Sukhdev Sandhu on Portraiture in Contemporary Animation

The following transcript is taken from animate!’s three-part series of screening & discussion evenings in Spring 2006 at the National Portrait Gallery, London, entitled Tracing the Contours: Portraiture and Place in Contemporary Animation, investigating the unique way in which animation, the manipulated moving image, can amplify notions of portraiture.

The third evening Private Eyes: Portraits Inside on 11 May screened the following animate! commissions:

Black, White & Green by Ian Bourn, Hotel Central by Matt Hulse, Perpetual Motion in the Land of Milk and Honey by AL + AL, Room Service by Sylvie Bringas, Spirit of Place by Oliver Harrison and Within/Without by Benita Raphan.

These were followed by a discussion between novelist Sukhdev Sandhu and writer and Time Out film critic Gareth Evans.


Gareth Evans: This programme is about exploration of interior spaces, about the idea of portraiture as it moves from the world of the public and journeys towards a more private location. There is a sense of melancholy that runs through this, perhaps?

Sukhdev Sandhu: It’s a liberating melancholy for me as well. Maybe I’m just particularly attached to some kind of ruinationalism, but I think it’s also connected with the impossibility, or the increasing liquidity, of spaces, of particular kinds of interiority and landscapes as well. Landscape seems to be a shifting, on-the-move texture. The country that we’re living in seems to be changing really quickly: everything seems to be smoother, with identikit architecture and identikit plans for urban regeneration as well. In its turn, it brings a hankering for something older, more crepuscular, more haunted. There’s almost a quest for ghosts, which I felt in some of these films.

GE: Do you think there is something of this built into the actual process of animation itself, where you have a single maker who is trying - in this particular programme - to investigate a very personal sense of space and the relationships that go on there? Is there something in the hands-on technology that would allow this kind of portraiture to emerge?

Room Service animate! commission © Sylvie Bringas 2001

SS: I think so. One of my jobs is working as a film critic… I watch 20 films a week and I never get the opportunity to see films of the variety and depth, with the intimate voices and visuals, that we’ve seen here this evening. The animation that I do see is fairly uniform and fairly corporate. It’s made by teams, it’s done by designers; it’s an industrial process. So one of the things I cherished here was those individual voices - the relationship between the makers, the singularity in the final product.

GE: In terms of how ‘place’ is contained within these works, how do you think the environments shown, whether a pie shop or the extraordinary virtual arenas of AL + AL’s work, relate to the space behind them, the interior space? Again, do you think there is something inherent in animation that can uniquely take that forward?

SS: I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough about animation technique to speak directly to that latter point, but what I would say is that I have seen the films a number of times now and still I find it hard, as someone whose job it is to be able to do bullet points and cheap synopses and quick descriptions, to actually describe what’s going on in many of these films. They elude certain kinds of taxonomy, certain kinds of language, and they extend my imaginative and, I think possibly, emotional repertoire as well. It may be that this kind of animation has a particular ability to strap on, add, bend and mutate language as much as images.

Miles from Anywhere animate! commission © Gary Carpenter 1997

GE: Let’s take a work which is grounded in a particular location, Black, White and Green, Ian Bourn’s film. In a previous conversation with Ian, it emerged that a sense of Chinese calligraphy was informing some of his compositions, and that’s interesting when you put it into a specific London location and the personal stories that emerge from it. It raises this idea of how an image can be manipulated to contain the portraiture that we’re talking about. Do you think there is something of this inherent in London as a city in flux, but also in culture generally, trying to relate an individual to place, or a social group to place, a location trying to contain what you talked about earlier, this sense of loss that is happening all around us. Is there some kind of convergence of all these forces?

SS: There seems to be a movement afoot for a kind of aggressive, and perhaps recuperative individualism; a huge geo-specificity. You see it increasingly, not so much in psycho-geography but in a kind of vernacular, almost provincial cartographising; people going around taking pictures, or making books about particular barbershops or greasy spoon cafes or fading graffiti in the Lea Valley.

There is the sense of a certain kind of disappearance, but I think it’s also related to a kind of crisis perhaps… or an overabundance of images. You see it with websites like Flickr, and you see it in the increasing rapidity with which digital photography has been taken up on the web and in various blogs and live journals. There are almost too many images; they’re floating around and they’re on your computer and they’re just numbers. You don’t know what they are and you can’t be bothered to log them all and give them a description. You don’t go down to the store and get them processed.

