Field of Stone (2007) the first film by Shambhavi Kaul, is a feature-length documentary about the polarizing Harley-Davidson-riding country western singer David Allan Coe, but ten years later, that film looks like an anomaly. The Durham-based filmmaker and daughter of Mani Kaul, the acclaimed director associated with India’s Parallel Cinema movement, is now notable primarily for her experimental found-footage shorts. The first of these, Scene 32 (2009), begins with a wide, overhead shot of salt flats of India’s Kutch district, seemingly preparing the viewer for a landscape film. But unlike James Benning, Peter Hutton, or Tomonari Nishikawa, whose “landscape films” have deservedly gained recognition among film critics interested in the large umbrella of “experimental films,” as while as academics and artists working in a similar mode, Kaul seems unconcerned with duration and movement. After several seconds, she quickly cuts to a shot of the same flats taken from much closer to the ground. Almost as quickly as the viewer can process it, it’s gone, and the first shot returns. A moment later, the second shot resurfaces, and it lasts a bit longer; the third time, even longer. Kaul’s editing simultaneously suggests the role of camera placement in the construction of landscape aesthetics as well as the simultaneity of these contrasting views—her landscape filming is one defined by space rather than time, one in which the camera does not default into an “ideal” position.
Interspersed with these alternating dual-shot landscapes is found 16mm footage of old Indian films, which Kaul has described
as “an attempt to record this ‘place of origin’ – which of course is a total myth and is impossible.” (It is worth noting that Kaul’s father Mani is one of the most highly regarded figures in Hindi Cinema; I cannot say if Shambhavi Kaul is taking any footage from her father’s work, but the connection furthers the personal angle to her work and her continued interest in the “place of origin.”) Scene 32
was made at the height of debate about the relationship digital and analog movies had to each other and to reality, and Kaul’s film is a sly response to that debate, insisting on the infinite and ungraspable “now” with its digital landscapes and the ephemerality of the indexical analog image. It also further foregrounds the extent to which landscape art is constructed, as this dialectic between film and digital interrogates the limits of modes of representation, just as the cuts serve as a reminder that no single shot, however well composed and however long, can provide a complete picture of the landscape it depicts.
21 Chitrakoot (2012) initially appears to follow the same pattern. Kaul used traveling mattes to remove actors from green screen backgrounds of a popular Indian TV series, leaving us with uninhabited images of, for example, a purplish stream of water seeming to move in reverse, or an arrow traveling through space. The result simultaneously mocks the idea of indexical representation and also signals a disturbance within the place depicted, which Kaul referred to, in a recent Show & Tell event at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, as “anxiety about the state of the planet, about environments that were lost in the colonial past, and about others that may yet be lost in a global future.” Indeed, unlike Scene 32, 21 Chitrakoot is composed entirely of found footage, always devoid of people, transforming the found footage into a sort of time capsule for eroding environments.
Kaul followed 21 Chitrakoot with Mount Song (2013), another film made entirely of previously shot footage, this time Hong Kong martial arts movies from of the late 1970s and 1980s. Like its predecessors, there are no people in it, but the whip pans, dollies, and zooms are jarring by comparison and hold little resemblance to anything that the term “landscape film” might suggest. Yet as with 21 Chitrakoot, found footage serves as the marker of a space long gone, a place that now exists only in film. Night Noon (2014) achieves a complementary function through opposite means. Shot entirely on Super 16mm in California’s Sonoran Desert, a definable space is here reconfigured through knowledge of its cinematic past—it could just as stand-in for Egypt in a Hollywood production as it could the frontier in a John Ford work—as well as what inhabits it: a dog, a parrot, even a UFO. In both Night Noon and Mount Song, places are known largely through their circulation in films, but the varying modes of production create tension and force us to consider how place and landscape are created and represented in cinema.
“If earlier conceptions of cinema presupposed the movie theatre’s discrete experience, in a world where images surround us, I see my work as acts of re-circulation that may unearth genealogies of appropriation by the camera and by cinema,” Kaul said at her Show & Tell. This tendency is evident in her short films, and it naturally led her to tackle the site of cinema—the movie theatre—more directly with installations.
Fallen Objects (2015), her first installation, includes a video loop in which scissors—the force of editing—battle a magic carpet— a symbol of cinema’s escapism. This tension, between the creation and the practical effect of films, is nascent in Kaul’s short films, but presenting it within an installation space where spectators are direct participants, lit up by the same machine projecting the video loop, forces reexamination of who serves as the maker of meaning and the spectacle. These questions are addressed disturbingly in Modes of Faltering (2016),Kaul’s next installation and most recent work. Kaul claims that the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, CO has shown her that a site of escapism can also function as a site of terror, a terror recreated in six video loops whose conflicting soundtracks compete for dominance.
Looking forward, Kaul noted that the association of the confined spaces of a movie theatre with terror led her to think about the similar conditions on airplanes, and that her next work will deal with airplane space and will hopefully include a single-channel video/film, a multi-channel installation, photos, and a booklet. While the details are still unclear, one can be assured that it will be a natural, albeit unexpected elaboration on the ideas underlying Modes of Faltering. As Scene 32 tells us in its very first cut, there is always a startling but revealing new way to see what once seemed so familiar.