Lis Rhodes Light Music (1975) installation view, South Korea. Photo: Sangtae Kim. Tate: Presented by Tate Members 2012. © Lis Rhodes.
Light Music, 1975, Lis Rhodes. Tate: Presented by Tate Members 2012. © Lis Rhodes. Photo: Tate
Stories & Ideas

Tue 26 Jul 2022

Seeing sound: Lis Rhodes' Light Music

Art Exhibition Light: Works from Tate's Collection Sound
Julia Murphy
Julia Murphy

Assistant Curator, ACMI

Sound and vision combine to collapse the boundaries between the viewer and the screen in this experiential, feminist installation.

The term ‘expanded cinema’ emerged in the late 1960s to describe the extension of film into art galleries, warehouses or alternative spaces, with installations, performances and events created outside the frame of the theatre and commercial cinema. Artists in this period, including Nam June Paik, Anthony McCall, Carolee Schneemann and Annabel Nicholson, explored the material properties of film, the apparatus of the film projector, and the phenomenological experience of the viewer within space.

Experimental filmmaker and visual artist Lis Rhodes – creator of the installation work Light Music (1975) – was an early adopter of expanded cinema, and a central figure in the London Filmmaker’s Co-op in the 1970s. During this period, Rhodes began making film works that explored the relationship between sound and image, including Dresden Dynamo (1972). This 16mm film was made without a camera or sound recorder; the artist adhered Letraset stickers directly to a celluloid film strip and used colour filters to make red and blue tones. When the print was passed through a projector, the abstract patterns were read as both light and sound. The artist has described her intention in creating a work where: “The image is the score is the sound. A composition in noise." [1] Following in a long tradition of direct animation and experimental collage film, such as Len Lye’s A Colour Box (1935) and Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), the work is a visual abstraction of reading music without translation or interpretation.

Lis Rhodes at Greenham Common, 1984

Lis Rhodes at Greenham Common, 1984

“Light Music is played on film – a duet played on two projectors with four speakers. Lines that produce the picture are printed on to the optical edge of the film – the picture thus produces the sound. Sound writes image – image makes the sound”

Lis Rhodes [2]

A few years later, with Light Music, Rhodes extended this idea further into an installation environment. Once again fixing Letraset typeface directly onto a celluloid film strip and its optical soundtrack, Rhodes composed a score that simulates a synaesthetic experience: what you see is what you hear. In this work, a pair of projectors on opposing sides of the room show an abstracted pattern of horizontal and vertical lines, with the stuttering noise of the soundtrack read by the projector mimicking the flickering movement of light. Light Music explores the material structure of film, and the relationship between sound and image, creating a space in which these elements are a synchronised experience.

The work also collapses the boundary between the screen and the viewer. As you move between the projectors, your body is implicated physically and temporally within the space. The viewer becomes a participant, relating directly to the image and sound, thus becoming a performer rather than a passive spectator. In Lisa Le Feuvre’s words, “This creates a set of social relations against the definition of traditional film – the film becomes a collective event where the audience are invited to make interventions into the work itself.” [3] In this sense, the work is also iterative, forming a new version of itself each time it is shown. In previous presentations as a 16mm film projection, the installation has also included a smoky haze that filled the space, creating sculptural beams of light from the projectors for the viewer to navigate through. [4]

Light Music, 1975, Lis Rhodes

Light Music, 1975, Lis Rhodes. Tate: Presented by Tate Members 2012. © Lis Rhodes. Photo: Tate.

As cinema and experimental film moved into alternative spaces, artists experimented with the apparatus of the film projector as well as its material qualities. In 1973, Annabel Nicholson – a contemporary of Rhodes – held a film performance work Reel Time at the London Filmmaker’s Co-op cinema space (a work that now exists only in documentation of the event). In this performance, the artist fed a reel of film through a Singer sewing machine and up to a projector mounted on the ceiling. As the performance progressed, the film gradually tore through the sewing machine, creating fragmented images and a loud clunking noise as the projector attempted to read the film. The performance was paused several times for the film to be sewn back together before it was eventually broken beyond repair and the event ended. As Felicity Sparrow notes, the work brought together the mechanics of film and public performance with the domestic sphere, [5] drawing attention to the hidden labour of domestic roles; in 1895 the Lumière brothers invented the cinematograph using the same mechanism as a sewing machine.

Both Rhodes and Nicholson were working within a framework of gender inequity and feminist politics with a focus on interrogating the history of filmmaking through an experimental art practice. Rhodes has stated that Light Music was motivated by the lack of women composers in European classical music; by synchronising the image with the score, Rhodes sought to prevent the artifice of a soundtrack being added to an image, generating her own composition. Throughout her career, Rhodes has interrogated structures of power within culture and society, making work that explores language, interpretation and history through the means of film.

Light Music, 1975, Lis Rhodes, ACMI. Photo: Phoebe Powell.

Light Music, 1975, Lis Rhodes, ACMI. Photo: Phoebe Powell.

In 1979, Rhodes was invited to be involved in Film as Film at the Hayward Gallery in London, an exhibition of experimental film. In response to being the only woman included in the exhibition, she instead began researching the history of women filmmakers, alongside a group of artists and filmmakers that included Nicholson and Sparrow. Rhodes ultimately withdrew from the exhibition and the group instead contributed a series of essays for the exhibition catalogue critiquing the institutional exclusion of women creators. One of these essays was Rhodes’ now-influential Whose History?, which examines the structural inequity in the history of cinema, interrogating the lack of recognition and visibility of women filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blaché, who made her first film, La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages) in 1896.

In that same year, stemming from discussions between these artists and other women involved with the London Filmmaker’s Co-op, the film distribution group Circles was founded. The women-led collective screened and distributed a catalogue of films, videos, tape-slides and performance works, and was focused both on championing contemporary women filmmakers and revitalising the work of obscured filmmakers such as Guy-Blaché and Maya Deren. One of the first film programs organised by Circles was titled Her Image Fades as her Voice Rises and featured four films made by women – Joanna Davis, Guy-Blaché, Germaine Dulac and Rhodes – over a span of 70 years. The accompanying programme notes describe it as “a subjective gathering of threads of meaning, drawing attention to the spaces between four films that are dense with connections and difference”, [6] bringing together intergenerational conversations between works of film over time. The programme was restaged in 2016 at the Photographers Gallery in London, reflecting the ongoing legacy of the group and its collective reinterpretation of history.

Light Music is recognised as an important work within the broad spectrum of expanded cinema practice, and the influence of Lis Rhodes’ work continues to be seen, both through her artistic practice and through her contribution to film history.

– Julia Murphy, Assistant Curator, ACMI


Experience Light Music at ACMI


You might also like


Reference

  1. Interview with Lis Rhodes, Southbank Centre, accessed 8 July 2022
  2. Lis Rhodes in Tacita Dean, Film, London: Tate Publishing, 2011, p. 113
  3. Lisa Le Feuvre, Lis Rhodes, Lux, accessed 8 July 2022
  4. At ACMI, Light Music is presented as a digital version without the fog
  5. Felicity Sparrow, Annabel Nicholson: The Art of Light and Shadow, Lux, accessed 8 July 2022
  6. Lis Rhodes in conversation with Anna Gritz, Institute of Contemporary Arts, accessed 8 July 2022

Further reading

Lis Rhodes, Telling Invents Told, London: The Visible Press, 2019

'Lis Rhodes: Life in Film', Frieze, 19 March 2012