LEK and The EARTHWORKS
The cinema of Andrew Kötting (dis)orientates itself spatially and temporally within the heaving gut of a landscape, surging with lens and legs, treading into the compost of it all. Perspectives are fraying with distraction, multiple and mobile; fogged with heavy breath, smeared with dirt and returning to swim into changed versions of forgotten paths. A somewhere and sometime within which people and landscape struggle, converge and exchange expressions: exploring the relationship between people and landscape, becomes a way to explore people and their relationships as landscape.
Andrew Kötting’s third instalment of the EARTHWORKS trilogy, Lek and the Dogs, was primarily inspired by Hattie Naylor’s play, Ivan and the Dogs, in turn inspired by the documentation of a child (Ivan Mishukov) who ran away from a violent home to live on the streets of Moscow, subsequently finding kinship with feral dogs. The film also draws inspiration from Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Joris Karl Huysman’s Là Bas (Down There, 1891), Norbert Casteret’s Ten Years Under The Earth (1938), alongside Marlon Brando’s shadow-cloaked Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) and Tarkovsky’s philosophical epic, Stalker (coincidentally also released in 1979). A mongrel howl of influences that centres around the spiralling and now subterranean Lek: a reincarnation of Xavier Tchili’s previous two roles that threaded a continuity through This Filthy Earth and Ivul.
FLESH MAP / THE BROW’S CRAG / LOOKING / TO WALK / HAPTIC LIGHT
Gleefully far from the concern of mainstream cinema, Kötting’s practice eschews any limiting distinctions between life and art, and, without resorting to weary academicism or convoluted abstraction, finds the contemplative turning and returning in the corporeal.
OF MUD & MELANCHOLY / GUT THINKING WITH FEET / THE MOVEMENT / BETWEEN
In his restless body of work (and it is emphatically both restless and a BODY): films spill into books; journeys meander into the audio through the visual, experientially enmeshing both; ethnographic documentation tunnels between landscape and its communities; joyous disruptions are explored through installation and performance-art; and the continuing collaged rush of his eArthouse poetics – a feet-on-the-ground, collaborative physicality that refuses stasis – continues, always in the going on, to question/challenge/play in a thick mud of happening.
FLESH & FURROW / FLESH AS FURROW / INTO THE TREES / TO BARK
Though we can look to coordinates of influence or comparison: echoes of Chris Marker, Derek Jarman, Stan Brackhage, Phillip Trevelyan’s The Moon and the Sledgehammer…or even into the mystic DIY of Jack Smith, or the British wit of John Smith (to arbitrarily pair Smiths)…despite these possible points of reference…it is more useful, more true, to realise that he has created a filmography uniquely his own: at once singular and beyond the ‘singular’, as the works are always energetically collaborative and social in spirit.
IN CORRESPONDENCE / DO NOT ANCHOR BETWEEN SIGNS / BUT INTERRUPT
Kötting’s debut feature film, Gallivant (1996), was a mischievous, tender and psychogeographic circumnavigation of the British Isles, accompanied by his grandmother, Gladys, and his daughter, Eden; a manic postcard paper-trail, zipping along on the unravelling of chance and kinetic curiosity [my review of Gallivant] . What followed this mischievously inventive journey-film was the beginning of the EARTHWORKS.
HEREON/ SCULPTING / THE MESS OF IT / SOD & CLOD / FARMING THE BILE
Kötting’s second feature, This Filthy Earth (2001), was a near-apocalyptic plunge into narrative. The unholy mud child of John Berger’s Pig Earth and Emile Zola’s La Terre, the film was a hybridised and loose adaptation that staggered from violence and desire into its own endless mud – all with an aggressive, elbows-deep tactility. Through its central rural community, an insular and isolated rabble of broiling tensions, the film presented a vision of virile dereliction: xenophobia, intolerance, incest, misogyny and rage…all lashing out at and through the land and flesh. An ugly portrait of little-England in the throes of stagnation that seems uncomfortably and increasingly prescient.
INTO FOUL MARROW / OF STORY / WHERE / FLAGS PRICK
This Filthy Earth significantly also introduced the figure of 'Lek', the figure who would become a recurring thread throughout the trilogy – played by the performance artist Xavier Tchili. In This Filthy Earth, he appears as an outsider: a ‘travelling man’ who becomes the subject of both desire and hatred and a lightning rod for the village’s crumbling toxicity of beliefs and frustrations.
