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Detective Work: Notes On Ansuya Blom’s Films As Means And Model

Monika Szewczyk

In: Below the Underground, 2024, Jap Sam Books, Prinsenbeek

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Misty Man, 2024, still

1.        Just the facts ma’am

         Let us consider the evidence — specifically the films of Ansuya Blom. Of course, you might say: In some sense all films, no matter how lyrical, comical, constructed or objective, blurred or full of vérité effects, carry the quality of evidence, or verification, owing to their indexical nature. Light bounces off something real in the world and strikes a sensitive surface in such a way that an image is fixed. It is fact.1 Sound is added — voice, music, foley effects — to give the filmed fact unseen depth and rhythm. In Ansuya Blom’s films, the sense of examining evidence is paradoxically all the stronger because we encounter images that are far from determined. In each film there is a suggestion of a story, but we see and hear something still raw, like the organs in Ysabel’s Table Dance (1987). It is as if we are always seeing evidence that still needs to be examined, sorted, like the pile of bones picked through with a pawn between fingers in Lady Lazarus (1984). And is that chess pawn in the hand, also not to leave fingerprints?

         These circumstances, at once absurd and mundane, never appear surreal— they are not the stuff of dreams. If anything, they wake us, make us present and tense. The music — most notably Charles Mingus and that galloping double bass riff in Ysabel’s Table Dance, the screech from Broken Homes by Tricky feat. P.J. Harvey in Hither come down on me, or the quick and constant rattle, sampled from Julius Eastman’s Stay On It in Misty Man — makes the blood run warmer and faster. The precise tone of the narrator, orator or simply the voice — and each film has one, or more — varies. Each voice seems cast for a certain attentive objectivity. It can make Sylvia Plath's suicidal thoughts sound slightly removed — like a stakeout.

        What is all this evidence pointing to? Her friend, the late critic and essayist, Stuart Morgan, described Ansuya Blom’s work as ‘a sensitive register of forces acting on the self.’ To understand these forces through their register — to probe Blom’s work for the clues it gives to the power structures which shape our lives — is to join her in her detective work.

        In Lady Lazarus, Blom’s first film, we see the pawn in the hand picking through bones and hear a vibrant if measured voice (Blom) reciting Plath’s eponymous poem: ‘Ash, ash, you poke and stir/Flesh, bone, there’s nothing there.’ Yet it would be a mistake to rest with absurdity or even existential angst, as many do when considering the suicidal poet. When there is the appearance of nothing, even the insistent testimony of nothing, the purloined letter hides in plain sight. And I might venture that through fragmented reports — poems and indeed letters — what we do tend to piece together are lives stolen by institutions. First and foremost, the asylum. But also, colonial administration and its contemporary residue in the police. These administrative regimes are accompanied by regimes of images that identify and classify human beings, arresting them in their constant movement, breaking their evolving relations to each other and to themselves.

         2.        To catch a thief you have to think like a thief

         One way to avoid institutional capture may be through movement. And for all the confinements — mental and spatial — that Blom chronicles in her films, there is also the undeniable dynamism of the darting and tracking camera (in Hither come down on me), or the slow, strong crawl (in Dear…) or Anita Lotichius dancing flamenco (in Ysabel’s Table Dance).

         In her latest film work, Misty Man (2024) the image is layered, several timeframes are super-imposed, panning in different directions: 16 mm footage from a First Communion procession on Aruba (from the artist’s family archive); pelicans seen from the sundrenched riverbank of Paramaribo, seagulls in the Fall mist in Amsterdam; a dark jail cell illuminated by a sole window; an ant colony (present in Blom’s films since 1983). A boy (from the Aruba footage), in his Sunday best, turns and looks deep into the camera’s mechanical eye — into our eyes now, years later. Registering this image, we may become all the more aware of its construction, as the work of a digital zoom turns his inscrutable face into a pixelated undulating surface, within which another scene coheres (as each layer is semi-transparent). An older man — still young — is seen standing at a greater distance, staring into the camera. As the film progresses, we see him again and again amidst other sequences, still as a measure. At one point, he falls. The gesture collapses reflex (has he been shot?) and intent (he does not break, so is this too an escape?). Later still, he is shown walking backwards, bent in a strange and graceful half-dance, seeming to knock his own erect self to the ground (two semitransparent layers of footage are super-imposed here). Each person could be many.

