Heatscapes is a new video installation by Layla Curtis, showing in The Gallery at Tyneside Cinema. The piece was commissioned as part of the Great North Run’s Culture program, which aims to fund new artworks that celebrate and respond to the event. Artists are chosen on the basis of making work that can appeal to audiences that are both familiar and unfamiliar with contemporary art.
Curtis’ work frequently deals with how technology such as GPS, drones and infra-red can be used to understand human interaction with architecture and environment. Heatscapes was filmed entirely on thermal imaging cameras set up at fixed points, which filmed runners travelling through various sites of the Great North Run.
The work takes the form of four projection screens and a video monitor, which show seven short black and white silent films. The cinematography ranges from tight shots of runners’ legs splashing through puddles, to distant shots of runners moving along the course. The thermal imaging works so that the individual features of the runners are lost as they blend into a white mass of moving shape, also visible as a result are the heat traces that the runners leave on the architecture and environment as they pass through.
The choices Curtis has made for this piece are brave considering that it has been commissioned specifically for the Great North Run, without knowing that the footage was filmed at last year’s event there is nothing in the work that ties it directly to this.
This lack of specificity does have the advantage of avoiding becoming overtly sentimental, sitting in stark opposition to the familiar aesthetics of charity marathons. In this sense it is an interesting and meditative response to the event. However by avoiding the familiar imagery of the Great North Run the work does miss an opportunity to engage with a rich vein of cultural associations that come hand in hand with events such as this. Considering that the work is being shown in a space local to the run, and that aims to provide artist made films for a regional audience, it is a shame that it does not engage more with the context in which it has been filmed.
Heatscapes does use some arresting imagery, in particular the film on the small monitor, which shows the lower halves of runners’ legs as they warm up on the spot. This section of film has an abstract, hypnotic and weirdly surreal quality to it and is reflective of the overall atmosphere of the piece. The work creates an immersive experience in a difficult space, without having to use audio and very much feels like an installation piece rather than an artist film simply being shown in a cinema space.
Heatscapes does not fail to draw the viewer in on an aesthetic level and the gestures of the heat traces arriving on and leaving the environment are beautiful in their own right. The reluctance of the work in addressing its context does feel like a missed opportunity and is strange considering some of the artist’s previous work, but Curtis has succeeded in creating an installation that is accessible to a broad audience and that manages to work well within an unconventional space.
Heatscapes is showing in The Gallery at Tyneside Cinema until the 4th of October.
Images: Layla Curtis, Heatscapes, 2015, Video stills.