WRESTLING IN THE STY / LIPS SOIL GRAMLOT / DUNG HEAVY / TONGUE WAGGING
The second in the EARTHWORKS Trilogy is Ivul (2009). In a rustic manor house situated in the French Pyrenees, the narrative follows the son of a soon-to-be-collapsing family: Alex Ivul. After a moment of adolescent play that turns to misdirected desire (or misinterpreted desire), in which it seems incestuous passions are stirring, Alex’s father storms into the scene and erupts with threats and accusations. This moment of shame, anger and confusion becomes the hinge around which the family begins to disintegrate. Alex takes the logic of a childhood game (‘Off Ground He’, a game Kötting recalls from his own childhood), in which the players’ feet must not touch the ground, to newly committed and literal heights. After his father seemingly disowns him, Alex follows a kind of arboreal exile – climbing on to the roof and then on into the forest, feet never again to touch the ground. Lek here appears as a tongue-tied servant whose undying servitude and compassion for the family ends in an elemental gesture – one which leads the film into the dramatic ambiguity of its ending.
INNONCENCE & THE PRIAPIC FATHER / COLLAPSE / PLAY CLIMBS / BEYOND CHILDHOOD / ELEVATE TO SUBLIMATE & SWING TARZAN INTO FLAMES
Between Ivul and the last of the EARTHWORKS, Kötting has released: This Our Still Life (2011), an intimate and lyrically inventive portrait of life, family and art; an absurdist voyage with Iain Sinclair in Swandown (2012); the re-treading of John Clare’s journey, having escaped from an asylum in his latter years, By Our Selves (2015); and most recently the playfully mythic, historical meditation/perambulation, Edith Walks (2017).
BLINK DIARY OF / RESTLESS & RITUAL / AS NAKED ATTENTION / RECORDING / HOMERIC BOUYANCY / ONWARDS / ‘INTO THE NOTHINGNESS
OF SCORN AND NOISE’ /MYTHIC KING /
DRUMS DIG / FORGOTTEN / THE QUEEN
And now, ‘Tell me as if it’s now’…….
the mire of life on earth HEREON / fraught escape from life over earth HEREOVER
and now ‘Pretend it’s now’ the descent –
HEREUNDER / LEK AND THE DOGS / NEW NOTES
FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Where to begin? ‘I don’t remember everything’
When to begin? ‘Tell me as if it’s now’
I am hosting a Q&A at Tyneside Cinema (it is Saturday 9th of June 2018) with Andrew Kötting; this is the second time I’ve had the joy of introducing and boisterously interrogating this unique artist. I met him last year through hosting a Q&A of the rambling ghost-journey that was Edith Walks. Today, Newcastle city centre is a sweaty tangle of sunny commotion: Ed Sheeran is playing two stadium dates which apparently means that the whole of Northern Rail has dutifully collapsed under the weight of a long-brewing ineptitude, surrendering to inevitable delays, confusion and over-crowding. Summer. Fiercely blue skies make a cameo. The whole city is basking in a collective ritual of sunburn and beer. I wait inside the cinema, bemused/intimidated/depressed at the Sheeran bustle and predictably inside on a day tailored for outside enjoyment. Unlike Edith Walks which, in many ways, could fit into the upbeat mischief of unexpected sun, this year, the film is darker – its style stitches the intensity of the EARTHWORKS trilogy to the intuitive poetics and collaged energy of the JOURNEYWORKS…I have now seen Lek and the Dogs three times before meeting with Andrew and feel sufficiently ‘full of dog’.
‘Pretend it’s now’
This is how it starts, with Lek’s voice – as a child – recounting his story on cassette tape. He has been told to speak as if the past were present, introducing it with the framing of memory consciously approached to in and as this ‘now’. A present that, the film reminds us in a quote that appears at its end, does not exist: ‘There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now’ – Eugene O’Neil.
Moving, always moving, between:
archival footage and family home-video / dramatic monologue and physical theatre / psychotherapeutic commentary, metaphysical musing, animal behaviour, child psychology and human trauma / across the Atacama Desert in Chile and into the French caves (Labouiche)
Into a mutable and roaming search for belonging:
in love / in land / over land / under land / with humans / as human / with animals / as animal / in time / in memory / in endings / in belief / in structure / in the collapse of structure / in the refusal to belong / in the repudiation of belonging as a possibility / as the search itself / in the absent / now / and again / now
There is so much that lurks, barks and trembles through this film. Therefore, rather than try to offer a linear or explicating synopsis (which would be a betrayal of its spirit) I want to visit three – honouring the TRILOGY – areas which began to gnaw away at me after viewing.