         And if it is impossible to arrest this motion, to contain any person (or bird for that matter), words can create a prison house. Such is the letter written by a mother, read by another objective voice, alleging her son’s crimes of serial theft and imploring his employer to turn him in to the authorities without hesitation.

         In Blom’s films, such imperative words tend to give way to sound samples, foley effects, and even screams. In Hither come down on me, it is Richard Prior’s pained, piercing, ludic shouts from the stage that give the ‘noir’ evening street scene and the whispered narration — ‘look out’, ‘now you’re cool’ — a sense of heightened stakes, but also greater uncertainty. In Misty Man, the squawk of birds, alternating with the rhythmic shimmy of a rattle, propel the voice sounding the mother’s damning letter into another register — the sound, pitch and tone of conviction, robbed of persuasive effect.

         In image and sound, the dynamic structures of Blom’s films approximate music. And isn’t it interesting that when we speak of musical composition we speak of it often in movements?

         3. Deductions

         Michel Foucault begins his Lives of Infamous Men with an unequivocal: ‘This is not a book of history.’ He refuses to discipline the reader or himself, instead noting: ‘The selection found here was guided by nothing more substantial than my taste, my pleasure, an emotion, laughter, surprise, a certain dread, or some other feeling whose intensity I might have trouble justifying, now that the first moment of discovery has passed.’ Unless of course, we consider the pleasure principle as a discipline.
         How close is Blom’s project to Foucault’s, when he writes:
It was in order to recapture something like those flash existences, those poem lives, that I laid down a certain number of simple rules for myself:
- The person included must have actually existed.
- These existences must have been both obscure and ill-fated.
- They must have been recounted in a few pages or, better still, a few sentences, as brief as possible.
- These tales must not just constitute strange or pathetic anecdotes; but, in one way or another (because they were complaints, denunciations, orders or reports), they must have truly formed part of the miniscule history of these existences, of their misfortune, their wildness, or their dubious madness.
- And for us still, the shock of these words must give rise to a certain effect of beauty mixed with dread.

         To some extent, this question is best left for the reader to ponder, as they investigate the work of Ansuya Blom for themselves. Having visited the artist’s studio and spoken to her at length about the evolution of her process (particularly her interest in psychological studies of borderline conditions, cases of poets pronounced mad — such as Ezra Pound — and creative lives otherwise condemned and criminalized), her own anxieties and pleasures (which will remain unreported here), her intellectual and artistic formation, both formal (at De Ateliers in Haarlem, the Master’s Program of the Department of Psychology, Middlesex University, and finally Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, where she is a long-time advisor) and informal (foremost, listening to jazz and experimental music at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam), what coheres is a deep interest in keeping human complexity irreducible, but also tangible.
         If Foucault refuses to behave like a disciplined historian, Blom refuses to begin like a good modernist, with a blank slate. Her early decision to draw repeatedly on prints of a film-still showing her own drawing of a human form (…daß dieser Mensch…, 1988-ongoing2) or on pages of books (The Concept of Anxiety, 2007–20083) — rather than on empty pages — signals a decisive split from the desire for the degree zero, the tabula rasa, the white canvas and the blank page. Might it also be a refusal of all the violent erasures of context, precedent, multiplicity and difference, that such conditions consciously or unconsciously carry? Blom never forgets the human dimension, as some critics of humanism have chosen to.4 Rather she opts for a necessarily veiled and subtle critique of the tendency to homogenize and flatten both the human subject and the images we create to probe human character. Her films work to keep characters and plots uncertain, but never in absolute terms.5

         And when a blank white screen does appear — at the beginning of Misty Man —she holds the image (like a tenor might hold a note) for an uncomfortably long while.

