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Madness Protects as Fever does – a Masterpiece on the Strand

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Strange Days: Memories of the Future, 180 The Strand, October 2nd - December 9th 2018

From Hassan Khan’s spellbinding video of two Egyptian men dancing, Jewel, to Ragnar Kjartansson and the National’s emotional six hour rendition of the song Sorrow, the Strange Days exhibition at 180 the Strand was something I returned to again and again. There was one video that stood out for me though and I watched it at least twice every time I visited: Kahlil Joseph’s ‘Fly Paper’ is an unforgettable piece of work concerned with memory.

The first time I saw Fly Paper, I walked in to a rumbling sound of such low frequency the ground shook. On the screen were two skinny, elderly black men wearing hats, performing a strange, slow dance on the landing of some run down building. The dance accompanied by the earthquake-like rumbling was mesmerising and the men seemed to be expressing something huge. They were constrained by the frailty of their bodies, battered by what society or life had done to them, but their jerky movements appeared to show that the people they used to be were still fighting to get out. After watching the video several times, I noticed that the scene immediately before this one was of the American football team, The Dallas Cowboys, running across a pitch accompanied by classical music. In some ways, the elderly men’s melancholic dance seemed to be an attempt at recreating this game, as if they were remembering more youthful times as they danced and imagining themselves as younger men. The juxtaposition of the lightness of these young fit sportsmen with the awkward jitteriness of their elders was like a mournful allusion to aging and the passing of time.

These references to time and memory, as well as the language of the narration, reminded me of Chris Marker’s work. In Fly Paper, there was often a statement followed by ‘he wrote me’ or ‘she wrote me’ a typical Marker hallmark. Then I heard a whole sentence taken from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil: ‘If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.’ In the context of this film about Harlem, these words were even more poignant than they were in Sans Soleil. After a few black screens, there’s some footage of a civil rights rally and the words ‘Don’t let the white man speak for you; don’t let the white man fight for you.’ This understandably emotional speech leads into the exquisite climax of the video, a woman sings opera as various images of people in Harlem flash across the screen, a man wearing a suit in a bathtub, a person dressed in blue crouching on some scaffolding by the side of the road, a woman on the subway. It is these few seconds of intense beauty that made me return to the video again and again. In this scene all the madness, pain and struggle of life in New York seem to be present, while the idiosyncratic radiance of its inhabitants endures. Maybe the radiance comes from transcending that struggle, from finding ways of developing resilience and dealing with oppression and poverty. ‘Madness protects as fever does’ says the narration, quoting Sans Soleil again, and perhaps what appears as madness is actually strength.

Image from Kahlil Joseph's Fly Paper. The soundtrack can be listened to here.


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