Before I do that, I just want to give a brief nod to two entertaining ‘critical’ responses to the film, there was this zinger: ‘I think I’d prefer to live with street dogs than watch it again’ – Ed Potton, Times, nice; and then, the glorious audio moment when, on the Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo podcast, after Kermode tries (heroically) to describe the appeal of Kötting’s filmmaking, Mayo is left incredulously asking ‘so it’s a bit like being naked in a field, putting your hands in the furrows – scrunching around – and then listening to a Brian Eno album I’ve never heard of!?’….broadcasting gold….
…. ÖNWARDS ….
From the film’s opening suggestion that Lek should pretend a version of the present, in order to explain memories and construct a story, to the film’s (resistance to) ending with a Eugene O’Neil quote, time is always and palpably a presence, if not necessarily available to us in and as the actual present. Various diegetic frames of time situate Lek: as a child recounting his past, as a man elaborating on the recordings of himself as a child, and on the surface in a kind of looping retreat – or prowling on all fours. This last sequence, in which Xavier Tchili is naked and crawling in an inhumanly raised imitation of canine movement, becomes such a startling and unsettling vision that it begins to feel strangely iconic. It is one of those instances when a particular sequence haunts the film and can continually inform your memory of it; influencing and reconfiguring ways into and out of understanding. There is something so physically committed and unaffected about Xavier’s performance here that, when combined with the lunar landscape of the desert, it becomes a primordial and stark expression of blurred identification: neither wholly animal nor wholly human, at once vulnerable and threatening.
It is a sequence that recalls Francis Bacon’s nightmarish painting, ‘Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours’ (1961), a picture that like so much of Bacon’s work, evokes an uncanny simultaneity in and as the flesh: existing as both meat and blur; ghosting as movement but rooted in a violent materiality. Depicting, as Bacon often expressed, the sensation of the scream and not the scream itself (thinking now of his crumpled film-still of the silent scream close-up in Eisenstein’s ‘Odessa stair-sequence’ in Battleship Potemkin, 1925). The physical and its unsettling dispersal or disappearance, is made even more clear when considering the bracketed subtitle of Bacon’s painting: ‘(from Muybridge)’. Lek’s dog-walk carries with it the memory of Muybridge’s studies in physical movement: the primordial crawl of cinema staring out from its infancy at naked movement, transported into the lunar desolation of a Chilean desert.
The movement and its memory; the memory as movement and its recorded stasis.
Cinematic flesh as a recorded presence (a memory) whose trace, played again and again, in the ghost-blur ritual of moving-image
is only ever a tribute to its absence in the now.
shoes in the desert
dogs in the ground
man on all fours
& the looping
back into the earth
abandoned mining town
a strip of film walking
back to a digging into
when interference is where
what narrates is narrated
a cave lament finds
love on the moon
As well as Lek’s past-self trying to articulate his story in the past as the present, and Lek’s later adult-self listening to that recording alongside another moment in that adult-self’s experience on and around the surface… we also have the memory of Lek existing in the other two films: as the traveller who stirs the fermenting hatred of This Filthy Earth, revealing the community’s ugly commitment to its own collapsing world; and as the mute servant of a family in Ivul, whose servitude draws his simple-seeming compassion into an act of fatality. Both previous ‘Leks’ are outside-of but instrumental-to the narrative; they are the margins that reveal how and why ‘the centre cannot hold’. In Lek and the Dogs, suddenly the peripheral is centred – but true to socio-historical and artistic movements,
the marginalised can only enjoy solace or community in the underground: the repressed, overlooked or self-imposed exile of those that ‘don’t belong’ – into the caves of culture, HEREUNDER.
As to his role in the previous narratives, Lek precipitates change or throws it into relief – he is at once the ‘other’ and the ‘everyman’ (Kötting chose the name as it was akin to a kind of Eastern European ‘John’ with a sense of ubiquity or anonymity). He also at times seems to become a cipher for Kötting (home video of Xavier running in a field recalls Kötting in one of his first shorts, Klipperty Klöpp, 1984) whilst also embodying a foil for the worlds Kötting explores.
