On Edward Thomasson's 'The Present Tense'
The Chisenhale Gallery, 2014

 

A few minutes into Edward Thomasson’s film ‘The Present Tense’ (at the Chisenhale from 3rd July – 24th August, 2014) the main character - a heavyset working class British woman, roughly in her late 30’s - trips and falls in the street. The wounded knee she receives from this slip-up is what sets Thomasson’s low-key am-drammy drama in motion and becomes the source for much of the film’s metaphorical content. The wound returns episodically throughout the film as it slowly heals, a bit like chapter titles in a Woody Allen film that frame a set-piece and have the structural benefit of breaking the whole movie up more manageable segments. This wound also introduces the unit of ‘scab-time’ as opposed to say cinematic, Gregorian, or 'Cartesian' time etc. It is also a visual portrayal of trauma – something that is normally invisible. The making visible of time/trauma through the scab seems like a twist on structural film’s obsession with duration, which the classics of the genre often foreground as the content, and which in Thomasson’s hands compliment well what is ultimately a gently camp meditation on crisis management as it unfolds in, yes, The Present Tense. Looming in the background of the ‘crisis’ of the grazed knee is the more significant recent financial crisis. Thomasson cuts in footage of the demolition and reconstruction of a building alongside the healing of the knee - urban regeneration used here to visualize the abstract flow of capital (following here the logic that ‘cranes on the horizon signal economic growth’), and which in association with the scabby-knee as a remnant of crisis, the 2008 financial crash. If this strikes you as an over-reading then we should consider that this theme is presented ambiently, something very much in contrast to the center-staging of the scripted drama. This makes sense since the crash itself was abstract, ‘invisible’, something that finds form in the affective, notably in the stresses and anxieties caused by having our Housing Benefits or ESA taken away. True to this ambient quality the building work is shot largely as reflections in the windows out of which the various actor running through Thomasson’s script gaze (i.e the building work literally being the background of the drama and appropriately depicted in these Xeroxed-like reflections.) Perhaps Thomasson’s gazing characters are contemplating the financial tectonics of the city as it shrinks and expands? But maybe not. They are after all just actors (Thomasson's characters are not fleshed out in any meaningful way, though they do their job to entertain us with the schlocky self-help dialogue). The work is part meditation on the trials of trying to live through precarious times but also part journey through the formal idiosyncrasies of early 1990’s British working class television and structural filmmaking. In fact if you did not live in the UK in the 1990’s then I wonder how the work translates. Thomasson’s casting and choice of set are impeccable for someone who did. It’s as though he had been loaned the set from ITV’s The Bill, rounded up the extra’s from Grange Hill and Eastenders and got them all together to improvise his script – a kind of dream project for someone of my generation with a similar upbringing and art education. The pleasure in recognizing the visual tropes does eventually raise the question as to why these tropes? i.e how does the style serve the content or how is this style-as-content relevant? Aside from the artist perhaps just being sentimental about this regional aesthetic one interpretation takes us back to cuts to arts funding and the Tory austerity measures (following the ‘crash’). The Chisenhale escaped some of the more severe cuts and though they still have to scrabble around for funding elsewhere the arts council still provide essential financial grist. Thomasson’s work is not a critique of these cuts, but seems to want at least to unearth the conditions of its creation, to expose the ‘support’ of the work, nodding to its economics as the structuralist filmmakers nodded to duration. The nod to 90’s television in my mind is a nod to a mythical Britain. This is a Britain maybe more resilient in the face of cuts despite being defined by them (I’m thinking of the Thatcherite 80’s Britain), where something like the London Film-Makers Co-Op (the structuralist/materialist ethos of which Thomasson’s work could even be read as a homage to) could happen and have an enduring cultural relevance. To a contemporary audience Thomasson’s Britain seems quaint, which is perhaps the point since it effectively throws into relief the starkness of the present moment.

 

Kazimierz Jankowski, 2014