Lis Rhodes at the ICA

Filed in Reviews by on January 27, 2012

Lis Rhodes: Dissonance and Disturbance


25 January to 25 March 2012


During the late 1970s and early 80s, the filmmaker Lis Rhodes helped start a distribution company called Circles.  Circles dealt explicitly with the promotion of films made by women in response to the group’s rejection of traditional surveys of film history that constantly exclude groundbreaking female filmmakers such as Germaine Dulac and Alice Guy-Blaché.  Circles’ inaugural showing, “Her Image Fades as Her Voice Rises,” included Rhodes’ first major work Light Reading (1978) which established her as a pivotal and innovative filmmaker in her own right whilst also as one working in the long vein of avant-garde female filmmakers that Circles sought to recognise.

It could be argued though that Rhodes’ association with Cirlces has limited the interpretation of her rich and explosive body of work.  Critics seem all too ready to label Rhodes as a “feminist filmmaker,” ignoring the wider political, poetic and philosophic questions that her expansive and difficult works pose.  The ICA’s comprehensive exhibition of her work seems conscious of this problem as an effort has obviously been made to examine the entire trajectory of her career with more of an emphasis on Rhodes’ later works where her politics and aesthetic ideas are directed towards the global rather than the particular or the personal.

The exhibition has been split into two parts.  Rhodes’ early films, Dresden Dynamo (1972) and Light Reading, have been given their own room and watching both films consecutively gives you a clear sense of Rhodes’ as an artist who is dealing explicitly with the aesthetic and political ideas that are so integral to modernism.  Light Reading is built completely on fractures and dissonance; we struggle to make the film yield to some kind of narrative as it oscillates at the boundary of sense.  A cohesive or singular meaning is not something that can be grasped even though we are given glimpses of an underlying framework or logic.  The films’ movements are more musical than textual, helical as opposed to linear. Ideas and senses refract and repeat.  The film seems to unravel as though it is being taken apart in the same way that you’d peel the skin from an orange – surfaces are constantly being stripped away.  In Light Reading we even see the film being deconstructed at the level of its technical specifics as we are given a series of sharp, fractured images with a voiceover stating the editing directions or notes for the film – even the possibility of cinema itself is no longer a certainty in Rhodes’ work.

What is most startling in Light Reading though is Rhodes’ mastery of sound and image as the two mediums seem to work independently of each other before converging and diverging again in waves of harmony and dissonance.  For the majority of the film they seem to be in opposition – one undermines or obscures the other; we see an image of a bed, there is something ominous, sinister even in the textures; the voiceover grows to a kind of hysterical rush of words which builds the tension; the image cuts to a close up of the bed but it is too close to make out anything other than a few ragged lines; then the voice stops, it retreats as a flurry of images and recurrent motifs pass; eventually we are thrown into darkness with only the voice repeating itself, drawing in on itself.

If this sounds woefully abstract or strenuous – as modernism and its legacy will to a lot of people – then it is worth stating that the velocity of Rhodes’ films strips away any pretension.  They never seem affected and are always an experience, not a lecture.  We may feel lost or overwhelmed by them but this is really the point – they reveal the limits and prejudices of our subjective consciousness and the very framework we use to seek sense in reality.  The problem is though that, all too often, this can feel like solipsism in art – it doesn’t lead anywhere apart from abstract ideas that seem all too ineffectual in politically dubious times such as ours.  Light Reading falls into this solipsism because it is so successful in exposing all the conceits of language, semblance, mimesis and ultimately cinema but as thrilling as this is, it does not actually leave you with much.  All we really have to return to is the experience of the film, outside though the pervasiveness of politics and its tawdry rhetoric makes our intellectual aspirations seem frail, Romantic even.

The second room though addresses this specifically as it is dedicated to her latest three works: A Cold Draft (1988), In the Kettle (2010) and Whitehall (2012).  These films seem to run together and there is little in the way of interjections to mark where one ends and the next begins.  Thematically though they are all very much a part of a series that deals explicitly with global political issues and protests.  These films utilise two screens so that the intensity that characterises Light Reading seems even more expansive as images clash and contradict each other simultaneously.  There is a limit to how much you can take in and as a result of this you are forced to accept that you will – quite literally – never get the whole picture.

The camera itself has also become an object of fixation for Rhodes as we see them everywhere, whether their presence is being scrutinised in scenes from protests in London, gestured to in references to the paintings of Gerhard Richter, or lamented in the reproduction of texts from laws that prohibit the filming of police officers.  These works bristle with an intensity that is quite clearly fueled by a conviction that film is the medium most capable of not only understanding, but penetrating our volatile times and there is a weight to these films that go far beyond abstract ideas or philosophies.  In the later films especially there is an immediacy that their dissonance and juxtapositions can only extenuate.  Rhodes has found a way to articulate the innovative ideas and aesthetics of her work within the political realities of the here and now.  That she has not gained more recognition for this is a damning indictment of the way we engage with modern cinema and its history.  Maybe its time for a reincarnation of Circles to help educate us.

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Cioran McGrath

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Cioran once read a book by John Berger (inadvertently) and now believes this has given him the ability to write about art, although no one has really explained to him that it’s near impossible to make a living this way. It’s unclear whether he will lose interest in the misadventure any time soon. Many hope he will. Along with being a prodigious waster of time (his as well as others’), he also writes infrequently about other things, more of which can be found at You can follow him at @CalleNine, but we’re not sure why anyone would want to.

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