There’s a kind of instantaneity about the image - I’m by no means down on digital photography, but there is this sense of loss in the speed and the acceleration with which you can produce. You can just snap, snap, snap a huge, almost dead archive of the contemporary, which I think generates a counter-desire to create artworks in a style that is a bit more pocked, a bit more liver-spotted. Compared to most of the animated work I see and hear, in this programme there was far more depth of image; there was weight, a sense of encrustation.

Perpetual Motion in the Land of Milk and Honey animate! commission © AL + AL 2004

GE: That’s extremely interesting in light of the last film, Perpetual Motion in the Land of Milk and Honey, which on the surface offers this extraordinary digital realm. It clearly does not exist in the world as it’s currently configured, but yet is grounded in an absolutely personal sense of family biography, with a strange conjunction between its hyperactive technological drive and this gritty, textural lived experience…

SS: It blew my mind - I had no idea what was happening for most of the film. For me there was this wonderful, strange, mystified rapture about it. It has a power to move, and to create a kind of inexpressible, nostalgic futurism, an incredible melancholy. There’s a certain kind of Sisyphean impossibility going on.

GE: Absolute struggle, yes; constantly pushing that rock uphill… Was it a very surprising, unlikely assembly of films, if taken in light of the sense of portraiture we’ve been talking about?

SS: People I’ve shown the films to think it’s got nothing to do with portraiture. They’re not saying that in an aggressive way, just because it expands so much the traditional idea of what animation is.

GE: Do you think viewers have a resistance, particularly where it becomes personal, to a certain kind of experimentation? This is unlike with music, where people will happily engage with all sorts of sonic repertoires. Somehow, when it comes to film, there’s a certain kind of narrative expectation or a documentary expectation that is so embedded perhaps? Maybe because film gives such a strong sense of direct experiential response?

Within/Without animate! commission © Benita Raphan 1994

SS: It’s certainly the case that in recent years the most successful films coming out of what would loosely be called avant-garde experimental filmwork, at least in this country, are those which have the most conventional and often biographical narratives. I’m thinking of films like Black Sun and, from the US, Tarnation. They’re not exactly therapeutic but memoiristic, autobiographical, which does make it easier for viewers to latch onto something.

GE: Perhaps identity is a better word than portraiture in that it’s more open, it comes with marginally less baggage perhaps, and it manages to fuse a sense of self and place.

SS: I think that ‘portrait’ has this connotation of something a bit more 18th century, something a bit more pickled, along with a still life. It doesn’t speak to the different kinds of momentum or the different kinds of fluidities with which we engage these days. I teach at a US university and one of the things they’re finding there is that when people graduate, they no longer buy the yearbooks with the great poses and descriptions and encapsulations of their life and their future aspirations. Because the students are so used these days to taking pictures with their cell phones, using websites such as Facebook, and mapping, snapping and sharing images of themselves as they go, they don’t believe in the possibility of one, two or five images expressing who they are. They’re in flux and their relationship to the idea of the visual or of portraiture also requires new forms which speak to that mobility.

GE: Perhaps these films, although they’re very singularly derived and generated, perhaps they do speak to that larger cultural sense of the shift and the idea that everyone can embody and propagate their identity in whatever way they choose.

SS: And there’s a kind of porousness. Many of the films are to do with a haunted, resonant interior. I’ve been quite ill and I’ve been watching TV for the last few days; every daytime TV programme is an interior programme or it’s about flogging off your attic, going to a car-boot sale, auctioning your place… and you get these cheery presenter-outsiders coming in saying ‘oh, that’s a bit 1950s, it’s gotta go’, or ‘that’s very 1970s’; it’s a very cookie cutter idea of what is the appropriate interior to have. The old interiors are being vanquished by this faux expertise. At the same time, what’s considered a modern progressive house is one that is hugely wired and linked with the outside world - which is great, and mine is no different from many other people’s in that respect.

Spirit of Place animate! commission © Oliver Harrison 1992

But the idea of a certain kind of sanctity, and perhaps a certain kind of loneliness and isolation when you go in to a particular space or you go in through your own front door, doesn’t quite exist in the same way as it used to; you’re always potentially on broadband. It sounds fatuous but broadband means you’re always much more connected, even at the level of being a voyeur to things that are going on elsewhere. It’s easier for me to see what’s going on in a small provincial village in Germany via a webcam than it is for me actually to see outdoors in bad weather where I live, because the windows are misted over. So what it means in terms of intimacy and locality… all of that’s been blurred and elasticated.

