A graphic portrait

Monday 15 Nov 2010

Beijing, a feature-length film by Sarah Morris depicting how architecture fueled the 2008 Olympics, premieres in the UK

New architecture is often considered a catalyst for the regeneration of an urban location or a symbolic manifestation of a city’s direction and ideals. This concept is thoroughly and rigorously dissected in the Sarah Morris feature-length film Beijing, which premiered in the UK not two weeks ago.

With the camera her tool, Morris sketches out both fact and fantasy as she immerses herself in the complex social and political matrix of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Given unprecedented access to the main stages and behind the scenes action, the artist’s shots waver between analytically focussed pictorials of China’s architectural journey and sweeping panoramas of glowing faces; philosophical sponges absorbing a strongly architectured atmospheric buzz.

Never was the phrase ‘for the greater good’ more fitting. Through 86 minutes of dialogue-free glossy film, only a handful of moments surface where individuals are portrayed as simply that. Individuals. Each person lucky enough to be singled out by the artist serves a purpose, almost exclusively to oil the corporate machine that is the Beijing Olympics or to embody the ideal that China attempts to portray.

One is left questioning whether this is Morris’ personal projection or an exclusive portrait of reality. This confusion is rapidly dismissed when the artist explains post-film that her private quest is ‘to create something out of the real’, experimenting with ‘how to yield an image’.

From uniformed workers scrubbing tiled floors with little more than a toothbrush to young girls chalking inscriptions onto pavements, each character shot on their lonesome is flawless in both appearance and mannerism, interspersed with wide-pan images of perfectly choreographed opening ceremony routines. Collectively, these visions manifest themselves as the portrayal an ideological city; clean streets, healthy workers, zero crime and all inhabitants acting for the good of the city.

In a question and answer session post-screening Morris indulged the cultured audience in her intimate thought processes, many of which centred on the theme of the architect’s ego or indeed the failure of it. Famed architects and artistic figures pop up sporadically across the cinematic piece, with Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster and Jacques Herzog all playing minor roles. What Morris attempts to achieve with these cameos is unclear, however she does touch briefly on the role an architect plays after their work is complete. Shot in fairly mundane poses, the filmmaker possibly implies that the architect must take backseat position, their work completed, and their functionality no more.

Beijing is not as rhythmatically consistent as Morris’ earlier film Midtown - shot in New York City - wavering between powerfully vibrant, busy streams of activity and lulls both in visual and acoustic motion. Whether engineered so or not, it lacks the continuity and stability present in this previous work and this is detrimental to its form. One must be active in the viewing process in order to comprehend Morris’ complex comments about Beijing’s journey into the world stage; when viewed in short sections as it will be when displayed in public art galleries, the lack of dialogue may be troublesome to those not fully aware of acute architectural details.

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