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Saskia Olde Wolbers: Trailer - South London Gallery


Feature: James Haddrell

LAST year the Dutch-born artist, Saskia Olde Wolbers, won the coveted Beck’s Futures award with the narrative video piece Interloper.

Her first major work since then is now on show at Peckham’s South London Gallery and if Interloper impressed the judges with its filmic technique, Trailer takes the whole world of cinema to its heart.

In Olde Wolbers’ new film work, the hypnotic, emotionless voice of a young man tells of how, in a deserted cinema somewhere in small-town Ohio, the unexpected truth of his parentage was revealed to him in a film trailer.

It transpires that his mother and father had been bit-part actors in 1930s Hollywood, whose minor roles rarely earned them a mention in the final credits of their films.

In a cruel twist of fate, when the duo were on the verge of starring in their first feature together – which was to have been a radical experiment with the pre-Technicolor ‘Kinematrope’ method – their plane crashed in the jungle, the couple were lost and the project was cancelled.

Armed with this bizarre knowledge, the man returns to the cinema over and over again, hoping to catch a glimpse of the couple – not, of course, in the flesh, but in the flickering light of the cinema screen.

In a surreal twist worthy of David Lynch or a modern day Edgar Allen Poe, the only other people who frequent this cinema are the elderly proprietor, who ‘circled around the cinema’s exterior as if he were the dial on a clock’, and the equally elderly cashier.

It is from the cashier that our narrator discovers more about the couple’s fate. Local settlers had apparently found them living in the jungle and renamed them, christening the actor Ring Kittle after a toxic tree, and the actress Elmore Vella after the narcotic fly-trap to which she had become addicted.

While this whimsically macabre narrative is related, the camera cuts between scenes of the acid green ‘Elmore Vella’ fly-traps, and the empty red cinema in which our narrator first saw his parents.

The narcotic plants (pictured) are filmed in slow, mesmerising sequences, dripping with life, while the red cinema is a dead, empty place where the movies of the past are relived over and over in the darkness - but under Olde Wolbers’ direction the two worlds seem to overlap.

When the fly-traps are seen, water seems to run intermittently down the screen, reminding us that there is a screen and that we sit in a cinema; when the rows of red cinema seats are shown, air bubbles seem to cling to the faded velvet, as though the whole building has been submerged in the watery world of the jungle.

Olde Wolbers’ single reference to Kinematrope - the technique that was to secure the fame of the narrator’s ill-fated parents - is playfully fleeting, but the idea behind it lies at the heart of her own imagery.

The Kinematrope technique relied on the fact that a combination of just two colours, red and green, could be used to approximate full colour reality, and this is what Trailer is really about – the combination of two different colours, or two different stories, to create an illusion of reality.

Visually the artist’s dominant motifs, the plants and the cinema auditorium, use the distinct green and red of Kinematrope to create two apparently disparate worlds, but the two are bound together by the voice-over, blended by the narrative.

In the story itself, the two colours are mirrored by the dual realms of history and hallucination, of the narrator’s memory and his mother’s narcotic fantasy, two realms that are once again blended to create a whole new notion of truth.

The origins of Olde Wolbers’ strange tale can be found in an infamous Hollywood rumour - that Clark Gable had an illegitimate daughter who only discovered her father’s identity after his death, and who therefore only ever saw him on film.

In seeking inspiration for her strange story, in which the boundaries between fact and fiction are irrevocably blurred, the artist has turned to the greatest fantasy world of them all.

Only in the myth-making frenzy of Tinseltown could she have found the surreal inspiration for Trailer, that ultimate realm of glittering dreams and sordid realities, of narcotic imaginings and silver-screen memories – a realm, we are reminded, as full of reds and greens as there can be.

Saskia Olde Wolbers: Trailer
Until July 17, 2005
South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH
020 7703 6120; www.southlondongallery.org
Tuesday-Sunday 12–6pm; Closed Mondays
Free entry

Photo: Saskia Olde Wolbers, Trailer, 2005 Courtesy Maureen
Paley, London.

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