Sergei Sviatchenko, ‘Mirror by Mirror’ West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen – 23 July – 13 August 2011

Sergei Sviatchenko’s Mirror by Mirror is a tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. The installation takes up three gallery spaces; two for the artist’s 14 large printed photo-montages and one for screening Mirror. In the middle room, a black and white grainy two-minute film by Sviatchenko, Street and White, follows a girl dancing happily down a side street, waving a strip of white paper and making it float across the screen as she moves while behind a curtain next door, Tarkovsky’s autobiographical Mirror plays again and again, a moving reminder of how your attention can be drawn to small things and to a personal dimension within the expanded time of continental film-making. As well as a screening of Mirror, on 30 July the show also hosted a lecture by Marina Levitina of TCD, exploring history and memory in Tarkovsky’s film.

The large format exhibition catalogue, which includes even larger folded posters, is an indispensable key to the exhibition, to its background and relation to Tarkovsky; so necessary that its texts (by Tarkovsky’s sister and others) should also be pasted on the walls of the gallery. The catalogue contains many of the same images montaged in the installation (but on some sheets not exhibited the stills are themselves cut out into shapes, pasted onto card, as objects handled by people in a three-dimensional space who are in turn photographed). There are also poems by Sviatchenko, a Ukrainian living in Denmark, which help to understand this work. The selection displayed on the walls, featuring a child, mother, father, a couple, are abstractions, combinations of black and white frames from Tarkovsky’s film, discarded at the time and now in Sviatchenko’s possession, cut out from their context and juxtaposed to colour photographs of people and to flat saturated colour backgrounds.

Although Sviatchenko wanted to: “create connections between fragments of consciousness and unconsciousness, and to show how important those flashes of feelings are to our existence”, as he says in a note in the catalogue, it is the homage aspect which dominates the installation, because ultimately his construction is overshadowed by the achievement it is celebrating. In Mirror, abstract history is brought into a live conversation with the everyday and with the witness’s own experience, childhood, and family history, as Tarkovsky’s sister explains in her essay of reminiscences and commentary. Sviatchenko’s homage serves as an architectural frame to the film, above all memorialising his experience which, in my view, remains very private. Montage here is far from the dynamic, cinematic form theorised by Eisenstein, Vertov and practised by Godard; but it does manage to bring into the gallery space something about the towering figure of Tarkosky.

It so happens that Mirror by Mirror coincides with ‘Sound and Vision’, the film strand of this year’s Skibbereen Arts festival which includes Gerard Hurley’s The Pier, just premiered in Galway, Marine Court Rendevouz, an intriguing installation between documentary and fiction by Chris Petit and by the amusing English writer Iain Sinclair, with voiceovers of texts and combinations of documentary footage and imaginary stories and, among other works, Nebula by Mary Wycherley and Hah by Wycherley and Mary Noonan. The problem is that the implicit minimalism of such works, rarely leading to metaphor or symbol or worthwhile formal experimentation, reduces the opportunities of cinematography to exploring the movement of a hand out of focus or dancing along a surface. In this respect, such works are a cipher of ‘canonical’ moving image for the (art) academy; of what it deems acceptable. However, this type of practice is challenged here by other works also featuring in this year’s Skibereen Arts Festival; the more substantial The Window, by Julius Ziz, a Lithuanian who lives in Clare and exhibits internationally. I say ‘substantial’ because The Window explores cinematic language more than the installations by visual artists in the festival, but also Albert Lamorisse’s fiction film short, the classic Red Balloon (1956) and Pierre Perrault’s and Michel Brault’s quasi-ethnographic documentary Pour la Suite du Monde (1962); an important cinéma vérité filming of old fishermen of Quebec.

The hinge for viewing ‘Mirror by Mirror’ is Michail Bakhtin’s “dialogism” translated into “intertextuality” by Julia Kristeva –how a text or an image is not a standalone, but dialogues with other works, intentionally or unintentionally. Both theorists explored creatively how artists create and works are received. The dialogism, real or imagined, of Tarkovsky and Sviatchenko, and the inevitable internal dialogue of any work, and the external overlapping, I have already described. Maybe this is where active participation begins.

Dr Brancaleone teaches at LSAD. He has contributed articles to Circa, Enclave Review, Stimulus Respond, Vertigo, and Experimental Conversations, Muse, Italian Studies, Per Leggere, Artists Newsletter, Arts Business Exchange, British Journal of Sociology of Education, and Irish Educational Studies Journal. He has recently made four art documentaries and is currently researching Godard and planning to translate into English texts on film by Cesare Zavattini.

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