In the Q&A: questions are passed over to the audience and somebody queries the name, Lek, asking whether Andrew was aware of its environmental connotations, as in the acronym LEK: Local Ecological Knowledge. This being the specific knowledge tied to a place and gained through observation and experience – a body of knowledge informed by an embodied experience; that which is beyond the theory of science and exists in native or embedded living as a kind of field work. A perfect summation of Kötting’s hands-in-the-earth, approach and an apposite resonance with Lek: the figure who becomes at home with the feral and localizes territories that to others remain foreign, wild, inaccessible or unthinkable. Apparently, all of which is a happy coincidence: ‘The angels of happenstance are at it again…’
cipher / catalyst / outsider / anonymous / witness / stalker / shadow
a term derived from etymologies relating to play / to court /
‘a gathering of males of certain animal species,
for the purposes of competitive mating display’
outside of the film’s languages
(in invented versions of Eastern European or tongue-tied)
inhabiting points beyond familiar articulation / into the intuitive /
the physical / a movement beyond language that moves narrative /
a source of story without any absolute coherence / time
and the temporal / a lack /
a now / struggling to belong / unknowable but known to exist / spiralling
into places where others cannot follow.
There is the sensation in watching Lek and the Dogs of Kötting’s own filmography turning over itself; raking up its past to prove this ‘newest’ cinematic present, this latest film, as a seething palimpsest continuing only as the history of its making: not as an ending, finished or final point, but as a rich and complex cavorting of so many of his past projects.
There is the incantatory gibbering of Kötting’s early short, Klipperty Klöpp (1984), that, like Lek and the Dogs, obsesses over the phrase: I remember, I remember...which loops into Lek’s concession, I don’t remember everything. Klipperty Klöpp is an absurdist and ritualistic film, recorded on damaged filmstock mottled from blotched and browning archaeologies of neglect, depicting a man running around in manic circles. There is something of the lurching and lyric scat of Tom Waits here. The sense of looping monologue, the parabolas in landscape – all repeated in Lek and the Dogs…revisited in the home videos of Xavier Tchili’s earlier life (running through fields) and with echoes in the traced circles (nodding to infinite figures of eight) that mark the desert landscape.
Lek, shored against the ruins of his life, or a life…inhabited/abandoned and left… sits in a scarred armchair in the desert, surrounded by debris. We are reminded of the vignettes in Kötting's Acumen (1991), in which portraits of eccentric living are surrounded by the clutter of their evidence…literally beached on the refuse and refuge of hermetic living, or, equally as unsettling, ensconced in the daytime TV of uncanny living rooms…gently squabbling in the company of amiable decay. It is an incredible short film that lingers between Kafka, Roy Anderson and a faded seaside postcard – all lovingly mangled and muttering. The isolation and the ruin return in Lek’s underground den and look over, as a presiding memory, the collapse of his lonely furniture on the surface.
The macro photography that moves over dog, over man, and over the ghost plastic of toy dogs in the shadows…all of this recalls Kötting’s nightmarish Above Them the World Beyond (2013). A short piece in which dread and claustrophobia (moving between Kafka and Josef Fritzl) maddeningly conspire to turn close-up shots of insects into subterranean nightmares. Bodies dried of the tick of breath are now so many assorted husks and flightless wings; an anatomy of cramped foreboding…or perhaps a grotesque taxonomy of movement: everything fixed, lifeless and condemned to prickle, legs and arms, forgotten in the cellar.
These were just the initial films from Kötting’s past that leapt up in the first viewings…but there are more, always more (the intense discomfort of Me, 2000…or the themes meditated upon in any one of the JOURNEYWORKS… their collaged aesthetic unpicking the narrative stitching of the first two EARTHWORKS films in Lek’s mongrel vision). Throughout Lek and the Dogs, the layering of earlier films articulate ideas that - newly emboldened - emerge, merge and return like the restless re-inventions of memory.
reach of branch
a flower in reverse
and a child
follows a maybe
There is a simultaneity at play, Alan Moore’s voice describes the evasive notion of SOLID TIME, a concept that intuitively slots into the film’s logic but that outside of its parameters (the film’s own temporal logic) becomes a hard to trace or inscrutable note…something that refuses to offer its suggestion in the terms of absolutes and resists any structuring rationale. Something that also exists in Moore’s magnum opus, the novel Jerusalem (2016) and comes rambling into view throughout Kötting’s Edith Walks (2017). If time is solid, what better way to express and interrogate this theory than through traversals of land? Earth as Time. According to Moore’s voiceover, in following the logic of this conception, cause and effect break down, morality losses its anchor and time can be thought of as narrative without narrator: timelines shuffle and coexist without lineation but still are. Here (in a constant where? of when?) vice and virtue cease to navigate experiences and instead all of time, as traversed by our ‘moment to moment sensations’, becomes both ‘the best of times and the worst of times’. There are relationships and dialogues between these experiences but no framework of ordering.
