na ge ka ke by Akio Suzuki at the Globe Gallery, Newcastle (image: Colin Davis, Courtesy of AV Festival)
The innovative festival in north-east England drew on the area’s past while making links to a wider present, says Fatema Ahmed
In the decade since it began, the biennial AV festival has become the largest festival of contemporary film, art and music in the UK; this year, the month-long event included more than 36 film screenings, and 11 exhibitions and 10 concerts. As the festival has grown, it has avoided the dangers of sprawl and, unusually, its character has become more distinctive rather than less so. The festival is probably the leading venue for “slow cinema” in the UK and, musically, it leans towards the New York School of 1960s minimalism, and its descendants.
This year’s theme was Extraction. Many works took on the history of mining in the north-east, but director Rebecca Shatwell’s programme moved freely between the concerns of local and international artists; in the best of what was on during the opening weekend, the lines between the home grown and the international were thoroughly blurred. At the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, in the Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, the sound artist Susan Stenger used a 19th-century cross-section diagram of the geology of the coast from the River Tyne to the Scottish border to create an accompanying soundtrack. Nicholas Wood’s beautiful watercolour map from 1830 hung from the gallery ceiling, allowing viewers to walk along and around it, while the hour-long score’s instrumentation passed subtly from Northumbrian pipes to Scottish bagpipes.
The film programme presented UK premieres of several works by China’s most important documentary-maker, Wang Bing, whose work has been inexplicably hard to see in this country. In the Stephenson Works, where the Locomotion and Rocket were built, there was a screening of the 14-hour-long film Crude Oil (2008), a real-time, uncut portrait of the working day of crude oil extractors in Qinghai province. There was more time to watch all of Rust, the first part of West of the Tracks (2003), which depicts the north-eastern city of Shenyang in the dying days of wholly state-controlled industry. The reality of near-contemporary heavy industry – the appalling safety standards, the health problems of workers who were also afraid of losing their jobs at any moment – was a useful corrective to the nostalgia for an imaginary past that events held in former industrial cities often play upon. The controlled exposition of the Wang Bing films – and the screening of Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale – could also just as easily have found a home in the 2012 festival, the theme of which was As Slow as Possible (featuring the work of James Benning).
The two group exhibitions – Stone (at Sunderland’s Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art) and Metal (at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) – perhaps showed the strain of trying to shelter sculpture and video work by several different artists under a thematic umbrella. But the first solo exhibition in the UK of the Japanese artist Akio Suzuki was a highlight of the first weekend; especially the performance in which Suzuki brought his metal sculptures to life by skimming stones from Marsden Rock along some, or half-singing into others.
AV Festival, Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, various venues, 1-31 March 2014