According to the press release Swandown (Andrew Kötting, 2012) is a “Dada performance and cultural investigation” – it certainly seems to fuse irreverence with document. The film straddles the documentary/art film divide managing to both capture a certain reality yet making that reality strange.
For me, Andrew Kötting sits in a category of intriguing contemporary British filmmakers two of whom have recently released feature films: Ben Rivers and Grant Gee. Between their recent releases Two Years at Sea (2012)and Patience, After Sebald (2011), respectively, they are re-imagining British landscapes and portraying certain subjects that inhabit these shores. The subjects tend to be male, white and middle-aged – existing on the periphery of mainstream society. Gee’s Patience focusing on the writing and wanderings of German-English scholar W.G Sebald (reviewed by R|R here), and Rivers concentrates his attention on would-be hermit Jake Williams in Two Years at Sea (reviewed by R|R here).
“Throughout, the film seemed to fluctuate between home movie and art-house delight.”
Now there is Swandown – filmed throughout the months of September and October 2011 – it charts the four-week adventure of artist Andrew Kötting and writer/psychogeographer Iain Sinclair as they peddled a plastic swan over 160 miles; from the seaside in Hastings to Hackney in East London. Sometimes accompanied by guest pedallers including Alan Moore, Stewart Lee, Dr Mark Lythgoe and Marciano Farquhar. Their journey was documented on a variety of cameras and formats: including celluloid film, pinhole cameras, archive, time-lapse photography and high end-digital to throwaway-digital cameras thus creating myriad image textures – ranging from sublime to downright ugly.
The film is strikingly photographed and composed, the opening shots are particularly beautiful; shallow depth of field flattens the image whilst imbuing it with a painterly, impressionistic quality. Throughout, the film seemed to fluctuate between home movie and art-house delight; shots of reflected abstractions on watery surfaces are married next to hand-held tomfoolery. This juxtaposition of quality worked to accentuate an overall heterogeneous aesthetic – the amalgamation of contemporary image capturing devices seem to be wholly represented throughout.
The divergent image textures were emphasised by an equally complex sound design which lifted the film from accomplished to astounding.This film is all about tuning in to the ambient echoes of British culture (historical, literary, political) and this is done as much through sound as it is via image. The film creates atmosphere via a rich sound/image collage. What’s more, the sound man often appears on camera (he even peddles the swan!) and thus the mechanics of the film are revealed. In one sequence the audio mixer is filmed animatedly recording the sound of the surface of the water. The sound of the film helps the viewer move along with the images, offering a roadmap through this particular and unique visual landscape.
“The looming theme that casts a shadow over the entire film is the Olympics, an event to which Sinclair is staunchly opposed.”
The film simultaneously charts both a real and imagined journey, literary/poetic readings continuously rise above the image and are enforced by Sinclair’s own cultural references. There are two unusually oneiric (dream-like) sequences in which a beautiful young woman, dressed in white, submerged herself in water. Later in the film the same woman sits naked peddling the swan – on both occasions she is captured on celluloid – the most ghostly and sublime image quality available. I’m not in for interpretation but these sequences stand out, removing the entire film from any category of straight document.
The looming theme that casts a shadow over the entire film is the Olympics, the end goal is after all the Olympic park in East London – the Olympics – the giant white elephant on the contemporary British horizon takes on a menacing, corporate persona which develops a contradiction that is at the heart of the film. Swandown is made in response to this event, an event to which Sinclair is staunchly opposed, yet it is the Olympics that have called this totally mesmerising and absorbing work into existence.