sin∞fin The Movie

The trilogy

    #1 Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego

    #2 India & Kashmir

    #3 Antarctica




Werner Herzog once said "we are surrounded by worn-out images, and we deserve new ones." The doomy Bavarian director repeatedly came to my mind during sin∞fin The Movie, firstly because the title “Performances at the End of the World” is reminiscent of Herzog's own Encounters at the End of the World - both of which feature beautiful Antarctic photography - and secondly because VestAndPage are hellbent on providing us with fresh iconography, new perspectives of the human body and its relationship with the aggressive, unfriendly world. Similarly Herzoggian is their commitment to placing themselves in dangerous situations in the name of seeking new images: blood spattering onto ice; a freezing man balefully staring at use from a crevasse; skin being carved open; two naked lovers frantically embracing inside an ice cavern.

Who are these people? Why are they doing this? Are they mad? How on earth do you make a bizarro art film on Antarctica?! The first one I can answer, the others I can only guess at (though I gather that the Argentinian Military were involved). VestAndPage are Verena Stenke and Andrea Pagnes, a performance art duo with an oeuvre encompassing performance art, cinema, visual works, prose and independent curators. Both have been lauded by their peers, picking up art, literary and cinematic awards as individuals and as a duo.

sin∞fin The Movie, screened at ]performance s p a c e [ on Thursday comprises three parts. The first was filmed in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, the second in Northern India and Kashmir and the third in Antarctica.  They describe the film thusly: "[The film dives] into the absurdness of the quotidian. They perceived and defined spheres and sanctums: creations, unions, incorporations, rejections, collisions, invasions, infections and trans-formations of inner, private, social and universal spheres."

This is a bit artybollocks for my taste. I see it as interesting people doing interesting stuff in interesting places for interesting reasons.  They examine universal human experiences through the prism of extreme environments: taking the familiar and staging it within in an epic, alien landscape; the result being a heightened reality: both entirely surreal and as familiar as a dream.

Due to time constraints we only saw two parts of the trilogy; the South American and the Antarctican portions. Of these, it's the epic shots of Antarctica that lodges firmly within the mind, yet there is much in the South American segment to recommend.  The films share a cinematic philosophy with the work of directors Ron Fricke and Godfrey Reggio, a firm rejection of narrative and a trust in the visual intelligence of their audience. To a spooky ambient soundtrack of tribal music we see great image after great image; a man opening a door on a beach, a woman swinging an enormous ball around herself, ghostly figures wandering through a dusty, deserted house, a man cutting his face with a shard of broken glass.

This is all underlaid with stream of consciousness philosophical dialogue. Frankly I can take or leave this voiceover, which at times degenerated into a quasi-mystical word salad that bore little or no relation to what was happening on screen. I found the best way to deal with it was as a subtle, musical accompaniment to the visuals. Occasionally the odd phrase or word would emerge from the soup and add a poetic perspective to proceedings, but as the images became more and more striking I just didn't have the mental resources to be able to devote enough time to decoding the language and the images.

And boy what astonishing images they are! If you're shooting in Antarctica the landscape will do a lot of heavy lifting on it's own. This is a blasted, barren landscape, in the film entirely devoid of life except the two performers. It's about as close as you can get to walking across another planet, an environment so inhospitable that human figures within become interlopers; alien intruders in a place you instinctively sense people shouldn't be.

Every single modern image of people in Antarctica I've ever seen has been shot with an eye for documentary; warmly wrapped scientists explaining in clinical language the mechanics of how the place works. Granted they treat Antarctica with respect, but this is borne out of personal preservation rather than any attempt to understand the symbolism and aesthetic awe that this landscape inculcates in us.

So when I see the image of a topless Pagnes, splayed out on a floating hunk of ice adrift in a chaotic sea, his boots lazily sunk into the frozen ocean, it sparks off an enjoyably chaotic storm of mental connections. The thrill of seeing naked human flesh pressed against a floating iceberg, simultaneously in commune with the land and cocking a cheeky snook at it. This must be absolutely freezing, deeply uncomfortable and pretty damn dangerous, yet it's being done purely to provide us with an powerful cinematic image. 

There's one moment where the danger appears overwhelming. Stenke is squatting on an ice floe, hacking at her hair with scissors, regressing into a wild, prehistoric femininity. Without warning, just a few metres behind her, a huge ice shelf falls into the sea with an almighty *CRASH*. I'd shit myself if that happened to me, but Stenke is a pro, she keeps her cool - not even flinching - and continuing on with the performance. Much like Antarctica itself, there's be ice water in these artist's veins.

A repeated image throughout is the breaking down of the barrier between the body and landscape.  We see Stenke peering up through a jumbled mound of ice shards, Pagnes licking and sucking on a chunk of ice, figures dissolving into transparency in front of glistening caverns. Most dramatic is Pagnes impregnating a floating chunk of ice with his blood. He squirts it from a hypodermic syringe onto the ice, redness spreading in spider-web patterns through the transparent block. I imagined it freezing solid, a single bloody block of ice floating in eternity somewhere in the Antarctic.

