This short piece was written for an exhibition catalogue on the occasion of Festival of Projections in Canterbury in March 2016.
‘The Image of the Road’ is the second collaborative video work by Helen Kirwan and Simon Pruciak which traces their 17,000 km journey along the E40, a grand transnational highway between Calais in France and Ridder in Kazakhstan. Conceived by the UN after the Second World War, E40 snakes through ten countries from West to East and partly overlays the ancient silk routes which have for centuries facilitated commerce and migration between the regions.
However, the video work allows for a much more direct and physical experience of motion and its mutoscopic version brings special attention to it by inviting one’s participation in the process of viewing. Additionally, turning the crank creates movement from individual images which, to an extent, coincides with the cinematic as Marcel Proust saw it. Kirwan says: ‘He wrote about going at speed and seeing the scenery frame by frame. Neuroscience has now caught up with him and confirms this weird haptic sensation that arises in your body when travelling in the car.’
James Hockey Gallery, Farnham, Kent 2014-2015
The phenomenology of motorized movement was, in fact, one of the impulses behind ‘The Image of the Road’ and the video provides ample opportunities for one’s embodied perception of the blurred tarmac and road signs whizzing high above. The camera mechanically recorded the highway spectacle while the artists relinquished all control, removing the possibility of mastery and command of the journey not only for themselves but also for the viewers. ‘We deliberately put the visual imagery in disorder as we wanted to disrupt the notion of the linear and the concept of the road moving smoothly from one country to another,’ explains Kirwan. The radio songs that happen to play in the car are another source of incongruity- English songs blare loudly from the Kazakh radio station so identifying countries by language proves problematic.
Issues of culture and nationhood as well as site-specific political and ecological awareness became part of the journey’s investigation. E40, purportedly signifying unity and cohesion, has frequently revealed profound differences of appearance and treatment. As Pruciak put it, ‘it is an artificial, man-made concept. You can see how well-organized it is in Europe but this doesn’t happen that much in central Asia. Everyone drives the way they want to, children play football on the road at night.’ The video footage maps out a highway which relentlessly alternates between a four-lane model and a patchwork of broken concrete slabs or even a pile of sand, hardly distinguishable from the surrounding arid fields. ‘The Image of the Road’ seems to lie at an intersection of the multiple meanings of its title- on the one hand, a physical representation of the road’s many faces and on the other, its conceptual, abstracted image that reads more like a distant metaphor than a viable plan.
There is scope for deliberating these notions in between honking cars and the horizon stretching into infinity but, ultimately, it is the road and the transitions it triggers- in time, space, perception, comprehension- that take centre stage.
P.S.- Pruciak subsequently undertook a motorbike journey over the world, enlarging The Image of the Road into global parameters. While he was filming and photographing relentlessly, Helen Kirwan started working on her new video installation due to open at the European Cultural Centre in Venice for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019.