‘The mistake of every doctrine of deliverance is to suppress poetry, climate of the incomplete.’ – E.M. Cioran
‘This is forever
it will always be like this
for as long as I can remember’ - Lek
An affirmed present as the eternal
that will continue
as measured by a past that st(r)ays in memory
As an interlude: in a year (2018) in which Michael Pearce’s terrific film debut, Beast, gave audiences the frightening implications of domestication and wilderness in the ambiguity of escalating desire, and when Wes Andreson’s Isle of Dogs portrayed the feral in a bright itching of symmetry…Andrew Kötting’s Lek and the Dogs subject both to a kind of tormented dream analysis.
‘Every absolute – personal or abstract – is a way of avoiding the problems, and not only the problems, but also their root, which is nothing but a panic of the senses.’ – E.M. Cioran
During one particular segment of Lek’s ‘story’, he recounts staying in an orphanage where ‘men taught us to pray’. Here he is told, with blankly authoritative assurance, that he has a soul. This memory is accompanied by archival footage of blindfolded children boxing one another. The soul is a shiny thing. A shiny thing inside. And yes. Yes, yes, yes, God is good.
We see guinea pigs stumble out of their hutch in a startled collective.Are these the lemmings of belief? New subjects to imposed belief? Caged animals and the enclosure of domestication.
Those who believe, like those who killed Lek’s dogs, become a source of fear.
The reason for retreat: Lek’s escape or self-exile to the under.
Belief is the induction, interpolation and initiation for civilized being. For Lek, ‘civilized being’ is just ‘men drunk on enthusiasm’, resounding with Walter Benjamin’s famous assertion that every document of civilization is a document of barbarism’.
Belief is the circus and the auction. Ideas are enslaved and performed; repressed from questioning and understood in value through a manic theatre of bidding.
The blindfolded children who we encountered earlier soon return in the visual rhyme of bandaged men – carried out on stretchers and dying in the rubble – the strewn casualties of belief.
And yet, for all of Kötting’s vehement adversity to the trappings of belief (drawing on the existentialism of Beckett, the relative nihilism of E.M. Cioran and, more recently, the arguments of Christopher Hitchens) there is still the melancholy yearning, at times, for its security. In one of the most despairing, and moving, moments in the film, Lek laments the family he has left behind and cries out: ‘Wherever they are, I try to believe that they are still alive’. However, the way in which the subtitles appear on screen leaves the phrase ‘I try to believe’ aching without the phrase’s resolution – allowing the sentiment to double in its meaning: not just as a desire for his family’s safety, but for the certainty of a ‘belief’ to exist.
It is in this conflict around belief that vulnerability speaks: between realising the horror belief can enable, through structures of systemic violence and a blinded evangelism, and the loneliness and instability that can exist where belief is absent. I don’t believe that Lek and the Dogs provides an answer, as to do so would be a complicit move towards the dynamics of belief: of the unequivocal, the narrative and the absolute. There is undoubtedly a fierce resistance to the apocalyptic ramifications of any belief as fundamentalism or the danger residing in structures of organised religion. This perspective frays throughout Kötting's other films just as noticeably. Here, the notion of Lek as etymologically tied (through Swedish ‘leka’) to play, offers an alternative to belief. Beyond the parameters of any one game, or enclosing rules, the imperative ‘to play’ is a mutable and mobile calling that can exist as a ‘means’ without projected ‘ends’. This is the liberating perambulation of Kötting’s filmic spirit, where a bleak absence of belief is re-configured as a freeing energy of thought and feeling as and in movement. However, as Lek’s despairing lament makes clear, to live this way can be isolating and, in stepping under or over the prevailing systems of belief, one is made vulnerable.
‘Farewell to – [he turns page] – love.’ Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape
After Lek cries out ‘wherever they are, I try to believe they are still alive’ he follows the thought with, ‘and she will remember me. That Mina will remember me’. The tension of belief and loneliness is followed immediately with an emphasis on remembering. Earlier, in the devastating realisation of his Mother’s death, Lek sees his step-father and recalls with bitter disbelief: ‘He didn’t even remember me.’ Throughout the film, remembering and re-remembering are the passages of thought and understanding that expose Lek to his own deprivation: rewinding the tape, muttering, Yes I want to leave, please let me leave.
Memory, like Lek's reversed steps on the surface, is a source of looping: a return to the trauma that might make sense of the present but equally, experienced as a running from that return; as the same source of self-knowing is also felt to be a source of self-destruction, where fear informs and demarcates any encounter with love.
these mice are dogs
are barely born
but dying, twitch
and cannot blink
their sealed eyes
to see the miles
to their pawing
in the sand
crawl listening below the sun
for how the moon cries turning
back to ask of what’s begun
is this how it is
of all I have and am, a story
backwards stepping in the dust