For the tenth of its fifteen weeks of Art In Action, Tate Modern presents the work of a long-overlooked filmmaker whose has in fact been pivotal in the growth of contemporary British art: Gazapocalypse – Return to the Golden Age by Jeff Keen.
An expert draughtsman and painter, Keen moved into film in the early ‘60s yet was marginalised, seen as part of the experimental film crowd – a group undervalued by the artistic canon of the mid-century. However, upon viewing his film work it is undeniable that this work is an essential part of our recent art history in a multiplicity of ways.
Firstly Keen was evidently a follower of the Surrealist movement, a movement which supposedly ended in 1966 but whose ‘freedom of thought’ rippled both artistically and politically through the rest of the decade and right into the 1970s; he was one of the first artists, certainly in Britain, to deviate away from creating physical objects to working with Super 8 and 16mm film; and finally the influence of work upon contemporary art film is exceptional. Keen was clearly a man of his times, yet a household name by no means; this disregard for artists of the counterculture is the very matter that the programme of Tate Moden’s Tanks is fighting, whilst also striving to develop an all-encompassing history to re-understand British art.
This exhibition delivers a retrospective in a single yet enormous diorama, realising – sadly posthumously- one of Keen’s life-long visions. The vast circular screen hangs within and almost dwarves Tate’s third tank, striking kaleidoscopic shapes across the concrete floors. Crouch under this double projection screen and you are inside Keen’s world: eighteen films overlap and crash into each other in eleven fluctuating projections. The films themselves detail bizarre performances, bodily masses – either sexual or grotesque, writing and painting, fire and water, sometimes concealed by still photographs and always accompanied by the roaring noise of gunfire, jerky techno music and imperceptible voices. Keen was a veteran of the Second World War and his work conveys a deep fascination with violence; still, his films are not overtly crude, but powerful and full of life – its beauty and its horror.
Although at times bright and brash, Keen’s work benefits from the imperfections and distorted colours which formulate the unique, seductive nature of analogue film – a technical aspect of Keen’s work which even furthers its art historical value: as of last week Fuji has ceased its processing of analogue motion pictures. With analogue film now extinct as such, this film work becomes invaluable evidence of an art-form lost – something particularly true for Keen, a pioneering figure within British film.
Gazapocalypse will only inhabit The Tanks for one week, but this is all the more reason to drop everything and dash over to Tate Modern. Tomorrow night looks to be an exciting and also rather emotional evening with a live performance from Keen’s daughter and a variety of his collaborators taking place alongside the work.
This exhibition is ‘dedicated to Keen’s visionary creative spirit’, and it embodies this description in every possible way – it is not simply an exhibition, instead it is an innovative and truly unforgettable experience. It is a tragic and unfortunate truth that many great artists only become so after their deaths; and perhaps with Gazapocalypse Tate has paved the way for the career and provided the notoriety which Jeff Keen deserved in his lifetime.