Architecture on Film: Beijing / Midtown + Sarah Morris Q&A

Thurs 4 Nov 2010 6.15pm

The UK Premiere of Sarah Morris's latest urban portrait, Beijing, preceded by a screening of her very first film, Midtown. Accompanied by a Q+A with the artist.

Q+A chaired by Dr Andrea Phillips, Director of Research Programmes, Department of Art, Goldsmiths University.

Image: Sarah Morris, "Beijing," 2008, 35mm/HD. Courtesy the artist.


Celebrated artist Sarah Morris's latest film follows her earlier studies of Manhattan, Las Vegas, Miami, Washington and L.A with a glimpse of the Chinese centre of politics and culture at the time of its great global unveiling - the 2008 Olympic Games.  Spectacularly seductive, the film operates as a feature length trailer for the megalopolis's ascension to the global stage, filtering the city's mass-televised self-portrait into a mesmeric tone-poem, in the style of Koyaanisqatsi.

Free of dialogue, an instrumental soundtrack pulses behind a rhythmic succession of images that level the Games' splendour alongside candid moments of a city in transition and its phantom players; from the President of China preparing for his Olympic address, to a channel-surfing architect Jacques Herzog, and workers packing sweets in a downtown store. Jackie Chan, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster and Henry Kissinger also all make appearances.

Through a mise-en-scène of graphic moments and semiotic clues, Morris scripts the built environment in a contemporary update of the great 'city symphony' film. We are delighted to present the UK premiere of her latest work of art, and to host Morris in conversation following the screening.

USA 2008, Dir Sarah Morris, 86 min


Establishing shots, cutaways, and architectonic form combine in a rhythmic collage of cinematic surveillance. Shot over a single day in New York, the film suggests a metropolis and its inhabitants on the perpetual brink of an event. A sunshine-noir urban document, playfully rendering New York's business district a site for abstracted and inferred narratives.

USA 1998, Dir Sarah Morris, 9 min


Programme Notes by Dr. Andrea Phillips

Sarah Morris's Beijing is not a city portrait in the sense that we have come to understand the term: it does not propose to 'get under the skin' of the city, it does not show us the range of architectural, historical, cultural sites of Beijing in order that we might begin to understand its unusual attractions or quirky singularities. Rather, Beijing is a film that proposes the city as a site of transnational meetings and transformations by filming them in an elliptical fashion, whereby the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the technical and the organic are overlaid. In this way, the state and its developing forms of privatisation are illustrated implicitly, juxtaposed coolly, without overt dramatization or detailed focus. Hovering in the midst of this collage is the 2008 Olympic Games, held in Beijing to mixed acclaim, to which Morris had direct behind-the-scenes access during the organizational build-up and opening ceremony. Stars of the film are not people, who are treated by Morris's camera with a certain equanimity, but the city's architecture: Herzog and de Meuron's 'bird's nest' Olympic stadium with its latticed structure, OMA's CCTV building, as well as the surrounding network of transport infrastructure and shopping facilities providing Beijing's ongoing and ceaseless capacitisation of trade.

In this way, Beijing, rather than a city portrait, is a portrait of transnational economic functions, and the Olympic circus is a mechanism through which this is brought into view, as it gathers a host of international actors into an already complex demographic. If there is a set of references through which we understand Beijing and the Olympics then these are to television and, in particular, advertising (an aesthetic emphasized by the film's consistent pulsing soundtrack). A non-exclusive list of players emerge then disappear, each of whose profiles are equal to that of other objects - buildings, screens, animated toys, fruit and vegetables, cigarette packets. Men play cards at a duck farm, women count money in a post office, performers prepare for or perform roles in the Olympic opening ceremony, receptionists hover in smart hotel foyers, security guards linger, lights come on in high rises at night, roads and advertising appear and disappear. Recognizable figures are treated with composure: Rem Koolhaas crosses a road, Henry Kissinger gives a speech, Michael Phelps talks to his trainer.

Morris has said of her films, "All reference points are given because we are already able to read the city through film and television. You end up with a fictional effect derived from this set of facts." The broad sweeps and elegiac pauses made by Morris's camera across the sites, athletes, audiences, performances, restaurants, shops, workers, buildings, traffic systems that make up Beijing are general rather than particular, even where the focus seems to rest for a long while on an action, a face, a surface. Here people, sometimes on their own carrying out mundane tasks, sometimes performing as part of informal and unacknowledged groups, sometimes as part of a rehearsed performance, are identified as symptoms of the city, monads illustrating ways of behaving, waiting for things to happen or for the affect of what just has. No view is ever complete. Half a gymnast's body is off-screen; three cleaners buff a square meter of flooring; only the feet of athletes can be seen walking into the stadium, etc. The focus here is not on the Olympics so much as the everyday life of a city as it attends to, and flows past, the Olympics; the consistent iteration of a partial sociality in which production, consumption, participation and their by-product, alienation, are packaged together.

Download programme notes here