Lis Rhodes – Dissident Lines

Inequality, social injustice, corruption, statelessness, discrimination, over-surveillance – these are the kind of topics that have consumed Lis Rhodes’s art for five decades. Her passion and conviction shine through in the first-ever major survey exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary. Dissident Lines traces her development from the 1970s to her new work Ambiguous Journeys, created specially for the show. 

Lis Rhodes made her name as a pioneer of expanded cinema. Light Music from 1975 invites audiences to immerse themselves in light, image and sound. It was also motivated by the little attention paid to women composers in the European classical tradition. She has continued to support women filmmakers in all aspects of production. 

Light Music may look a bit dated today but Rhodes’ work has developed by turning its attention to questions of global importance. She has become a kind of arts activist. “As artists it would be strange if one wasn’t working within the world you live in,” she tells me. “I can’t think where else I would be.” Though video is her chief medium, what strikes you immediately about Lis Rhodes’ work is the poetry within which it is framed. Most of her later works incorporate a spoken narrative that is descriptive but wonderfully lyrical.

Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, installation view of Nottingham Contemporary. Photo Sam Kirby.

For the first time, all of Nottingham Contemporary’s galleries have been taken over to the exhibition enabled by the Freeloads Award 2017. Curator Irene Aristizábal has arranged it so that Rhodes’ voice-overs bleed into each other without being cacophonous. 

So, for the 1996 film Running Light, for example, one hears about the plight of migrant agricultural workers in West Virginia and North Carolina. Rhodes’ style is to combine news footage, her own photographs, recordings and flashing graphics set against a dissonant soundtrack.

The 83-minute Journal of Disbelief exposes institutional corruption and exploitation through a collage of photography, graphics and text. Dissonance and Disturbance, a 26-minute film from 2012 explores the ordinariness of violence and raises questions of ethics and governmental human rights abuses. It homes in on a particular incident involving a flour mill in Gaza destroyed by the Israelis during the siege of Gaza. The film incorporates two previous works which focus on the kettling tactics of the British police in curbing demonstrators and the underhand surveillance of a woman declared insane.

Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, installation view of Nottingham Contemporary. Photo Sam Kirby.

These are not traditional documentaries. The images switch from black and white to colour, sometimes the voice-over bears no image at all. The text of the script appears like subtitles but spread over the screen like the print of a book. And they are all accompanied by a soundtrack composed by the artist that complements the disturbing nature of the polemic.

The key to Rhodes’ work is to highlight in her way global issues that those interested in world affairs know only a limited amount through the media, particularly television. Her films contain a deeper analysis of what lies behind the issues she tackles together with disturbing statistics. Inequity in all areas has gone from local to global, she feels, and decision-making has been largely ceded to global corporate interests. “There are now groups of people who have no citizenship, who are liable to be in debt, in bondage debt from generation to generation and I think it’s time as the youngsters are calling for climate change to be attended to, I feel this needs to be attended to as well.”

Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, installation view of Nottingham Contemporary. Photo Sam Kirby.

Back in 1983, Rhodes made a series of short 60-second films for Channel 4 entitled Hang on a Minute that fitted into the gap between programmes. At the exhibition, you are invited to sit and watch them on television monitors with headphones. I watched one that focused on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands from which the inhabitants were removed by the British to make way for a US military base. Coincidentally, on that very day, the United Nations general assembly passed a resolution condemning the action and giving Britain six months to return the islands to Mauritius from whom we “bought it” decades ago, so that its people can return. 

“Draw the torn and write the pieces/ there is truth between the fragments/ that will not fit but belong together,” she writes in Ambiguous Journeys, her new and boldest work. This continues the theme from the previous works and gives heart-rending examples of injustice meted out to such peoples as the Rohingya and the Yazidi, publicising facts that governments don’t want us to know. It incorporates too analysis of the refugee crisis, the implications of automation and money laundering – Rhodes casts her net wide.

Yet, through the delicate handling of words and image, she evokes above all, a literary tone. “I’ve always seen as an artist that one is working within a context, one is not working in isolation in any sense. Whether one is re-reading Emily Dickinson from 1860 or Gertrude Stein, you’re looking at how to look at the world now.”

Dissident Lines by Lis Rhodes is showing at Nottingham Contemporary until 1 September 2019

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