short, silent films that reveal his close analysis of cinema, its history, its cultural theory, and especially its visual language. Some of his titles and subtitles, such as Willesden Launderette: Reverse Dolly, Pan Right, Friday Prayer, directly name the cinematic conventions he employs along with his subjects. As in Little Tree, his films often open with a long establishing shot followed by other familiar camera techniques such as tracking shots, zooms, pans, tilts, and aerial shots. He may be examining an abandoned soccer pitch squatted by Romany people (Hendon F.C.), an open-sided freight elevator that appears to remain stationary as painted walls resembling hard-edge paintings drift past it (The Moving Image), or a four-way intersection whose pedestrians and vehicles are screened in reverse so that they walk and drive backward (Midday, Mid Summer at the Corner of Yonge and Dundas).

Like so many artists of his generation and education, Lewis is fascinated by modernity. What is most distinctive about his work, however, is the way he uses cinematic conventions to frame scenes of the unremarkable everyday. By doing so, he draws our attention to how the built environment (along with the social, political, and economic forces that shape it) directs our daily actions and conditions our understanding of the world.

Because Lewis employs the tropes of narrative cinema, we expect a story to unfold in front of us. Instead, we’re given open-ended scenes and vignettes, provoking us to create our own narratives. A gaunt and furtive-looking guy stares out the window of a rundown laundromat as clothes tumble round and round in the big dryers behind him. An antlike stream of people pours out of a 19th-century mountain fortress. A crowd of young men walks by, dressed in Super Mario costumes.

While eight of Lewis’s films are playing repeatedly, one each night, on an eight-night rotation at Offsite, two new works are on view during the day at the Charles H. Scott Gallery. They differ from the Offsite films in that they are both shot using a fixed camera that seems to allude to the earliest days of moviemaking. Browns Point is set in an outport community in Newfoundland and City Road, March 24, 2012 in an undistinguished London neighbourhood, near a Y-intersection. Here, the moving image is not the film but the city itself, with its cars, buses, bicyclists, dog walkers, traffic attendants, tradespeople—and yeah, those Super Mario guys—going by. Contemporary life unfolding in banal and mysterious ways.

In a recent public talk, Lewis contended that the original moving images were modern cities and what the cinema did was compartmentalize and commodify them, attaching a story to them and screening them in darkened movie houses. He also observed that contemporary and ubiquitous digital technologies such as smartphones are returning the moving image to the street. It’s an interesting thesis since that’s just what his Offsite films do.

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