Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: Last and First Men, Manchester International Festival

Deep in the former Yugloslavia are a series of strange, silent monuments known as spomeniks. Out of scale to their surroundings, many are remote, hidden and accessible only on foot. Commemorating long-forgotten battles and scenes of atrocity, they’ve been brought back into view for glossy, coffee table consumption by photographer Jan Kempenaers, who invites us to revel in their strangeness and unfamiliarity in picture book form as part of the aestheticisation of modern ruins. 

Unlike many monuments, these huge concrete sculptures are not representational, and are deliberately devoid of any religious associations. Instead, they as act as viewing points for the landscape, framing the sun, clouds and stars, or tower over it, remote and untouchable, arms outstretched as if about to take flight. Distanced from politics, memory and culture, this leaves room for imagination, as Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson demonstrates in Last and First Men, which revisits the spomeniks to construct new stories, narratives and associations. Taking its title from Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 sci-fi book, Jóhannsson uses the last two chapters as the basis for a dystopian tale that explores what it means to be human, how we communicate through physical and cultural distances, and the rise and fall of civilisations.

Last and First Men is primarily a film work, using black and white 16mm film to document the spomeniks and their relation to earth, landscape, light and sky. Often, our view is partial, abstracted and deliberately disoriented – close-up the sculptures could just as easily be fossils, ancient rock forms, rock carvings or primitive totems. There’s something of Paul Nash about the way Jóhannsson presents them; suggesting organic forms such as wood, seeds and bones, they take on the anthropomorphic qualities of surrealism.

Jóhannsson is well-known for his work scoring films and his soundtrack, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, is a minimal and slow-moving exploration of the landscape on screen. It roves not just through space but through time, suggesting ageing, loss and decay. The familiar textures and instrumentation of the orchestra lend themselves to this grandiose tale told on a vast scale. Jóhannsson's score is at once heroic, romantic and fragile, conjuring the drama of entering into a battle – against the passage of time, against the inevitable entropy of the universe – that’s already lost.

Taken by themselves, the visuals have a formality that reads like a slideshow or set of textbook illustrations, freed from their captions, but it’s Tilda Swinton’s calm, authoritative narration that binds Last and First Men together. Swinton imbues it with the air of a nature documentary or anthropological report, but Jóhannsson’s orchestral soundtrack restores a sense of humanity, communality and emotion to these man-made monoliths in a way that's rooted in the enveloping, escapist fantasy of the sci-fi genre.