Moments in time
Rosie Lesso speaks to Johanna Billing about her films which combine quiet, everyday experiences with something stranger and darker
Modern life often forces us into strange and awkward social situations, something Swedish artist Johanna Billing seems painfully aware of. Somewhere between document and fiction, her films record moments that she breezily calls ‘on the surface, quiet, normal and everyday’ but which become increasingly ‘dysfunctional and weird’. Her this exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts, which coincides with an exhibition at Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel, takes a more diverse, retrospective look at Billing’s practice, videos ranging from 1999 onward, and some works with personal or autobiographical content.
The film ‘Graduate Show’ (1999), for example, was made for Billing’s degree show at college in Sweden, and shows fellow students dancing together in an unchoreographed way. The awkward, unprofessional dancers create the feeling that many graduates have about their gawky degree shows not ‘taking risks’, or fully representing their ideals. Excerpts from the ongoing project ‘You Don’t Love Me Yet’ will also be shown, in which a range of musicians and artists have been recorded making their own cover versions of this relatively unknown Swedish song from 1984. Billing was initially so attracted to this song not because of its beauty or notoriety, but because ‘it was so strange, because I didn’t like it and didn’t really understand the lyrics.’ The more recent film ‘Project for the Revolution’ (2001) is equally unnerving, a group of disaffected youths in an austere space hanging around, perpetually waiting for something that never comes. Billing describes it as ‘austere, like a waiting room or a scene from a fashion shoot’, the fidgeting participants seeming genuinely uncomfortable in the space.
Judith Winter, the recently appointed Deputy Director of Arts at DCA is particularly interested in moments like these in Billing’s work, which ‘focus your attention on very incidental, but none the less significant moments in time’, she says. ‘These moments can speak to the audience about our own experiences, our own indecision and our own contemporary human condition. I read somewhere an account of why she started making art’, she continues, ‘and this really struck a chord with me. The artist mentioned her interest in music, history, social science, philosophy, but when she had to choose a direction she panicked. I think she described choosing art as a way of not deciding.’ This ‘not deciding’ has allowed Billing to create diverse film and music projects and set up a record label called ‘Make It Happen’ in collaboration with her brother, in which they promote experimental, unknown musicians.
DCA’s typical focus on a range of multi-media projects makes it an ideal platform from which to promote her work, a belief shared by the artist herself. However unlike conventional films she insists viewing hers need not be a linear, straightforward experience in which viewers must passively receive the work, and watch each piece from beginning to end. Instead they can be dipped in and out of, creating broken narratives which relate Billing’s practice closer still to the fragmented nature of our everyday lives.
Johanna Billing, Keep on Doing, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, until Sun 4 Nov