It's this sense of eternity that struck me the most about the film. These landscapes stretch off into infinity, cold beaches and mountains in precisely the same state as they were when humanity first stood upright and picked up rudimentary tools. In the face of this awesome massiveness, the human body is exposed as a fragile lump of flesh and bone, engaged in a desperate, futile rush to make a mark on a world that doesn't care.

Pretty depressing huh? But what VestAndPage show is that even in the extreme depths of frozen insignificance, altruism, partnership and love still possess a unique importance. These transient human feelings may be as ephemeral as a mote of dust, but these vital, new images underline that basic, everyday kindness is as important as the most epic of landscapes.

London City Nights | David C James

sin∞fin The Movie by VestAndPage at ]performance s p a c e[

The colour is blue. Not Jarman’s death-rattling one, and neither the trustful blue of Chagall. Not the one glaring from Mirò’s canvas (as if any shades of heavenly blue converged in Barcelona), not the disarming, perhaps ultimate one of Antonello da Messina. Not the one chosen for Chatwin’s Patagonia book cover in Italy, and not even the lapis-lazulian blue of the Cathedral of Palermo. Here, in the core of VestAndPage’s movie sin∞fin, the blue is threshold of the infinite—it’s sky steeped into sea—a wittingly borderline blue closer to celluloid than to the digital eye. It is precisely the blue that enlightens a degenerate film work, as libertarian as the authentic experimental art must be. Capable of enchant you into digressions of a certain tactile blue, in which is portrayed a mysterious yet familiar world extending from the remote Chilean Patagonia to Tierra del Fuego. You find out that this blue is now lying within your own eyes, carried away like an unexpected stranger kidnapped in some faraway unknown province. So sin∞fin hits you straight in the heart. Hence it deserves to be told what the heck the apples of those eyes have seen.

It doesn’t matter that the movie is overseen by the famous Shakespearian lunge “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and entrances”. Shakespeare himself carved it in As You Like It and then recycled it in The Merchant of Venice, when Jacques soliloquies, “I hold the world but as the world, a stage where every man must play a part”. No matter again, because here we’re not questioning the genius of the bard, nor the esprit d’aventure of VestAndPage. Moreover, watching this series of performances shot on location, it’s evident that the stage is the planet

Earth, at least as the audience is planetary. The movie, however, defies stylistic classification: it is not based on film script; it’s neither a documentary; nor docudrama. It might better be said that it presents two crazy enough artists roaming far and wide, Verena Stenke and Andrea Pagnes, who prefer to tell us what these extreme lands make you think of, instead of explaining us what they are made of. It is roughly the same the great Orson Wells did in his marvellous Around The World With Orson Wells (especially in the episode on the Basque pelota).

If it’s not too much of an inconvenience, though, we would venture to say that in sin∞fin there is something more intimate: a testimony which is more geophysical than anthropological, somewhat Fluxus. In its essence a ‘spherical research’, as the same two artists have called it, which congeals and scatters them in a harvest of fleshes that is surely avant-garde, but that here and there oozes with sweetness.

In spite of currents, shamanic ecologies and surrealism, comes out a covert then increasing sensation of a pure, popular, irreducible sweetness! You can’t hold it when the bodies of the two performers seem to melt into the same nature where they are set. The sequences of pure flesh are exciting, epidermic, somewhat orthopaedically poetic,  when inks are printed and objects rage onto bared skins, tightened with gauzes, shaken by subtle, imperceptible muscular spasms or signs. The letters, words, the writing itself is assumed as organic matter. And all this paraphernalia—always brilliant under the imprint of scenic invention—goes well with impossible landscapes, worthy of any words in spite of Chatwin. Therefore it is easier to think of contrasting followers: the cynical rigor of Magritte, the nervous pace of Carolyn Carson, the consumerist satire of Hipgnosis, to name a few. After all that’s no coincidence, because if you investigate on Verena and Andrea, you come across a string of artistic experience ranging from visual art to performance, from poetry to sculpture, painting and dance.

Years ago, in Catalonia, at the Biennale of Young Artists from the Mediterranean, it was shouted the slogan “més art que mai”, more art than ever; and it is precisely that art, as evidenced by their repertoire, the only way to attain knowledge. The only way for the artists to bear the indifference of the system remains therefore the search. “I ask questions”, Beuys said, “I put on paper forms of language, as well as forms of sensibility, of intents and ideas, and I do so in order to stimulate thought. Furthermore, I would like to not only inspire others, but also provoke.” In sinfin luckily there are more questions than answers and it should not be overlooked that the whole work is filmed with exemplary technique (photography, editing and cutting of the shots), despite the precarious means of self-production. The strength of VestAndPage is lying in their transversality, an ability to move effortlessly between different latitudes and concerns, knowing that art survives even to itself, and that the path of a true explorer is within that quixotic ridge between wisdom and folly that leads to abstraction. One is reminded of the resurrected Adam of Yoram Kaniuk: “Sanity is pleasant, calm, amusing, but it lacks greatness, it lacks true joy as well as the awful sorrow which slashes the heart.”

