Field Studies: Mark Lewis’ Invention


By Michael Sicinski

Initially talking stock of Mark Lewis’ new feature film Invention, I was reminded of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s remarks in his book Film: The Front Line, 1983 regarding Michael Snow. Rosenbaum compared Snow to Godard, and to another Lewis, that being Jerry. He wrote that Snow, JLG, and The Jer were interested “in fields rather than plots.” But Rosenbaum went on to detail a provocative typo that occurred when he first published this opinion. The “p” was left off of “plots,” so the article ended up making an odd distinction in the three men’s films between “lots” and “fields.” As Rosenbaum notes, an argument about cinematic space was transformed into a bizarre claim about realty.

Mark Lewis’ film work has never really engaged with plot. Coming from a background in studio arts and often presenting his work within an installation context, Lewis has tended to organize his experimental films around other, more objective explorations of temporality. (One notable exception is Backstory, Lewis’ 2009 medium-length essay-doc about the use of back projection in cinema history.) But interestingly he has been known to work with “lots and fields.” The first time I encountered Lewis’ work was in 2001, at Vancouver’s Or Gallery. North Circular (2000), a long shot of a dilapidated office building set back in a parking lot, was projected on a four-foot white box. The film holds for a minute or two and then suddenly sweeps across the parking lot and into a window, where we observe boys horsing around. The (literal) lot is transformed into a visual field. At first the environs are flattened by the video image and its boxy presentation. Then Lewis, using his soon-to-be-trademark mechanized camera—in this case, it’s a crane shot—alters the space by penetrating the Z-axis, drawing the building closer and revealing its sad-sack modernist gridwork to be a kind of punch card, a vessel containing potential activity.

The mobile camera in North Circular is obviously both craning and zooming; Lewis could not plausibly roll right up to the building’s upper level as if it were a drive-thru window. But this combination of movement styles is an early indication of how Lewis’ films will be made, and how they will subtly affect their viewer. The zoom into a distant “frame” (in this case the window) cannot help but evoke Wavelength (1967). And if we think about some of the classic writing on Snow’s film—by Annette Michelson and Bart Testa in particular—we recall that a prominent interpretation of Snow’s zoom is that it reflects human attention, or the desire to see, across time. Michelson even calls it a narrative effect of sorts, since things keep moving ineluctably in one direction, from the present into the past, toward a “goal.”

But what of the crane? The zoom may be a metaphor for the desire to see further, but does the crane satisfy that desire as well, by physically moving us into the “field”? One might think so, but the effect of Lewis’ use of mechanical camera movement has a very different feel. It is more like a robotic probe, trucking forward by remote control, or perhaps even of its own volition. If we want to continue the Snow comparison, North Circular finds Lewis combining the human-centred approach of Wavelength with the substantially anti-humanist, disembodied sight of La région centrale (1971). That is, Lewis’ camera both gestures back toward a desiring eye that controls it, and at the same time glides up and over the parking lot like a drone. The contest between human and machine (which mirrors the film’s subject matter, the kids reclaiming a dead, impersonal urbanism) is effectively staged.

The other piece in that Or Gallery show, incidentally, was an even earlier Lewis film, After (made for TV), from 1999. Composed of staged moments from hypothetical low-budget movies (a woman in a convertible anxiously driving away; a meeting in a darkened office tower; random bluffs and traffic lights), this is one of Lewis efforts’ that most clarifies the artist’s position as a slightly later-emerging figure in what has become known as the Vancouver School, a group of mixed-media-based conceptual artists who were a key contingent responsible for pulling ’80s and ’90s art out of its market-driven doldrums (we could call it The Saatchi Effect). Although the Van City crew tended to make actual objects, unlike the original Conceptualists of the ’70s, they combined the industrial language of minimalism with the mass production (photography, video, silkscreen) of both Pop and new media.

Lewis, being an artist working almost exclusively in film, set himself apart from figures like Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Ken Lum. However, After (made for TV)’s application of a blackout principle, reflecting back on the rhythms and shibboleths of mass-media language, has a great deal in common with Stan Douglas’ earlier work, particularly Television Spots and Monodramas (1987-91). Likewise, Lewis’ contemporary, Vancouver-born, Toronto-based Aleesa Cohene, would adopt similar tropes for explicitly political ends in her work, such as Something Better (2007) and Like, Like (2009). And, when one looks closely at the architectural or environmental photography of Vikky Alexander and especially Roy Arden, it’s clear that Lewis is operating from many of the same influences and assumptions. Urbanism and the built environment are answers to specific questions that are seldom articulated. The isolation of urban forms, and for that matter any human creation—whether oriented toward aesthetic contemplation or utilitarianism—will provide a clearing for examination and critique.

