Depending on when you enter the gallery your hearing may be assaulted or soothed. The soundtrack for “Body of War,” one of two films by Isabel Rocamora now screening at Weber State University’s Shaw Gallery as part of the exhibit Ecstatic Solitudes, shifts between violent grunts, Gregorian chants and the ripple of the sea across a pebble-strewn beach.
Shot among the remnants of pillboxes on the beaches of Normandy and along a weathered airport tarmac at dusk, this carefully choreographed piece explores the creation of man as soldier through the repetitious enactment of violence. Voice-overs from two soldiers (a Brit and a Serb) describing life in the military and the rigors of training, provide the film a hint of the documentary, but its purposeful staging and careful cinematography places it squarely in the art film and screendance genres. Shots shift between serene moments — of the beach and concrete ruins, of soldiers standing guard or smoking cigarettes — and scenes of staged combat: routine training maneuvers for close combat become long, staged scenes of hand-to-hand drama enacted in slow motion (and set to the Gregorian chants) culminating in the reenactment of the scene that opens the film, where two soldiers violently assault each other along the beach.
Rocamora’s 2010 film portrays violence and death as an intimate act: her shots closely frame handholds, eye-gouges, bites, kicks and punches. This is close-quarters violence rather than the abstracted violence — mentioned at one point in the voice-over — of silhouettes falling to the ground in a haze of bullets. Shorn of any insignia and wearing matching olive drab, the soldiers are interchangeable, and do interchange, positions of dominance swapping throughout the choreographed fights until ultimately one stands victor.
Screening opposite this film is Rocamora’s 2007 work “Horizon of Exile,” a film that shares with its exhibition partner an embrace of the landscape and powerfully choreographed gesture. The 20-minute film, projected on two screens, was shot in Chile’s Atacama Desert, a place of bubbling hotspots, broad salt flats and copper-hued wastelands. This sweeping, textured landscape is not mere backdrop, but equal partner in a cinematic whole (at times even taking center stage) with the performances of Paulina Garrido and Camilla Valenzuela, wrapped almost completely in black, and the captivating though subdued soundtrack by Jivan Gasparyan. The film is both serene and violent, majestic moments of steely calm punctuated with dramatic gestures of pain and violence. The soundtrack, provided via headphones, is interspersed with testimonies of Kurdish and Iraqi women living in exile, providing the same hint of the documentary form to the abstracted physical forms taking place on screen, and filling out the dance gestures into a contextual drama of oppression, exile and self-definition.
Though “Horizon of Exile” is the first film you will see in the darkened space of the Shaw Gallery, the loud soundtrack for “Body of War” likely will win your attention, so that you may find yourself viewing the latter before moving to the former (a partial wall separates the two screenings), and missing the headphones for the “Horizon of Exile” soundtrack. This is not an altogether negative possibility: Rocamora’s visuals in “Horizon of Exile” are compelling enough to forgo a soundtrack, and the intrusion of the sounds of one film on the visuals of another almost create a third work: as when the bodies of the two women in “Horizon of Exile” are assaulted by grief and anguish while on the other side of the wall soldiers talk banally about war and violence, inured to it as they are through their repetitive training.
The films work well together in additional ways. The cool, dusky tones of “Body of War” are balanced by the bright, stark colors of “Horizon of Exile,” and both films share a sense of physical pacing, and shifts between the subdued and the violent. Even specific gestures communicate across the gallery space: in the choreographed combat of “Body of War” the groin is frequently used as a vulnerable spot, repeatedly kneed or kicked, while in “Horizon of Exile” the two women, in moments of desperation and anguish, reach protectively to their wombs.
Rocamora grew up in Spain but has spent her professional life in London, where her early performative works as an “anti-gravity” artist evolved into her current film work. “Body of War” and “Horizon of Exile,” screened together for the first time at the Shaw, display her hybrid cinematic language. Her film work should not be confused with what we have come to call “video art,” which frequently can be purposefully obtuse or anti-dramatic. Her landscapes establish a sense of place that is both embrace and dislocation and the performative visuals of these films, exploration of gesture as it relates to identity and culture, shot and edited with care, are powerful enough to survive without a soundtrack, but Rocamora blends in her testimonials subtly enough that one does not become illustration or explanation for the other, but all come together as a seductive polyphonic whole.
Ecstatic Solitudes, two films by Isabel Rocamora, Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, Ogden, through Nov. 11.