Luke Fowler and Sue Tompkins

The Modern Institute, Glasgow, UK

In Sue Tompkins’s text-based performances, words bob, weave and reverberate, their sounds and meanings stretched and remade. For Luke Fowler’s film Country Grammar (with Sue Tompkins), (2017), we see and hear Tompkins as she reads the 2003 piece from which the film takes its title but, just as a literal understanding of the words can sometimes slip from our grasp in a flurry of repetition, Fowler’s visual grammar strays from its subject too. While the 18-minute film, transferred to digital from 16mm, includes every word and nuance of Country Grammar, this is no straightforward documentation of the work.

It begins with Tompkins in a recording studio, a pink microphone in one hand, a fixed mic in front of her, as she reads from individual sheets of A4 paper, their corners curled slightly with age. The camera scans the space, flitting and shaking, coming to rest on Tompkins as she rocks and rolls, her gently rhythmic movements suggestive of some kind of word-induced trance. She is filmed from the front, the side, behind, below, her words out of sync with the pictures as she smiles and talks.

web_7.-tmi-fowll-43346-still.jpg

Luke Fowler, Country Grammar (with Sue Tompkins), 2017, film still, 16mm film transferred to digital, 18 mins 29 secs. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow, UK; photograph: Patrick Jameson  

Luke Fowler, Country Grammar (with Sue Tompkins), 2017, 16mm film still transferred to digital. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow, UK; photograph: Patrick Jameson

 

We’re told in the accompanying gallery text that ‘Fowler’s main intent was to record Tompkins from a variety of aural and visual perspectives,’ and the use of multiple microphones – they were also installed around the studio – is reflected in the film’s performative presentation. With the screen positioned on the gallery’s back wall, two speakers to the left and right provide a forensic, multi-channel soundtrack that shifts from back to front and side to side. This attention to sonic detail can be seen in the wider installation, too – the concrete floor of the gallery’s Aird’s Lane space has been carpeted and each of the painted orange side walls features an acoustic panel. Spot-lit on the back wall are four of Tompkins’s small abstract paintings (all 2017).

From one of two simple wooden benches, the effect of this considered presentation is a clean, resonant sound – the different channels of sound rise and fall as we hear pages turning, the wind in the trees, a motorcycle passing by. All this while Tompkins’s words keep pulling the viewer in, even as Fowler’s camera cuts away from her performance, his visual roving taking us from close-ups of her restless, almost dancing feet in yellow and pink trainers to the faux countryside of a Glasgow park. It’s this latter footage – a collection of unrelated scenes providing a contemplative echo to Tompkins’s insistent delivery – that makes up the largest part of the film’s imagery. We roam from street to domestic setting, a children’s play area to the inside of a crammed fridge – prosaic sequences with seemingly no direct link to Tompkins’s text.

web_11.-2017-st-countrygrammar-tmi-bricksspace-install.jpg

Sue Tompkins, ‘Country Grammar’, 2017, installation view, The Modern Institute, Glasgow, UK. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow; photograph: Patrick Jameson

Sue Tompkins, ‘Country Grammar’, 2017, installation view, The Modern Institute, Glasgow, UK. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow; photograph: Patrick Jameson

Since Country Grammar was first performed nearly 15 years ago, our relationship to both words and images has clearly shifted. Listening and watching in 2017 – and also reading each page of the text in the accompanying A5 pamphlet – it’s difficult not to think of social media threads and status updates; Instagram feeds and Snapchat filters. Such developments could, on the one hand, prompt us to ask of the film, ‘Why now?’ Is this, to repeat a term used by Tompkins, simply ‘a reminisce’, an attempt to capture ‘The faded page / Like a dream’ (Tompkins again). Yet, rather than just a reaffirming of memory, Fowler’s treatment foregrounds the urgency and fluidness of the spoken word; crucially, its presentation lends the film a performative, live feel, even though for much of it Tompkins is visually absent. In the battle of words versus time, language has it.

Main image: Luke Fowler, Country Grammar (with Sue Tompkins), 2017, film still, 16mm film transferred to digital. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow, UK; photograph: Patrick Jameson

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. 

Most Read

The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018