GE: Do you think that this idea of the portrait you’re expanding on, across all these media and across time and geography themselves, do you think that it works as some kind of defence almost, because clearly there’s a volume of images that comes out whether online or in other media - the simple fact of the scale mediates against any kind of larger exploration. Perhaps one is just so overwhelmed by volume that any encounter can only be very surface and rarely like the works here, going much more vertically into a sense of experience and history…

SS: And obsessive. And kind of cranky. In some ways that’s the thing that sticks. I find, if you have cable TV, everything begins to seem the same, even the stuff that you like, and it’s the same with the proliferation of digital radio. The thing that grabs my attention when I’m just flicking, flicking, is anything that’s a bit silent, because it seems to be the ultimate verboten thing. Or anything where there’s a degree of distortion visually or sonically, or anything that’s just a bit more askew, damaged or mutant. The vertical dig into self, into place, into landscape: all these micro-phenomena are hovering around some of the questions about perception and selfhood and relationships to a liquid, globalised modernity.

GE: In terms of silence, it’s very important you mention that, because often we talk about the image at the expense of the soundtrack, with whatever form that might take, but is there such a thing as a ‘silent’ image, particularly with relevance to the idea of the portrait, in the way that it can reconfigure what it shows with more of a meditative, reflective quality, even before we get to any sound that accompanies the image? I’m thinking particularly here of Black, White & Green where there is such a strong sense of consideration and meditation.

Hotel Central animate! commission © Matt Hulse 2000

SS: The silence becomes a kind of portal for you to dive into. I’d never really thought about it until you mentioned it, but I wonder what noisy portraiture would be. It’s certainly not something that instinctively I want. I want some kind of pause. I want to be hobbled. It’s the same here with the NPG you know - there are hundreds, thousands of people memorialised here and there’s a kind of attendant jangle going on. You hear too many voices, too many captions, too many articulated contexts. I hear noises around the portraits, which I don’t like. It seems to be a top-down version of the urban surround sound that you get.

GE: Do you think there’s fruitful material for investigation of the differences between the portrait as a still and moving image? Does the moving image portrait, however loosely it’s configured, open up more possibilities?

SS: I think it has the opportunity to create certain kinds of juxtaposition and certain kinds of tentative dialogues. You mentioned Black, White & Green - there’s noise and conversations going on with those characters. The textures of the food aren’t isolated; they’re in a very social space as well. I think in a way that’s one of the challenges, to capture the social nature of our being, our commitments, either the elective or unelective communities that we inhabit, and at the same time register the kinds of consciousness and particular kinds of individuality that we have. And the way that landscape, place and labour etch themselves into our bodies, into the way we sit, into the fabric of our flesh as well.

I think that perhaps the moving image can more easily capture that sense of the social, the gregarious, the massification. But I don’t think that’s necessarily opposed to a quieter, more reverential, more frozen relationship to individuals who’ve been portrayed.


Writer and critic Sukhdev Sandhu has brilliantly chronicled the way black and Asian writers have experienced and re-imagined the city since the 1770s in his book London Calling (2003). His latest book I’ll Get My Coat, with Usman Saeed, was launched in October 2005. He is chief film critic for the Daily Telegraph and was named Critic of the Year in the 2005 British Press Awards. He regularly participates in public and radio debates, and his writing has appeared in a range of publications including the London Review of Books, Modern Painters, Smoke and the Times Literary Supplement.

A journal of Sukhdev’s nocturnal investigations is unfolding throughout 2006 at Night Haunts, an Artangel-commissioned website with soundtrack composed by Scanner. He lives in Whitechapel, London, and teaches at New York University.


animate! thanks the National Portrait Gallery for supporting this film & discussion programme, a contribution to the Gallery’s 150th anniversary year.

The first evening in the three-part Tracing the Contours: Portraiture and Place in Contemporary Animation series entitled Face to Place: Portraits in Public with novelist and essayist AS Byatt took place on 9 March, and the second evening Route Masters: Portraits in Transition with poet, filmmaker and author Iain Sinclair on 13 April.

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