For Plans Within Plans, the second exhibition in the Royal Standard’s 2012 programme, the artist-led gallery has changed its exhibition space; putting down carpeting and creating sub-rooms so that Richard Whitby’s video works are presented separately from each other. They are each distinct and yet there are reoccurring themes (of cinema and architecture) and repeating motifs (including hand-held amateur filming and nostalgia). The exhibition title is a quote from David Lynch’s 1984 science fiction compromised epic Dune based on the books of Frank Herbert.
By aligning himself with this cult artist-turned-filmmaker, Whitby signals an intent to tread his own path between the two disciplines, whilst also making reference to a conflict between creative vision and corporate pressures. In Dune, one of the humanoid mutant ‘Guild Navigators’ declares, “You are transparent… I see many things… I see plans within plans.” The navigators fold space and so have developed extrasensory perception – Whitby’s art is about folding back the layers and seeing beyond the obvious.
In his essay Angels, The Phoenix, Bats, Battery Hens and Vultures Whitby writes how he does not want to be an ‘embedded agent of regeneration’. This is how he feels sometimes as an artist; specifically being part of the Bow Arts TrustLive/Work scheme, which provides him with an affordable residence and studio, in exchange for his complicity in a bigger regeneration agenda. In his video The Beating of Vast Wings we see some of these frustrations made into digital flesh: a bird pecks his dead friend and then we watch a digger in operation on a building site. It is a poetic response to some very big issues, the likes of which would leave many of us feeling annoyed, even disenfranchised, but mostly helpless to stop the pace of change in our cities and lives.
Because Whitby works in the medium of art-video and not narrative cinema, he is able to incorporate a lot of other concerns into the 16 minute duration of The Beating of Vast Wings. The framework of the film is a half-remembered re-telling of the story of Salome from Austrian composer Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera. Salome the opera was based on the German translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 tragic play, originally in French, which took its inspiration from an Old Testament story. It feels appropriate for Whitby to use a story that has already been through a series of interpretations and re-interpretations; in the same way that his visuals are a collage of production techniques and seemingly unrelated imagery. It is testimony to his skills as a filmmaker that his works are engaging enough to watch in their entirety.
Whitby has been busy since 2006 forging an international career as both artist and writer. His references – to David Lynch, Richard Strauss, A Time to Love and a Time to Die an obscure 1950s American Hollywood film and to Liverpool-born filmmaker Terence Davies – embroider an international political and cultural story through the three new video works in this exhibition and place Liverpool, Whitby’s birthplace, within this narrative. Whitby has enjoyed the opportunity to exhibit in his home town, which he describes as ‘a city of jarring contrasts’, and use Liverpool as the basis for a new video work. For someone as concerned with the politics of regeneration, Liverpool is a fertile subject matter, even without his personal connection to the city.
The combination of nostalgia and unease many feel about changes to the urban landscape is perfectly captured in his film Inspirations: 7 Interviews with Local Architects. The improvised interviews with actors produce moments of humour and insight as well as exposing the gulf between the intention of the designs for new buildings and the way they are regarded and used by the people of the city. In the sculpture Plans within Plans, a partner piece to the film, architectural models are submerged in coloured sand (pictured), reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty scene in Planet of the Apes. Together, the film and the sculpture, are the most consummate and enduring work in the show.
Whitby is talking to the Royal Standard about participating in their symposium, planned for later in 2012. Hopefully this will enable this fascinating artist to continue his working relationship with the city, something he says he is keen to do. This exhibition does not provide a blue-print for a new world order, instead it suggests that we should ask more questions and look more deeply into the changes around us. Conversations have begun here, which beg to carry on, whether in the pub, a symposium, or Whitby’s next body of work.