And it must be said, if these films bear traces of the Vancouver sensibility—clean lines, spaces mostly devoid of people, a focus on the power of photography to alter perspective and equalize scale—then Lewis, born in Hamilton, Ontario, and now based in the UK, where he studied, has taken in a particular strain of film theory as the counterbalance. A student of Victor Burgin and an associate of Laura Mulvey, Lewis has undoubtedly been steeped in the particular ways and means of the British avant-garde. Scorned for years as doctrinaire, inscrutably Lacanian, and puritanically anti-pleasure, this group of artists is finally receiving its due, in no small part thanks to retrospectives organized by programmer/erstwhile Pulp guitarist Mark Webber. Despite the bad press, the films of Peter Gidal, Malcolm le Grice, Stephen Dwoskin, Lis Rhodes, and others are fascinating. But what one can take from them above all is the treatment of the camera as a machine with its own objective capacities. In other words, the cinematic apparatus should be applied, as much as possible, to reveal its mechanized nature, to emphasize its role in mediating our vision of the thing pictured on the screen.

This might be the best way to understand Lewis’ current film work, and the extra conceptual pivot that marks its difference from the Vancouver School. Unlike Wall or Arden (to an extent), or Graham or Lum (to a very high degree), Lewis’ work does not continually gesture back to the artist behind the image. There is virtually no assumption of suspended narrativity or oblique autobiography. Instead, Lewis gives us a kind of renewed structuralism, one that moves in and out of spaces defined by their human occupancy, but observed by the steely eye of the apparatus itself.

The films that comprise Invention (and there are 14 of them) cover a lot of ground. Lewis’ compilation feature covers three cities on three different continents: Toronto, Paris, and São Paolo. Invention is organized into sections, according to the three locations. With the exception of the first film, Nude (2015), which fades to black at the end, all the other pieces in Invention are connected by straight cuts. It’s fairly obvious, from the shifts in angle, subject matter, and location, when one film has ended and another has begun. But you still might not notice it when it happens. That’s partly because the uniformity of Lewis’ approach during this phase of his filmmaking (all of the works were made between 2014 and 2015) allows for a sort of “creative geography” between the locales. Lewis takes great pains to maintain a steady rate of camera movement throughout Invention, and occasionally he uses some production tricks (slow motion, reverse motion) to make sure he gets the precise, geometrical tracking through space that the shots require.

Lewis has no interest in deception. With the glacial mechanics of the image, the motorized crane work, dolly shots, and pans, Lewis eliminates anomalies and produces a uniform “character”—a disembodied eye that is practically unfettered by time and space. Elsewhere I have compared it to a robot, but we could just as easily think of it as a surveyor’s tool, a three-dimensional chalk mark that segments and delineates spatial relationships on a retroactive blueprint. Invention is by no means devoid of human relationships. In fact, Nude starts us out in high Mulvey territory, gliding along a classical sculpture in repose to observe (and perhaps be confounded by) its marble “flesh.” But even after this, we often see people in the distance, navigating the structures and pathways Lewis describes with his camera.

In scoping out the metal anonymity of Toronto, Lewis harks back to the still photography of the Vancouverites, even while employing moving images. City Hall (2015) is a set of fixed-frame views of mostly empty downtown plazas and civic spaces covered in shifting snow, finally ending in a broad aerial view of a quad whose thin pathways dictate Torontonians’ lockstep motion, as a kind of casual afterthought. By contrast, Snow Storm at Robarts Library (2015) takes Lewis’ hovering camera into an acute angular corner of the University of Toronto glass building, a thick black girder serving to bisect the image into a double-pane of contrasting views. The left side bears a doubled reflection of gridded city elevations, while the right offers the sleek orderly cityscape that modern architecture promises its denizens. Playing off this triangular composition, Lewis spins the camera, inverting and reframing the image, at times settling on (upside down) traffic on the streets below. This is the section of Invention that seems most indebted to Ernie Gehr, in particular Side/Walk/Shuttle (1991) and Shift (1972). However Gehr’s handheld camera, even when provided mechanical assistance by an outdoor elevator (as was the case in S/W/S), is miles away from Lewis’ disembodied lens. It is as though the building were documenting itself from the inside out.

