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Anarcadia: Ruth Maclennan at Castlefield Gallery

Anarcadia: Ruth Maclennan

Reviewed by Sara Porter September 2011

The Castlefield Gallery until September 18th


This exhibition at the Castlefield Gallery entitled 'Anarcadia: Ruth Maclennan' is a collection of video projection and photographic works along with some archive photographs and film footage all taken in Kazakhstan.


“A negation of the idyll of the mythical Arcadia, the title Anarcadia also suggests the unleashing of uncontrollable forces, from the past, or in the future” (from the gallery literature).

The exhibition starts in the upper gallery, with a large lambda print depicting an ambiguous liquid surface next to which is a small, short video installation from the State Documentary Film and Audio Archive in Kazakhstan. The footage is a 7 minute film entitled ‘Bringing Oil Across the Desert to the Land of the Soviets’ and for me this really sets the scene for the rest of the exhibition. This footage provides a fascinating albeit brief insight into the transformation of Kazakhstan with the laying down of the Turkmenistan-Siberian railway. Whilst watching this and viewing the exhibition it is worth remembering that the Kazahks have essentially been nomadic living off the vast steppes and semi-desert lands, and this footage shows how the demand for fuels and mineral deposits has changed the way in which their land has been worked and ipacted on the lifestyles of the nomadic tribes. It was fascinating to watch the nomads looking on as miles of tracks were laid across their land in order to transport mined resources which they had survived without.


Anarcadia: Ruth MaclennanThe lower gallery contains another six prints by Maclennan and a series of eight archival photographs of railway workers, and the main exhibit which is Anarcadia - a 35 minute video installation. Filmed where the steppes meet the desert, it follows two characters whose commentaries are intertwined with contrasting thoughts on the lands that surround them. One is a prospector whose thoughts belong to science and geology, as he contemplates the resources of the land, where they come from and what becomes of them. The other is an archaeologist who considers the land from what it was to what it has become. This is by no means a documentary, it is a dramatic, thought provoking piece of visual art. There are long scenes, sometimes panning, sometimes just focused on impressive expanses of the steppes. The thoughts of the protagonists act to generate thoughts on what this country has been through from the steppes, to the development and then desertion of small hamlets.


Visually it is an impressive piece of work, for me photographic in style with the size of the screen allowing a full appreciation of the scale of the lands and how barren they appear that may not have been enforced should it have been a straight photographic exhibit. The conversations are almost poetic and support the contrasts of the land that Maclennan has come across in her work there. It is a shame that very occasionally the soundtrack makes the dialogue difficult to make out but the transcripts can be found in the accompanying book and it did not detract from the overall performance.


Personally I would view the exhibit chronologically, viewing the archival footage and images first before viewing the main projection. The main footage is beautifully shot and the two commentaries provide a thoughtful insight into how the land can be viewed so differently. The large prints of ‘After Life’, of oily surfaces associated with extraction of fossil fuels and the abandoned looking shack of ‘Doesn’t Belong to Anybody’, add to the after effects of the impact that man can have on a landscape and also, along with the commentary of the narrators has the effect of reflecting of the effect of what happens ‘After Life’.


Many thanks go to the staff at the gallery for taking the time to talk to me about the exhibit.


If you are in the Castlefield area whilst the exhibit is on, it is definitely worth a visit, but in order to get the most from the exhibit allow the time to view both video installations. The Castlefield Gallery can be found at 2 Hewitt Street, Manchester, M15 4GB. Tel: 0161 832-8034, opening hours Wed-Sun 1pm to 6pm.

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