The City & The City (1-channel HD video with stereo sound, RT 28:50, 2015) is a video with a narrative told through voice-over and staged onscreen by choreographed performers, in a series of dreamlike or fragmented scenes set throughout St. Louis. The video was inspired by China Miéville’s 2009 sci-fi noir novel The City & The City, and maps the conceptual framework of that novel onto the cityscape of St. Louis, melding some of the fictions of the novel’s world with elements drawn from past and present histories of the city. Like the novel, The City & The City departs from the premise of two cities that are geographically intertwined, but economically and politically so divided that they become separate countries. But because the resulting city-states are physically cross-hatched together, the separation is maintained on a day-to-day basis by the citizens, who learn from birth to ‘unsee’ everything and everyone that belongs to the other city – quickly identifying all that is Other and looking away from it so reflexively that it vanishes from view. Violations of both the physical border, and the protocol of unseeing, are policed by a special and rather spooky force called Breach. A number of radical sects exist – some desire to unify the divided cities, while others believe that a third city exists in the dissensi, the liminal spaces claimed by both or neither cities, and still others believe that Breach might inhabit that uncanny Nowhere, located between Here and There. The video is narrated by Derek Laney; performed by Erin Ellen Kelly, Shirin Rastin, Jin Soo Park, Chaim Duffe-Holmes, and Naomi Merrihue; motion effects by Mores McWreath; score by Qasim Naqvi performed by the NYU Contemporary Music Ensamble, and sound engineering by Aaron Roche.
Like Water From a Stone (1-channel HD video with stereo sound, RT 20:09, 2014) was shot in Rogaland County, Norway during a residency at the Rogaland Kunstsenter in the summer of 2013. They collaborated with several artists and performers who reside in Stavanger for this project. Throughout the course of their research and in the process of location scouting, the artists contemplated what life in Norway was like prior to the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s. The title, a play on the English idiom ‘like blood from a stone’, refers to the difficulty of extracting oil from the undersea deposits on the continental shelf as well as the endless struggle of existence on a cold, rocky landscape. It was filmed in places that expose evidence of the German occupation of Norway and draws from some of the imagery of the Romantic Nationalist painters. The video is includes a new choral score by composer Qasim Naqvi inspired by ambient sound recorded during filming and performed by two choirs and three soloists. Like Water From A Stone premiered at the Rogaland Kunstenter for the show, It Could Go Either Way: Mariam Ghani + Erin Ellen Kelly.
To Live, (1-channel HD video with stereo sound, RT 40:57 2012) was produced through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on Governors Island residency. A small island at the mouth of New York City’s harbor, it served as a military installation from the 1770s to the 1960s. Like many of their videos, it is informed equally by literary and historical sources. In this case, To Live adapts and transposes Bid Me to Live: A Madrigal (published in 1960 by the poet H.D. or Hilda Doolittle) from its original setting in WWI London to the community of military wives and WACs on Governors Island during WWII. Using the disintegrating interiors of the island’s houses to reflect the cracks in the protagonists’ psyches, the narrative is about the extremes and estrangements produced by war.
Smile, you’re in Sharjah (1-channel HD video, with stereo sound, RT: 24:32, 2009) references the city’s own brand of welcome sign in the middle of a roundabout notorious for its rush-hour traffic jams. Populated with construction cranes, flocks of birds, and workers who assume the role of dancers, the video presents subtly choreographed segments in which everyday behavior becomes something monumental. Ghani and Kelly, who are noticeably absent from this video, also highlight the relationship between the sleek façades of the cityscape with the flow of migrant workers who are simultaneously the most omnipresent and invisible of the metropolis’ inhabitants. The video mimics the cyclical structure of the city—day to night, weekday to weekend, construction to demolition, labor to leisure—while the electronic score by Aaron Taylor Kuffner (constructed entirely from ambient sound recorded during filming) draws attention to its natural rhythms.
Landscape Studies: New Mexico, (1-channel HD video with quadrophonic sound, RT: 22:17, 2010) was filmed in and around the Galisteo Valley of New Mexico, and reflects the region’s history of strange encounters by means of an oblique pilgrim's progress. It is organized by Pueblo Indian theories of the meanings of colors, clouds, and directions. Each direction (north, west, south, east, above, and below) is associated with a particular color. Landscape Studies also brings to mind the exploration, conquest, revolts, rodeos, missile tests, film shoots, truck stops, and participant ethnography that have taken place in this area. One of many locations in the video is White Sands National Park, parts of which have served as missile test sites since the 1940s (including the location for the Trinity test), as well as being the backdrop for a number of films (such as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth).
(a.k.a. Strangers in a Stranger Land),
Three Surrenders, (1-channel DV video with stereo sound, RT: 6:16, 2007) was shot in a gutted McDonald’s in midtown Manhattan. In the video, this raw environment is transformed into a poetic, eerie site for contemplation. A single dancer (Kelly) surrenders to this shifting atmosphere through a process of struggle, repetition, and reflection, while other performers moving rhythmically around her reinforce the demolition and renovation permeating the urban space. The soundtrack layers whispers and sung vocals (performed by Ghani) in several languages, associated directly or elusively with the idea of surrender. The vocals include a fragment of an aria from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Paride ed Elena.
Fugitive Refrains, Single-channel HD video, with surround sound,RT: 26:11, 2007). Schloss Solitude and the Solitude Rotwildpark forest in Stuttgart, Germany are the sites and subjects of Fugitive Refrains. Schloss Solitude was built as a hunting lodge and summer residence in 1769 by Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg and exemplifies the late Rococo aesthetic, which used trompe l’oeil and mirrors to create false perspectives and depths. Since 1990 it has housed the Akademie Schloss Solitude, where Ghani was an artist in residence during the summer of 2006. Kelly joined Ghani towards the end of this residency through which they created Fugitive Refrains, shot in six sites in the historic castle and forest (designed at the same time Schloss Solitude was built). The title of the video is inspired by two lines from William Wordsworth’s poem, Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, written a few decades after the Schloss was constructed: "That nature yet remembers/What was so fugitive!"
and composers Qasim Naqiv and Aaron Taylor Kuffner.
For more information on screening the videos and prints contact Ryan Lee Gallery.
Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly have been collaborating since 2006. Their work synthesizes Ghani’s interest in architecture, literature, and history with Kelly’s ongoing exploration of the politics of movement and the transformative nature of performance, allowing parallels within the videos to seamlessly unfold. Drawing on ideas from the discipline of landscape archaeology, Ghani and Kelly often focus on the relationship between natural and constructed environments, or the history of a site and its current condition or use, while also contemplating the phenomenology of place as experienced through and reproduced by the performing body. Each project is centered on a single location or set of locations linked by a common history, context, or theme. Referred to by the artists as “performed places,” their videos are meditations on landscape, the human condition, and the passing of time. They have worked closely with composers Qasim Naqvi and Aaron Taylor Kuffner on the scores and sounscapes to the videos. - Text by Amy Mackie.