A peculiar kind of biennial

The Whitstable Biennale

There is much good art to see in Whitstable, but it is unlike any biennial I have ever visited. Yes, it takes place every two years, is multi-sited and has developed new artist commissions specifically for presentation - something that is becoming a UK-specific biennial feature - but the similarities end there. It has none of the urgency and frantic busyness that are common features of many biennials, and in this edition, no real emphasis on visual art practice. There are no monumental sculptures sited in the public realm, few internationally famous art names, no circus coming to town.

Instead there is a quiet and persistent emphasis on how artworks are made and the process each practitioner goes through in defining their performance and project. There is almost a sense of “slow-art”, a foregrounding of thoughtfulness about what it means to be an artist, what it is to make art. This is explored through a range of text-based practices, from film through live-art performance to straight theatre, in a distinctly meta-textual programme. This theme is made explicit in Acting, the performance by Internet, which after a tedious start takes off into deconstructed and surreal realms, with an “overacting” dog and muppet puppets (both adorable). It continues in Jesse Jones’ dramatisation of an encounter group therapy session chaired by psychologist Carl Rogers. In The Selfish Act of Community, the role of psychological masks is explored at the very same time their removal is being intensely portrayed. With opposing symmetry, in This Alley Used to be Enormous on Me, artist Tim Bromage literally constructs his mask by sticking torn strips of masking tape to his face, transforming himself into a strikingly grotesque figure through which he performs his writing. There are two other performative surprises that lift this work onto a different level and suggest significant ammunition for his artistic future: no spoilers here though.

Other works sit more comfortably within fine art practice. A simple idea with high impact is Wars During my Lifetime by Martin John Callanan, which lists on newsprint all the wars that have taken place during his lifetime. There are 189 of them and he is only 30 years old. Emma Hart uses a sculptural installation to frame her narrative Monument to the Unsaved, which viscerally evokes an 80 mph car crash on the M20 motorway. In an innovative staging, her film is reflected in seven wing mirrors, effectively portraying the fragmentation of the experience while enabling visual interest and unusual depth of field for the viewer. The overwhelming noise and repetition of the soundtrack insists on the audience reliving the trauma as the victim must also do as part of the emotional recovery from the event. It’s a piece that has stayed with me.

Also ambitious and technically challenging is Tanya Axford’s The Path Made by a Boat in Sound (3 down), which combines a video projection of two spotlight dancers swinging in elusive interactions on the floor, vying for the attention of two musicians improvising a response to the pendulum’s movement. A mesmerising work, the music of cello and piano is beautiful and immersive. Less effective is Tom Gidley’s film and narrative Hollow Moon, which suffers from two competing themes that combine not to enhance, but to reduce each other.

There is a different programme of live events over the three weekends of the festival, including evening performances at the Royal Native Oyster Stores and late-night outdoor screenings at The Factory Cinema, a makeshift cinema on Long Beach. On the Saturday night I was there, the highlight from the evening was the clever, edgy, funny wordsmith and musician Jenny Moore. Her stage set included text projected onto an enormous white balloon, and songs with titles like “The Wilderness is so Over” and “Sometimes Money Matters”. Following that I caught the rather hard-core Jonas Mekas film, The Brig, from 1964, in the dark on the beach. How often can you do that?

This biennial concentrates on supporting emerging artists to develop new works for a specific style of presentation. As an event, it’s slightly scuffed around the edges and constrained by the available venues, spaces and resources of the town. Some works would benefit from editing and polishing, projection screens have seen better days, sound systems are not always state of the art.  But Whitstable Biennial’s character and strengths are not in the big budget spectacle, or highly-resolved monumental works, but in off-beat, small-scale nuanced pieces that explore the tributaries of the unexpected. It’s very much worth a visit.

The Whitstable Bienniale runs until 16 September, various venues, Whitstable

The seafront at Whitstable (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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