Storie rivista internazionale di cultura | Gianluca Bassi

VestAndPage - ‘sin∞fin’ - A movie of another kind

(English translation by the author)

The two performers in sinfin The Movie, the man and the woman, use simple means: their bodies, and stunning landscapes which are much more than simple backdrops. The two artists are meandering like shadows, sometimes together and sometimes alone, in spaces that are populated by ghostly looking objects, by furniture that looks familiar but is placed in unfamiliar surroundings, and by other items which we are forced to define and understand in the new context. The spaces are either a house without an address or clear physical location, or the lanes of a strange city, where the characters are looking to define the ‘holy center’ by reenacting rituals or finding meaning in newly created ones, and a deserted land of ice, where time seems to flow differently than we are used to, and where the recurrence of the chess tables as a symbol of both codified rules and potential unpredictable reactions makes us wonder about winning and games of power.

The objects they encounter and/or interact with are all strange. There is something which looks like a huge brain, that is wooly and can be dissected, and it feels like the physical embodiment of collective memory that the protagonist chooses to plug into. There is a dinner table and the simulacrum of a dinner, and there are chairs in a deserted landscape. There are sheep, and there is a door that does not lead to a space, but opens towards nowhere. And then there is a dead rat and a monastic outfit, and an hour glass. It is a metaphorical narrative of being, and also of being together, and of a special togetherness in spaces that are unknown, challenging, but in the same time imbued with a very familiar lyricism. There is music, or rather harmony as a more general category, and then there is harmonious writing, which openly alludes to changing one code into another, and there is Morse code, and a permanent discourse that makes us feel like we are intruding and listening to someone’s private thoughts. In a way, the succession of moving images reminds of the surrealist automatic dictation, forcing us to decipher the numerous symbols and incorporate them into the larger picture which becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds and pushes us towards a different understanding. Becoming in touch with the deeper meaning of the performance act feels like mixing liquids to produce gold, and in the same time aims to identify the magical components.

Actions in the three performances have a straightforward value, and then they have a deeply symbolic one. The act of shaving may mean changing the face, but also adapting the face, shifting it so it corresponds to a different set of circumstances. But it may also mean that ultimately the face is meaningless when there is no wish to understand identity, which can sometimes be a cultural construct; the aim is rather for some sort of authenticity. At a certain point, there is a direct reference to Magritte’s business man with no identifiable face, only in this case the face is in bandages. Then, in the same line of reasoning, connected with change, there is also the metaphor of the cocoon, of entering another stage of existence, strengthened by the image of the door which does not lead to another space. Another obvious reference is that of the mirror, both as way of knowledge, the capacity of understanding what is seen and understanding oneself, and of entry into another space, which may be scary, familiar, or it may just be.

Finally, we are all prisoners of our own condition, and are genetically coded to be what we are. But change may come from two sources, one being the capacity to reach and incorporate the collective and the personal memory, and the other being the willingness to enter a relationship, with whatever changes it may bring. sin∞fin The Movie is ultimately a series of narrative videos which document the cycle of reaching an understanding that does not rely on performing rituals, with the caveat that what is going to happen may have somehow happened already and may have survived residually in a genetic labyrinth, but not necessarily in the shape of a comforting series of movements. And it openly states that the experience stems from the individual to gain global meanings, and it is up to us to take the defining step which may take us in that direction.

Dana Altman

Body Landscapes: About the Architecture of the Spirit in VestAndPage’s ‘sin∞fin The Movie’

sinfin The Movie contains very poetic images, sometimes shown as allegories and other times stripped off all pretentions, being confronting in what they show. There is crudely crowned by a sober aesthetics of beauty in form and substance, expressed through an interpretation that is subject of situations speaking of the concerns of life, from the depths of being.

This investigation leads to the essence: to reveal this vital impulse that gives movement to the body. To be aware of that divine spark that lights up for a moment and gives life to the movement. To be a testimony. Where does it come from? Where does it lead to? It comes from mystery ...

A great state of humility must turn flesh within oneself for becoming one with this all.

I identify from deeply with the content of this work. I admire it, because it reveals mystery, it is the fruit of knowledge of oneself, and that is giving breath through art. Thank you.

Ana Moreno, Curator

Caracas, 2012

A film by and with Verena Stenke and Andrea Pagnes

A VestAndPage production | In co-production with Confl!cta Contemporary Art and Science Research, Sarai Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies, DNA Argentine National Antarctic Direction, Thetis Spa | Presented by Zonadeartenaccion, Residencias del Sur, SpinConecdoras, Fundacion ProAntartida

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