We can see this working in a somewhat different vein in Pyramid (2014), which starts off the Parisian section. As the title suggests, Lewis is filming from inside the I.M. Pei pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre, and right away the film plays up certain paradoxes. Inside the structure, the mobile walkways are organized in a spiral configuration. So Lewis, following these patterns in a slowly ascending and inverting crane shot, produces a form much more like a nautilus shell, compounded by mirrored walls and reflective glass. Although we see many people moving through the pyramid (and again, Lewis has slowed them down for the desired pacing), the camera doesn’t focus on them. Instead, Pyramid articulates the spatial ambiguities of Pei’s design, particularly those perceptible to an “eye” not held back by the pathways prescribed for foot traffic. In other words, only this camera can truly see the structure and understand its potentials.

At this point the mechanical uniformity of Lewis’ camera partakes in a bit of trickery, the only time that Invention actually participates in what we might call creative geography. Following Pyramid, we track slowly across a wall of 17th-century Dutch paintings in a darkened gallery. Some are recognizable; one is a Rembrandt (Portrait of a Young Man with a Golden Chain), another a Van Dyck (Portrait of William Howard). One might expect this section to take place in the Louvre, but it is actually the Museu de Arte de São Paolo. (In fact, that is the title of the original film.) This low-light situation provokes odd effects, particularly since several of the portraits and still lifes themselves favour darker tones. The images on canvas appear only in highlight; the texture of oil paint and the intricacies of the frames are considerably more visible. As the camera pans around the gallery and to the left, more light is visible, either due to an architectural shift or a sudden change in aperture. Passing by a young woman spectator, the camera fixes on Chardin’s Portrait of Auguste Gabriel Godefroy, at which it begins to cast a sidelong, anamorphic gaze. Through both of these sequences, Lewis employs the smooth objectivity of his mobile lens to offer glimpses of artwork far removed from those that a human museumgoer would discover on his or her own. Alberti’s apex of vision is flattened, elongated, subjected to an optical taffy pull.

The final section in São Paolo, originally made for that city’s Biennale, is the most complex portion of Invention, partly because it is comprised of the most individual films, but also because in this section Lewis most fully explores the dialectical capacities of his method. He is able to take this gear up, in, and around both the city (the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer in particular) and within the Museu de Arte, looking both at the organization of public space and the concentrated particularity of the art object. As with Robarts Library, Staircase at the Edificio Copan (2014) is composed on a vertical axis, with all motion pivoting around it. In this case, it is a giant concrete pillar, around which a wide, flat set of outdoor steps gently spirals. By following the steps down and keeping the pillar dead centre in the frame, Lewis provides another unexpected look at urban space. The São Paolo cityscape spins into and out of view, regularly interrupted by the undulating façade of Niemeyer’s masterwork. This gives us a subtle critique of urbanism in contemporary Brazil: the modernist aspiration set against a sea of unbridled chaos.

The rotating visual map of Edificio Copan is as close as Invention gets to a direct social statement, although the film’s concluding section, Motion (From the Minhocão to the Cinema Marabá), verges on the explosivity of a telenovela compared to the wry austerity of most of Lewis’ current work. In general, the artist’s technique is to remove himself from the equation and to present his audience with a temporal map of spaces that appear to be empty. Using the camera like a probe, Lewis sends it out, collects data, and brings it back in for analysis.

Vultures on the Edificio Martinelli (2014) is one of the most provocative entries, in part because of its apparent banality. The drifting space of the rooftop terrace is attractive enough, in the Brazilian modern style. (It was the first skyscraper built in Brazil.) But as the camera pivots, we do indeed see vultures hanging out on the balustrades, looking down like gargoyles over the city. Then, as the camera wanders “over the wall” and pans out over the skyline, we see a kind of punch line. The order of the terrace gives way to the disorder of the larger urban space, the isolation of formalism breaking down (or up) into plurality. Lewis’ “inhuman” camera has effectively traversed a field, only to go over the edge. Down below, one finds lots and lots.