Ben Rivers: Phantoms of a Libertine @ Kate MacGarry Gallery

With a mystery that must be kept unsolved, Ben Rivers fuses a judicious experience of clues with this new body of work at Kate MacGarry Gallery. It is an installation of photographs, film and found objects that eagerly envisions a non-existent being, a phantom flat or a fading image and opens up a wonderful creative dialogue with his first feature length film, Two Years at Sea (2011), a few days before its general release in UK.

Rivers’ previous work has featured science fiction communities (Slow Action, 2010), dull blue barrels of toxic chemicals in an abandoned factory (Sack Barrow, 2011), individuals living in the wilderness (Two Years at Sea), which he recorded on Kodak plus X film and processed in his flat. The making of his films is a disconnection between the place of filming and the processing of the film. This detachment is very much dependent on editing techniques in order to make it work in cinema. In his recent show at Kate MacGarry, Rivers’ new 16mm film is a transient biography of his friend, an anonymous subject, who traveled the world for Time & Life Magazine and died last year. Abiding to his attraction in making films that have a mystery, Rivers’ 10-minutes long Phantoms of a Libertine (2012) is a sequence of found images from Acapulco, Haifa, Marseilles and New York along recordings of photo albums, books, collages of broken artifacts, dusty periodicals and photographs of enchanting forests, nudity and sunsets. Ink-written notes on world destinations accompany sporadic imprints of the year a photograph was taken along thoughts on what is professionalism or simply a day’s action such as “Oct-64…waiting for a train”.

When thinking of ‘taxonomy’ of objects as a sorting of categories, matter and memory become phony to imagination. Unconsciously obsessed by the restrictions of our usual taxonomies, I ask Rivers if Phantoms of a Libertine has a chronological order starting from the 1940s, but it hasn’t. “The audience can make what they want out of this sequence of pictures”, he replies. Consequently the film has no narrative. The subject is absent so we are not being told exactly what these pictures are. Strangely I imagine a world without the explicit references that language penetrates with familiarity. What Rivers has achieved, in short, is an operating treatment of memory and experience that allows thought to be actively rich and improvised.

“There are connections throughout the film and the show as a whole”, Rivers continues. “But I wouldn’t want to explain them. I can say that all the images in the film come from the same house, as does everything else in the installation. The images on the wall next to the film projection are photos I took of objects I found in the house. Instead of showing them as objects I thought it better to present them in a standardized way, so each object is presented with the same treatment, with no hierarchy. Nothing takes precedence and they are all equally important”. The delicacy of ‘Phantoms of a Libertine’ exhibition relies not just on the idea of the found object as ‘found-imagery of an elusive biography’ as the press release suggests, but also on the possibility of attaining the status of a lost encounter. Rivers’ involvement with filming in an observational way touches on the sociology of art with the condition involved in the transformation of someone’s physical space of living (the absent subject), to the rigorous re/decontextualization of the exhibition subject (inside the gallery or the cinema) that allows sharing this space with other people.

Ben Rivers is a recipient of the London Artists Film and Video Award (LAFVA 07) for his film Origin of the Species (2008), Tiger Award for Best Short Film (International Film Festival Rotterdam 2008) for his Ah! Liberty (2008) and the 2010 Paul Hamlyn Award for Visual Arts.

Two Years at Sea is released on 4th May by Soda Pictures

Guest Editor|Georgia Korossi – freelance writer & curator based in London & Athens