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When does a film become a work of art? When it’s silent

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Naeem Mohaimen: Tripoli Cancelled (2017) (via Tate/Turner Prize 2018)

Visitors to this year’s Turner Prize show at London’s Tate Britain would do well to bring along a bag of popcorn. The 2018 installment of one of the art world’s glitteriest prizes doesn’t contain a sniff of sculpture, or a single pockmarked and pigment-splattered canvas. Instead, the four exhibitors — Naeem Mohaimen, Charlotte Prodger, Luke Willis Thompson, and Forensic Architecture — have submitted work which focuses its attention predominantly on the moving image.

Aside from Naeem’s concertina-book Volume Eleven (Flaw in the Algorithm of Cosmopolitanism) and the slim pamphlet that accompanies Charlotte’s piece BRIDGIT the gallery’s central space is dedicated to a series of dark rooms.

Some are lined with a single row of the kind of seats that used to sit proudly in every Odeon in the country before they were swapped for the super-soft juggernauts capable of hugging the prerequisite gallons of Coca Cola that have turned the cinema into an expensive creche for those of us too tired to talk to friends or partners.

Others are fitted out with sturdy benches – benches that seem to only exist in art galleries, benches that have no place outside the hushed spaces so many of us give ourselves backache at.

One room — the one in which Luke’s work resides — there is nothing but the cold, bare floor. So you stand, or more accurately, you hover, always aware of how temporary your experience of this all is. You stand until the soles of your feet begin to twinge, or you feel the reassuring buzz of your phone tap-tapping against the pocket of your jeans. And then you turn on your heel and navigate your way back into reality.

Regardless of what we can, or can’t sit on, each room — and these carpeted pens exist in galleries all over the world, not just here on a little stretch of the river that overlooks Terry Farrell’s still-startling M16 headquarters — is dominated by light.

As I sat watching portions of Naeem Mohaimen’s extraordinary entry, Tripoli Cancelled I was plagued by a question. Tripoli Cancelled is a 93 minute long “fiction film” which first debuted at documenta 14, last year. In it, a figure played by Vassilis Koukalani haunts an abandoned airport. He has spent a decade in this non-space, desperately attempting to find hope in a hopeless place. Dressed in a pilot’s now-soiled finery, he walks on the wing of a plane doomed to sit motionless on a runway until the apocalypse arrives. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver he’s God’s lonely man. Except, our wanderer is more likely to read from Watership Down than harbour psychopathic revenge fantasies.

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Naeem Mohaimen: Tripoli Cancelled (2017) (via Tate/Turner Prize 2018)

Tripoli Cancelled is absorbing, engaging, and at times breath-taking, with one particularly tender scene involving stolen kisses surely sticking in this writer’s mind for a long time. But watching it, I wondered: why am I doing this in a gallery? And when does a film become art?

And then it hit me. It’s all about peace and quiet.

Ever since Nam June Paik started playing about the possibilities of the Sony Portapak, art and video have found themselves entwined. This is something that is both relatively easy to grasp, and that has been documented countless times by people with far more authority than the subject than me. What I’m intrigued about, though, at the films like Tripoli Cancelled – the ones which could slot just as easily into your monthly MUBI package as they do a hushed little room at MoMA.

My theory is thus: the fiction films which we get to categorise as ‘art’ as opposed to ‘entertainment’ or ‘something to absent-mindedly sort of, kinda watch while flicking through emails, Instagram, and the sale page on Verso’ are exercises in the potency of silence. Think about it; the kind of films that echo through white cubes from Lagos to Lisbon all hum with a charged sense of silence.

Silence makes us feel contemplative, or at least look contemplative, because given that our collective attention span has been utterly decimated over the last decade or so, we’re more likely to be contemplating what we’re missing out on whenever we’re sat with, around, or in front of art.

A paucity of punchy dialogue, extravagant explosions, and a screaming soundtrack reminds us that we’re not lining the pockets of whoever produced Mission Impossible 36: Croydon Cat Killer and allows us to slide head-first into the arthouse film dream sequences we’ve learned from time spent daydreaming in arthouse cinemas.

This, largely, is a good thing, because who doesn’t enjoy the slight smugness that comes with being a self-identified gallery-goer? I certainly get a frisson from knowing that several times a year I sacrifice a Saturday afternoon to sit shoulder to shoulder with likeminded peers, peering into the dark, trying to keep up with the (lack of) action on the screen in front of us.

While that isn’t to say the old Chaplin shorts might grab a nod by the bigwigs in charge of the Turner Prize come next yet, the sound of silence has given me the answer to a question I’ve been pondering ever since I first plonked myself down in a dark room on the Southbank as a callow teenager, wondering where my next hot dog would come from.

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Naeem Mohaimen: Tripoli Cancelled (2017) (via Tate/Turner Prize 2018)