Friday, January 11, 2008

Art Space Talk: Guy Sherwin

Guy Sherwin studied painting at Chelsea School of Art, London in the 1960s. His subsequent film works, often including serial forms and live, are characterized by an enduring concern with time and light as the fundamentals of cinema. Recent works include multi-screen projection and gallery installations. Guy has taught at Middlesex University, London, the University of Wolverhampton and at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Guy taught printing and processing at the London Filmmaker's Co-op (now LUX) during the mid-70s. His films have been exhibited internationally and have been included in several important exhibits concerning film-- 'Film as Film' Hayward Gallery 1979, 'Live in Your Head' Whitechapel Gallery 2000, 'Shoot Shoot Shoot' Tate Modern 2002, 'A Century of Artists' Film & Video' Tate Britain 2003/4.

Stills from The Train Films

Brian Sherwin: Guy, you studied painting at Chelsea School of Art in the 1960s. Care to reflect on your past? Who were your mentors at the time?

Guy Sherwin: Film was only beginning to happen at Chelsea when I was there, and this was largely through the enthusiasm of tutor Anne Rees-Mogg who was starting to make her own films. However some tutors didn't accept that film could be a fine art as it used 'time' (i.e. to them 'Fine Art' was about objects, and film wasn't an object). Other influences on my work were the formalist and material-based paintings that I was surrounded by, also the book 'Art & Visual Perception' by Rudolf Arnheim which demonstrates that you cannot trust what you see.

BS: Your film works often include live elements and serial forms. They are characterized by an enduring concern with light and time as the fundamentals of cinema. How did you make the jump from painting to film?

GS: I made a series of abstract relief paintings in which the colours on the forward surfaces were the same as the colours in the shadows, which made an ambiguous space. The viewers' movement, plus the quality of light, affected what you saw. This was one step towards working with time, and hence film.
Stills from Animal Studies

BS: Guy, you are featured in A History of Experimental Film and Video by A.L. Rees. In the book your SHORT FILM SERIES, which you undertook between 1976 and 1980, is explained in detail. Rees mentions that you returned to the series after almost twenty years, with studies of animals and insects. He goes on to mention that there is a link between your work and the surrealists. Care to go into further detail about this? What other influences have you had?

GS: I very much respect A.L.Rees' opinion but I'm not sure about this comment linking my work to surrealism. Admittedly there is a quirky humour in the Animal Studies but that's not the same thing. My main influence has been the work of the London Film-Makers' Co-op with which I have been closely involved, particularly the physical, material approach to film practice by artists such as Malcolm LeGrice, Annabel Nicolson, William Raban, Steve Farrer.

BS: Are you still working on the series? How many films are included in the series at this time?

GS: There's about 15 which I'm very happy to show and another 15 which I'm less happy to show. The Short Film Series is in principle an ongoing project, but in practice I made most of them in the late 70s and another batch in the late 90s. Part of me would like to be the kind of artist that just sticks to one thing and keeps producing one-shot films like this on a regular basis, but another part of me got in the way and wanted to try other things.
Man with Mirror. 1976/2006. Performance for super 8 film and hand-held screen.

BS: Your work seems to bend time in that you enhance work from the past with present day technology. You combine the old with the new. In that sense, you control time... you manipulate it... shape it into what you want it to be. With that said, why has the idea of 'time' had such a lasting impact on your progression as an artist? An example of this focus can be found in your piece Man With Mirror in which you interact with your former self.

GS: As I mentioned earlier 'time' was the first thing that intrigued me about film. Images that move in time. It may not be so obvious with video, but when you're working with cine-film there's something magical about winding a little strip of images backwards and forwards through a viewer, making some insignificant action, captured from the world of movement, move forwards or backwards or stand still.Aren't we all obsessed by time?

In Man with Mirror I interact with a film of myself that I made 30 years ago. In the film I'm holding a mirror painted white on the reverse side, and my movements with the mirror are echoed by my movements with an actual mirror in front of the audience. To get the feeling of it I had it recorded on video. I can see that it's full of strange illusions and time shocks. There's a version of it on Youtube. (

BS: Your Recent work often involves multi-screen projection and gallery installations. Are you working on any projects at this time?

GS: I've been finishing a book accompanied by a DVD. Its called 'Optical Sound Films' and is published by LUX - the main artists' film agency in this country ( The title comes from the way sound is normally carried in 16mm film, as a thin band of fluctuating light. There are about 20 titles in all. The films were made either in the 70s or more recently. Each film included in the DVD is also illustrated in the book, along with a simple description of how it was made.

Mobius Loops. 2007. Performance for 3x or 5x 16mm projectors. Optical sound.

BS: Guy, you have maintained your research practice for over 30 years. What do you hope observers gain from the span of your work?

GS: Difficult question. I can answer in general terms. The materialist project that was very strong in the 70s but became marginalised in the 80s and 90s has come back but with a different emphasis. In the 70s 'materialist' film meant opposition to the illusory codes of mainstream cinema, but nowadays a materialist approach to film (by which I mean working with the physical substance of cine-film, not disguising its material essence, as most films do) has a particular impact as distinct from the easy illusionism of video which is now commonplace in the gallery.

BS: Guy, you have instructed classes at Middlesex University, the University of Wolverhampton and periodically at the San Francisco Art Institute. Many instructors have mentioned to me that the classroom can drain an artist of his or her creative energy. How do you balance the role of being a teacher and the work that you do as an artist?

GS: Students can be inspiring too! I consider myself lucky to be working in a field that relates directly to my own film practice.

BS: I understand that you taught printing and processing at the London Filmmaker's Co-op (now LUX) during the mid-70s. Can you share some of your experiences of the Co-op? What was it like working with experimental film in the 70s?

GS: Video hadn't arrived in the early 70s when I started to make films, so film was the important medium and I think we were all aware of its power - to make powerful material images screened to a captive, but aware, audience. Television was dull, Hollywood was duplicitous, the galleries were compromised (has anything changed?). It seemed a time when anything might happen and when the future of art was film. That idealism was not borne out by events.

BS: Have you worked with other experimental film cooperatives? For example, The Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York City or Canyon Cinema in San Francisco?

GS: My films are distributed by both these organisations and I keep in touch, but I'm not directly involved.

Stills from Railings

BS: I find it interesting that for the longest time experimental film has been considered an 'underground' movement... yet the influence it has had on the commercial media is obvious. In other words, the influence is all around us yet many of the groundbreaking creators of experimental film are not as known compared to artists who work in other forms of art.One can observe how experimental film has shaped cinematography, visual effects and editing. Also, the genre of music video can be seen as a commercialization of many techniques of experimental film. Do you think the public is starting to acknowledge the founding creators of this form of art?

GS: Yes, I think that as video and film now have a strong showing in the galleries it's impossible for young curators and gallery owners to ignore the history of artists' films, which didn't start in the 90s as some still think (even the timeline in Tate Modern suggests that it started with Bill Viola and Gary Hill!) but has a long and illustrious history going back to the origin of film a century ago. I still find it extraordinary that that big white tome 'Art in Theory, 1900 to 1990' by Harrison and Wood barely mentions film. I can see that older art historians haven't time to catch up with films' huge history and it's easier not to mention it, but as I said the younger generation can no longer turn a blind eye.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your practice or experimental film in general.

GS: Another word about my practice. In the last few years my films have been shown mostly as performances, sometimes using several projectors at once. In some of these I work with my partner Lynn Loo and we adjust the projection and sound in a partly improvised way which brings film projection a little closer to improvised music. On occasions we've also worked with musicians. There's more information on these and my other works on
You can learn more about Guy Sherwin by visiting the following site-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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