We are introduced to a well-dressed young man and woman.
Sometimes they are together. And sometimes in private moments, apart.
We get to know their preoccupations. Their work routines. The spaces they move within and around. The objects they use.
Any object encountered (a strand of hair under a microscope, a laptop cable, a Mars bar wrapper, the feather of a seabird) is to be examined with seriousness. Dispassionately.
In one scene, the man talks himself through a meditation, as he stands on the beach, lapel-microphone attached, surveying his surroundings: “I can feel the sun on my skin, which is nice….”
Then the footage is of cells under a microscope. Circles of organic matter.
Eventually we cut to an aerial image of an observatory. Another circle.
“I get this sense that I’m slowly spiralling in on something,” the man says, at one point.
Boundaries showcases meticulous and skilful filmmaking. The subtext is pointed. At times, there’s a soundtrack of moody cello music.
Is it weird to be jealous of the opportunity to make work like this? I’m a filmmaker and this is a film-based project, so there’s no particular reason to feel excluded from the possibility. And yet, I can’t help thinking that it’s like an exhilarating arthouse film of the kind I’ll never get a chance to make.
It succeeds as a non-linear narrative. A character piece, of interconnecting monologues and tangentially related imagery. It creates a world out of a handful of specific and repeated settings (a beach, an observatory, up-market private houses, a laboratory).
There are matched frames. Little visual jokes… An extreme close-up of a computer button being pressed transitions into a shot of the observatory roof grandly opening.
Each element, large or small, appears as part of an overarching pattern. Important, yet no more or less than anything else.
I’m reminded of Vertigo and the time spent on Kim Novak’s spiral of hair. But in absorbing the entire experience of Boundaries, the two films I thought about most (it will probably be different for everyone) were Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilović, 2015), a French film playing with ideas around interspecies reproduction, and Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013), a US indie that’s a bizarre cross between a love story and a conspiracy thriller.
Both those films exist on the periphery of science fiction. Both are idiosyncratic, poetic and intensely cinematic.
Neither would have been financed for production in Australia.
Another reference might be Yasujirō Ozu. His films often centre small moments. Not even necessarily emotional moments; sometimes just people interacting with their environments in pleasing ways. We don’t often support films like that in Australia either.
Boundaries is the work of artists Tess Campbell and Sam Mountford (although I note they are the leaders of a team that includes other artists, see the full credits here).
So… are they filmmakers without a big screen or visual artists paying homage to cinema?
Maybe they’re neither. Maybe I just want more people to see this and so I think longingly of the possibilities of 100-plus seats, rather than the eight that are to be found in the gallery space.
But this is all getting a bit crass. Art is about more than market reach.
Let me try to describe the work again. Properly, this time.
Upon entering, I’m enclosed within a constructed space with curved walls. A room within a room. Shell-like. Comforting.
There are three parts to installation, and within each of these smaller spaces seats have been provided, arranged to face a video screen.
I start in the central chamber (or perhaps I should say cell). This is the prime viewing position, and the location of the largest screen. I lie back into one of the two sun lounges provided. It’s impossible, positioned thus, not to be receptive. Open. Patient.
Again, I’m reminded of the benefits of a curated theatrical experience. The opportunity provided is one of carefully facilitated focus. A chance to let go of distractions and responsibilities and inhabit a new perspective.
The video on the central screen begins, with waves crashing on a beach in an intense red sea. A red sea, not the Red Sea. The ebbing and flowing tide of… blood? Human life?
On one of the secondary screens there’s microscope footage of delicate pink cells; cinema verité for biology nerds.
The atmosphere of this work is anything but gritty. And yet there’s an underlying unease. A sense that there’s no escape… from details. The reality of how things work. The only choice is about how closely to look. For how long. And when.
I keep returning to ideas around focus and attention.
Back on the beach, the young woman’s body, on the sand, is inert.
Wind ripples through the white fabric of her blouse. The flag of her hair. The smooth red leather of her mini-skirt.
Her arm rests at an awkward angle. Her cheek mashes the sand. We worry that she’s dead.
But she’s breathing. Squinting into the sun. Alive.
The phrase “the micro and the macro” comes to mind. And what a callous phrase it can be, as we’ve seen recently in Australian politics. When looked at closely an individual moment or experience is understood in all its nuance. Zoom out, fly up in your drone, allow your gaze to blur…. and things start to seem very different. Like nothing matters.
This work is called Boundaries so of course I also keep thinking of skin and delineating lines and barriers, both porous and non. Cut us, do we not bleed? etc.
Breaking through is dangerous.
What if you look in your sink at home and find, not strands of your own hair, but seaweed? (this happens on the second video screen in one of the AirBnB houses). What if your bathroom is suddenly the whole world? It’s Alison Maclean, with a twist.
The couple on the beach are sometimes dancing. Intwined, in senses both physical and metaphorical.
In another scene he performs an operation on her, using tweezers to delicately extract something from her mouth. It turns out to be a plastic fish (bloated and twisted after too long in water) of the kind that soy sauce is stored in.
It’s just rubbish, and nothing more sinister.
Then again, perhaps rubbish is the most sinister thing that could be pulled from the interior of one’s body.
It took me a while to recall my cinematic association for this scene: the moment in Silence of the Lambs when a moth pupa is extracted from the mouth of a murdered woman. Back in 1991 this was shocking and original. Millions of episodes of CSI later, it’s less so. Yet the notion of a woman’s body as a site of “graffiti” is as relevant as ever, sadly. That which should belong to her alone becomes a receptacle of society’s twisted communiqués. The things that cannot stay hidden will eventually come out… through her mouth.
On leaving the provocative world of Boundaries and escaping down Elizabeth Street, I felt a need to tell my scientist friends and acquaintances about this exhibition. To make sure they see it. Thinking that they will have a particular appreciation of it.
But we all make daily observations. Perform repetitive rituals. Test things out and assess our results. Examine, in obsessive detail, the elements that seem most significant to us (and sometimes even those that don’t).
We are all figuring things out. Small moment by small moment. Spiralling.
Briony Kidd is a film and theatre maker, a film festival director and programmer and a freelance writer. She is also the editor of Memory Palace, a new cultural criticism platform for Tasmanian arts. This piece will also appear in the second issue of Memory Palace. Read the first issue and subscribe here.