The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, Elemental Cinema, brings together three films from Denise Ferreira da Silva and Arjuna Neuman, alongside additional archival texts, images, and audio recordings. Curated by Melanie O’Brian, Elemental Cinema is a mediation on the relationship between capitalism, climate change, and the history of slavery.
Elemental Cinema is also a unique opportunity to view the evolution of the artists’ collaborative projects across time. In addition to her work as a practicing artist, Ferreira da Silva is a professor at UBC’s Social Justice Institute. Neuman is a filmmaker, writer, and artist who splits his time between Europe and North America. The main floor of the gallery is divided into three separate, enclosed spaces that encourage visitors to sit with each film separately, while still experiencing the collection as a whole.
In the first room is the most recent film, Soot Breath // Corpus Infinitum (2020). Combining footage of industrial violence across the globe with audio interviews, overlapping images of forest fires and ravaged landscapes, and the work of blues artists like Nina Simone and Son House, this piece draws connections between racial violence and capitalism. The film reaches beyond the cliché and asks the viewer to consider the interconnectedness of people, the organic environment, and geology in new ways. While violence is at the core of the film, it is also a deeply hopeful project that suggests alternative means of existing within, and as a part of, the larger universe.
The earliest work in the exhibition is 2016’s Serpent Rain, a 30-minute piece that immediately struck me as more abstract and cerebral than Soot Breath // Corpus Infinitum. It plays on a small screen, facing the back of a room that also houses archival material, such as interview transcripts and playlists, related to the making of Soot Breath // Corpus Infinitum.
There is an almost poetic quality to Serpent Rain. The inclusion of fragmented text alongside intimate close-up shots of hands, tarot cards, and industrial scenes requires the audience to work to make meaning of the words and images. Long, lingering shots of both natural and industrial landscapes encourage meditation, immersion, and reflection. While I didn’t find this film as engaging as Ferreira da Silva and Neuman’s more recent work, its ruminations on time and materialism give the viewer plenty to consider.
Finally, gallery visitors turn a corner between long, heavy curtains to find 4 Waters – Deep Implicancy (2019). Though still abstract, and decidedly “academic”, in its approach, this was the most accessible of the three films. The space itself is welcoming and cozy. The screen extends to the floor, and a seating area with a cushioned mat and pillows provides a comfortable, grounded viewing area.
Like Soot Breath // Corpus Infinitum, 4 Waters – Deep Implicancy is a critical examination of the interconnectedness of racial violence and the destructive forces of industry. However, it digs deeper into how this violence is a result of Western thinking. Focusing on the element of water helps ground the film’s exploration of migration and human displacement. Water, in its various phases, forms, and transitions, illustrates the limitations of rigid classification and categorization.
Overall, the three films in Elemental Cinema are thought provoking and immersive. Rather than dwell on the inevitability of climate disaster, they offer hope. Hope that the cycle of violence can be broken, and hope that new ways of living and relating are possible.
Elemental Cinema runs September 6 – December 11 at UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Admission is free.