Frieze (Review)

Postcard from Newcastle: Mikhail Karikis’s The Endeavour at The Gallery, Tyneside Cinema. Review by Becca Voelcker in FRIEZE, 19 June 2015.

Is that a smeuse? Am I only seeing it now that I know its name? I’m reading Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, ‘Landmarks’ (2015), on the train to Newcastle upon Tyne to see Mikhail Karikis’s film installation, ‘The Endeavour’ (2015), at Tyneside Cinema. The book gathers words denoting elements of the landscape from dictionaries, idiolect, slang and poetry. Smeuse: ‘the gap in a hedge made by regular passages of an animal.’ I spot smeuse after smeuse from the train window. Macfarlane argues that by calling things by their name we notice them anew. There are words for stones and rubble (chucky, feldspar), and certain kinds of mud (muxy, rout). Each word carries an oral history that Macfarlane fears is being eroded. He laments that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary has uprooted ‘acorn’ ‘pasture’ and ‘willow’ for a crop of indoor, virtual words. For ‘blackberry’, read ‘Blackberry’. I like that the editions mark the ebb and flow of language, but I see Macfarlane’s point. If we use old words, we might reconnect with places, or ‘sing the world back into being,’ as he puts it. Singing and voicing are at the heart of ‘The Endeavour’, Mikhail Karikis’s third solo show in the UK, which continues his engagement with the voice as a medium for discussing community and vanishing industries. The work was commissioned by Tyneside Cinema’s curator, Elisabetta Fabrizi (formerly BFI’s head of exhibitions), as part of Karikis’s residency at the cinema gallery.

‘The Endeavour’ explores the effects of post-industrialization on social landscape and is thematically linked to Karikis’s previous video installations, including ‘SeaWomen’ (first shown at the Wapping Project, London, in 2012) and ‘Children of Unquiet’ (created for Art Sheffield 2013). ‘SeaWomen’ documents a diminishing workforce of aged female divers collecting pearls in South Korea. They make non-verbal sounds as they dive, to aid breathing and to communicate – a fast dwindling form of vocality, locally and professionally specific. ‘Children of Unquiet’ engages the voices of children in Tuscany whose parents faced redundancy from a geothermal power station. ‘The Endeavour’ takes its title from the last fishing vessel repaired in a boatyard in South Shields, near Newcastle. Karikis filmed the boatyard in the weeks before its master boatbuilder, Fred Crowell, retired and the yard – the last of its kind and a hundred years old – closed. Endeavour seems a fitting name for the labour of love apparent there. Tyne and Wear once produced a substantial portion of the world’s ships, but during the Depression unemployment reached 74%. During WWII its shipyards contributed to the war effort but later suffered again due to competition from the Far East.

In Karikis’s ten-minute video, which is looped and split between two screens suspended from the ceiling, we see Endeavour being repaired. Like Tacita Dean’s ‘Kodak’ (2006) and Ben Rivers’s ‘Sack Barrow’ (2011), The Endeavour carefully documents the twilight of an industry. We track past walls of well-worn tools, many of which were unfamiliar to Karikis – their names even more so. Indeed, these names inspired his focus on obsolete words. Like Macfarlane, Karikis enjoys reanimating underused words: beside the gallery hangs a poster containing some of the 1,600 he collected whilst filming, many of which feature on the soundtrack. It reads as a roll call for dock labourers (hobblers), fishmongers (jousters) and, most crucially, shipwrights: builders and repairers of ships.

Karikis’s architectural training is evident when we are introduced to the boatyard’s side-view, back-view and facade, before a pan creates an architectural section of the interior. When the left screen swallows a wooden plank fed through a saw in the right, the video itself becomes part of the machinery. There are static shots of water lapping into the yard, and winter sunlight gilding rust and sawdust – here the screens are like windows. Sometimes Karikis cuts to black, echoing the snatched and divergent rhythm of the soundtrack. We hear shipwrights, machines, seagulls and a choir and harmonica. But there is little room for maudlin nostalgia in such a busy ensemble. Karikis emphasises that, despite imminent closure, Crowell’s was a cheerful place. We hear joking as the shipwrights take a break. The North East is diverse in idiolect, and the men’s Tyneside accents locate their community and profession.

Karikis worked with a local choir who recite ‘hobbler’, ‘jouster’ and so forth like a protest song accompanying the images on screen. The unfamiliar words develop new dimensions, Karikis explains, re-voiced and re-imagined into little sonic sculptures. Meanwhile, the harmonica plays a tune that redundant shipwrights sang as they marched in protest from Jarrow to London in 1936. Both sound elements add to the historical context of ‘The Endeavour’. The harmonica’s reference to Jarrow also helps connect the film to the cinema: Karikis discovered that Tyneside Cinema’s founder, Dixon Scott (best known as Ridley’s great-uncle) was a social reformer who part-funded the Jarrow March and opened several cinemas with the aim of offering shipwright audiences enlightening material. Next year is the 80th anniversary of the March and Karikis was keen to reprise this duet between cinema and labour, for fear that it be forgotten.

‘The Endeavour’ chimes with Tyneside Cinema’s own endeavour to offer communities a screen, a stage, an ear and a mouthpiece. Located upstairs in the cinema, the gallery transforms into an auditorium each night, showing first run films as well as films related to the exhibitions. Since opening last autumn, it has housed installations by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, Rachel Reupke and John Smith, among others. Tyneside Cinema’s chief executive, Mark Dobson, sees the organization’s role as paramount at a time of local and national change. Public funding cuts continue, industries are changing and many city-centre buildings have been repurposed as artist studios. Once fairly homogenous in ethnicity, Newcastle is home to a growing immigrant community, further enriching its pool of accents – actual and metaphorical. Institutions like Tyneside Cinema and films like ‘The Endeavour’* suggest we can learn from the past and invent a lexicon for contemporary contexts, filled with words and strategies for the future.