It’s an exciting moment when one of the world’s greatest contemporary composers reveals his other abiding passion to be photography and film. Equally exciting, then, that in his first visual exhibition Michael Nyman should choose to incorporate both his music and location sound with his “videoscapes”. Because music is so obviously what Nyman does, it’s something that could easily be overlooked in this stimulating space on Bexhill beach.
The relations between music and image are not well understood or theorised and while Barthes is the obvious point of reference here (with Image Music Text) or perhaps the Philip Glass Qatsi series, I felt ill-equipped to describe the effects of this unique interdisciplinary venture, other than to say, resoundingly, it works! For Barthes, music leads directly back to the body, freeing it from the system of signs to which the writer or photographer is beholden. He also uses the structure of music as an analogy for consideration of a text; for Nyman, who coined the term “minimalist” in relation to music, we might usefully consider his visual work in this way.
In a gallery full of neat screens with headphones, Tuning for the Tune stands out as a study of a street musician in Lisbon, allowing the viewer to observe him as he tunes his defiantly home-made guitar. In one long take, the camera does not stray from the man’s fingers. The assumption is that the man will sing and play guitar, but once the painstaking tuning process is over, we understand the guitar is a minor player in a twohander, the leading role awarded to the human voice whistling. Here the idea that music leads straight to the body makes sense; this is an exquisite climax, a moment of Barthesian jouissance.
The first piece of work encountered in the gallery is Love Train. In this exquisitely observed film, the camera focuses for 10 full minutes on the couplings or buffers between the carriages of a moving train. Bound together, yet always on the verge of missing the embrace offered by the other, it’s impossible not to think of this work as a bittersweet meditation on human relationships.
These two works and others in the show – the metal bangers in the Iranian square, the giant turbines and dwarfing machinery of Tea Factory – are in essence documentary, or, more specifically, adhere to an aesthetic of surveillance. Witness I and II, however, operate in a different realm. Here Nyman has purposely sought the artistic by way of the invisible to create a testament to gypsies and Jews, interned at Nazi concentration camps. Nyman works with existing fabrics and textures from the environment through which he fades out faces. Elsewhere, a brief work featuring the model Milla Jovovich is a misjudgment, and the photographic montages seem like an afterthought. On the whole, Nyman has created a compelling body of work, which in relation to music and image working together, sets the bar almost unfeasibly high.