         4. One more question

         Ansuya Blom works with a detective’s patience — making films, series of drawings, and (if you consider the large Mômopens and Mômomeasures) tools for understanding what refuses to ‘add up’ or what cannot be quantified in the human soul or psyche. The physicality of her work underscores how soul and psyche are indivisible from body, bone, organs, voice. The work is durational, prolonging the process of meaning-making, deferring judgement (and its attendant punishments), training the investigative faculty, and taking pleasure in ambiguities and evasions. Solutions are a problem. Rather, we are in pursuit of what Blom once named, helping me understand the music of Charles Mingus, ‘the structure of rupture.’6

         The question arises: how to continue that detective work, with its infinite pleasures of heightened sensitivity, deep scrutiny and suspended judgement, without succumbing to the temptation to join the police, the judge and the jury?

         In Misty Man, there are certain recurring scenes — one of the young boy, turning to look at the camera (at us), and another of a young man, standing and looking straight (at us, at the camera), still and unwavering, until suddenly he falls. We see the fall several times also. And there is the collapsing archetype of the Mother as a woman’s voice reads a letter reasoning through the most severe punishment for her own son. We hear this plea in fragments. She is not teary, emotional or caring but rather methodical. If she exhibits one worry it is that the judge will be too soft. And yet, even if she implores severe judgment, her role is also to underscore that judgment has not yet been passed. There is a kind of dreadful beauty (pace Foucault) in her words. We see the boy and the young man as we hear her speak — and Black boys, let alone young, Black men, are always in danger of being pre-judged and shot on the spot in our world — they remain silent as is their right, unreadable.

         Indeed the full film — and this is true of much of Blom’s work — maintains a certain sense of suspense. It is as if we are piecing things together with the artist. The young man’s fall — graceful beyond words — exists in perfect tension with the mother’s incriminations. The layered, syncopated editing ensures that his action is not a direct consequence of her words. Rather, gaps between the sound of her voice and the image of his collapse trigger a thousand associations. Our work — as distinct from the artist’s work but in relation to it — is to investigate the discrete pieces of evidence, presented in film form as well as other forms, without looking for a smoking gun, a death, a locked-up meaning. If we maintain this curious attention, we may detect there, amidst the footage Ansuya Blom has found, recorded, edited, composed, clues to a fresh regard for the world. The artist’s askance stance keeps more fully alive all the human beings involved, including ourselves.

1. In the era of infinitely manipulatable pixelated filming and photography, the archival image — achieved through analog media — retains that physical facticity. And that physicality of the image is underscored in Dear… (1998), when we see the lead woman’s hand touching the form of a man, cast as film on a large screen surface. He is like her — a filmed image — but once removed as she is removed from herself.
2. The title, as a note in a folio in the artist’s studio describes, ’refers to a book by writer Wasserman about Kaspar Hauser, who was found standing on a square of a small town with a note in his hand in 1828. On the note it said he was taught to read and write but had never set foot outside his house. The photo over which [Blom has] drawn is a still from [her] ’87 film Ysabel’s Table Dance.’ From typed notes consulted in the artist’s studio on 29 April 2023. Blom’s choice to merge drawing and photography establishes a rich dialectic between the subjective and objective nature of both media and maker.
3. The work is titled after — and uses pages from — Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, which was first published by the Danish philosopher in 1844.
4. Sylvia Wynter discusses this rejection of humanism in the name of nonwestern non-white subjects, but ultimately chooses to reformulate the category of the human; see David Scott, ‘The Re-enchantment of Humanism: an interview with Sylvia Wynter’ Small Axe 8, September 2000, pp. 119-207.
5. They are micro critiques of a macro tendency — the tendency to ignore, discourage or, worse still, exterminate deviations from arbitrarily set norms of humanity. Interestingly, this shift in scale is a portal to a new dimension, where the particular (howeverminor or fragmentary) takes on new importance. The films are a defense strategy of looking and listening in detail — without the promise of recognition. If anything, they signal a life-long investigation of what it means not to know everything, of how to proceed without all the pieces of the proverbial puzzle in place.
6. Ansuya Blom in conversation in her studio, 12 November 2022. In answer to a question about inspiration she noted: ‘Mingus — complexity — the structure of Charles of Mingus — to this day.’ Adding: ‘I’ve been listening to him for forty years, I’ve seen him — the sense of chaos — the structure in chaos — a certain anger I can relate to, there is a despair. The structure of rupture.’
Ansuya Blom ©2022