Contaminating states: Sophie Cundale’s The Near Room

Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

South London Gallery

Aug 15- Sept 13, 2020 (Main Gallery)

By Kit Edwards

Arriving at the South London Gallery to see Sophie Cundale’s ‘The Near Room’ last week, I felt already irritated by the return to IRL art. Obviously not the seeing work in the flesh bit, but all the other stuff that comes along with the experience – the pressure to be enriched in some way, all the standing about, the feeling of being watched whilst watching (am I looking in the right way, for the right amount of time?), now delightfully combined with the fear of spreading/catching COVID. But I had truly forgotten how much I liked being out in the world looking at things, and the quiet closeness of the SLG, the dark blanket of the (well distanced) screening room, felt not dissimilar to the isolated space in which I’d been consuming art for the past five months.

Sophie Cundale’s new film ‘The Near Room’ takes its title from Muhammad Ali’s description of the nightmarish space which came to him in the depths of a fight, as described by George Plimpton in his book Shadow Box (1977):

            …a door swung half open [into a room of] neon, orange and green lights blinking, bats blowing trumpets and alligators playing trombones, snakes screaming. Weird masks and actors’ clothes hung on the wall, and if he stepped across the sill and reached for them, he  knew that he was committing himself to his own destruction.

Inspired by this vivid and strange psychic space, Cundale constructs a similar dichotomy between the life of a boxer and the manifestation of his post-knockout hallucinations. The film begins with a carousel of scenes from a life of constraint, and though we have not yet entered the ring there is something strange on this side of the psyche. The tight choreography of the training boxers gives a sense of the constructed nature of this reality as they pause and begin in perfect unison. Things become increasingly uncanny as the close images that punctuate the boxer’s life swing round again: he wakes, he weighs, he sweats. These repetitions situate the viewer in the disorientation of monotony – have we been here before? How many times has this scene replayed? Groaning audio sways us into a state of anxiety as the boxer’s fears that he may be past his prime are articulated in this impotent cycle of discipline. A sand timer bathed in red light slithers on, and the lip of his opponent begins to curl – almost imperceptibly – into a threat. This first part of the film is tight and affecting in its quickening pace, working to untack the pins of coherence.

Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

The bell rings and the boxers take their places beginning their slow dance. Devotional singing starts up and as their bodies wash over each other, the boxer is knocked unconscious and we enter into the ‘near room’. We are introduced to a queen from times past, and her courtiers who are concerned about her deteriorating mental and physical state. The action that ensues takes on the conventions of melodrama and Greek tragedy: a chorus is recognizable in the two courtiers gossiping between song, the sensationalizing of lust and violence is active in nearly every scene, and there is a sense of catharsis achieved through the enactment of a fantasy so concerned with defilement.

As the boxer deprives himself in pursuit of physical greatness, so the queen of the near room disintegrates, the two strangely connected by the psychic threads of the near room. The queen is afflicted with ‘Cottard Dellusion’—a rare neurological condition in which the sufferer believes themselves or part of their body to be decaying or already dead—but she nevertheless remains the far more tangible protagonist. Brilliantly played by artist and poet Penny Goring, the queen maintains a chaotic sense of erotic potency over the other characters. Lipsticked and filthy, she cackles wildly whilst abusing and seducing her courtiers. The notion that she must be diseased and deluded to believe her body is decaying becomes less convincing as she hovers over the lifeless body of her son (once the boxer, now the prince) and a parallel between their mental states becomes apparent. The queen is aware of our fleshy precarity and so lives voraciously, whereas the boxer/prince lives in denial of his vulnerable and changing humanity and so lives in a relative un-world of discipline. She stands above him, symbolic of the threat of all he guards against.

Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

This tethering of reality and the near room to the mother/child dynamic between the boxer and the queen enacts elements of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection as outlined in her essay “From Filth to Defilement.”[1] Kristeva explains the occurrence of abjection as the process by which our perception of the world first splits in two. The first object we encounter in infancy is the mother (the model for all proceeding ‘others’) which we must ultimately ‘abject’ or cast out in order to realize ourselves as distinct. The abject is the horror that exists in the liminal space of the in-between—between self and object, our internal and external worlds. This process according to Kristeva is the impetus behind the incest taboo which veils the threat of the loss of the self across the ultimate boundary of life and death, and prevents the temptation to enter into the murky waters of liminality where one might ‘find death, along with nirvana.’[2] This process of abjection is enacted in the film through the blurring of boundaries between previously distinct realms (psychic/physical, self/other, reality/fantasy, desire/disgust) which works to expose their closeness and the inescapable reality of being as a state of flux.

Consumption and excretion are recurring features of the near room in contrast with the boxer’s abjection of all indulgence. In one playful scene, the queen’s advisor is seduced by the revelation of her filthy feet and writhes in pleasure on her lap before she pulls out a dagger and slits his throat – blood gushing in place of ejaculation. The drinking of urine features a number of times in the near room referring to uroscopy, a medieval medical practice used to assess health. The queen, cognizant of her internal rot, seems to revel in this realm of the abject.

Sophie Cundale, The Near Room, 2020 (film still). Installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg. Courtesy the artist and FVU.

One aspect of the film that I was unsure of was the use of sound. From the moment we enter the near room out-of-sync audio is layered over each scene. Initially the effect made me think of the moment between dreaming and consciousness when real but distant sounds (an alarm, the tv, a loved one’s voice) become enveloped in the dream space, bending in and out of sense. The video/audio can never quite sync and the more you strain to cohere it, the more it is lost. As it continued however, I began to recognize the repetitive nature of this layering, that the audio of the following scene was simply layered over the present one in a way that made the process transparent and wearisome. I think a more playful and varied layering of voice and sound would have worked better to disrupt a chronological narrative, aligning with the film’s concern with flux.

Still though, the visuals are consistently strong, implicating the viewer in the strange delight achieved through the corruption of opposing sensibilities. In the final scene the boxer looks on at his slippery reality, bathed in deep blue light. We can’t unsee the chaos of the near room, can’t shake the sense that this is the unreal space where movements appear nauseatingly rehearsed. The two realms, though separate, touch each other and therefore contaminate. The film constructs a space in which the precarious nature of our fleshy and psychic realities is exposed, and we are invited to slip deep into a playful world of polluted borders where the fear of destruction is not so far from the realization of pleasure.

The Near Room is commissioned and produced by Film and Video Umbrella with support from Arts Council England, South London Gallery, Bonington Gallery, Curator Space and The Gane Trust3 and is available (for free) at the South London Gallery until 13th September 2020.

The film will also be on display at Bonington Gallery, Nottingham
December 2020 – February 2021

[1] Julia Kristeva, “From Filth to Defilement” in Powers of horror: an essay on abjection, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)

[2] Kristeva, p.64

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