Skip to main content

< Return to artist's essay

Andrew Kötting - Profile

By Gareth Evans


'You don't ask to be born, do you? You're born, you live, you die. You're here, you're not, you are and you're not. And that's the end of it.' (from Visionary Landscapes cd)

Andrew Kötting is one of Britain's most intriguing artists, and perhaps the only film-maker currently practising who could be said to have taken to heart the spirit of visionary curiosity and hybrid creativity exemplified by the late Derek Jarman. Formally exploratory and aesthetically innovative, like Jarman he is also a great collaborator, building around his various projects a community of shared interest, while anchoring his prolific production in an ongoing report on the lives of those closest to him.

His twenty year oeuvre to date has moved from early live-art inflected, often absurdist pieces, ripe with their own internal logics and skewed mythologies, through darkly comic shorts, teasing out the melancholy surrealism at the heart of contemporary Englishness. His two resolutely independent features take landscape (rare among contemporary artists, he is most engaged beyond the urban) and journeys as the springboards for visually striking and structurally inventive enquiries into identity, belonging, history and notions of community.

But the film and video work offers just one incarnation of the themes and motifs to which Kötting is attentive. Throughout his work he has also written and performed, created for digital platforms and for the gallery (two- or three-dimensional pieces and installations) and is increasingly working directly with sound and music, in concert and on cd. Such activity reflects both his wide-ranging formal interests but also his refusal to adopt conventional ideas of closure around artworks in any medium. Ideas and images frequently migrate between media, being echoed and amplified in these translations. It is this openness, underpinned by an outlaw intelligence and pranksterish wit, that marks out his work as both energising and important.


'All of us, all of us, all of us trying to save our immortal souls, some ways seemingly more round about and mysterious than others.'
Raymond Carver, from In Switzerland

In all Kötting's work, there is a more or less active reclamation of deep strains of popular experience and folk memory for the digital age. His project, vitally, operates against the hollow ordering of reality and existence. He is closer to the Native American Coyote, to the trickster, harlequin and knave in his operation than to the career 'administrator' artist. Formal funding is sought, and desirable if gained, but not a pre-requisite to creativity. Other ways or media will be found to get the message out. He is most adept at 'making do', at mining the creative possibilities of material or structural limitation to invigorating effect.

Similarly, he surrounds himself with a 'family' of collaborators, and his own blood family (David Burnand, Eden Kötting, Andrew Lindsay, Sean Lock, Mark Lythgoe, Leila McMillan, Gary Parker, Nick Gordon Smith, Mark Wheatley, Ben Woolford) in a community of shared intent. The work is as much a chronicle, a diary of relationships in metaphorical and imagistic form as it is an accretion of themes.

This corpus develops organically in an England a long way from the Blairite. Kötting's island of the spirit is Albion the older, wilder outcrop; and his tone is often 'Anglican Gothic'. There is an ironic celebration of things English that allows for absurd affections to dance a pier-end afternoon waltz with occasional vehemence towards insular narrow-mindedness, but more likely amused observance of island ways and folk. The nation comes across as a sometime blasted entity pursuing arcane business, frequently with strange and often indecipherable totems.

Here, we can see Kötting's Anvil Head as the Holy Fool of the apocalyptic suburbs - a Jubilee style King Ludd, but unanchored from history and drifting in a timeless zone of trinket concessions, flock wallpaper and dysfunctions large and small. England might have made us, but which England, and which stratum offers our true path?


'It's in the most unlikely places you're likely to find things.' (from Gallivant Pilot)

Kötting's underpinning approach to place is a psycho-geographical one; this being the layered reading of territories, urban and other, via signs of all kinds and without prejudice as to the source or status of the prompt. This being the eyes and all senses of a conscious drift through space, time, architecture, experience, history, the latent future. This being not really landscape at all, but more of Manley Hopkins' inscape, consciousness as it might look if it were dimensioned (and therefore film...), with JG Ballard's correlation between interior crisis and a topography of the disturbance made active.

A child of Pan, Arcadian genius loci, Kötting draws on a profound affinity with the anarchic tendencies of the medieval Cathars from his beloved Pyrenees to challenge pretty Pastoral notions with a streak of debauched fertility and the wildness of outlaw woodland. The non-metropolitan areas are, for Kötting, primal provinces of rough music, psychic branding, brooding behaviour and sinister lanes, of bloodletting even.

Crucial to his approach here is the deployment of scale shifts. From Lek's hobby-stride into the great elsewhere in This Filthy Earth, or Eden's signing in Gallivant immensity, to the interior cosmologies of Mapping Perception, the inflated attitudes of the digital micro-organisms in Kingdom Protista('in every gesture, every glance, it's shouting out, ''look at me, look at me, I'm alive') and the anal/armpit/vulva-scapes of Fleshfilm, scale shifts, accompanied by similar strategies in sound, are essential components of the vision. The spectrum of sensual awareness that acknowledges continuous flux from macro to micro is seen as simply being the case of things. It is less an aesthetic choice (while being one) than an accurate response to things on the ground. It's in the nature of his attention to the world.


'Attain deliverance in disturbances.' Kyong Ho, Zen Master

Inevitably, certain works reveal themselves as exemplars of Kötting's methods and intentions. Acumen, a threshold short that builds on the distinctive preceding 'performance' films, is one such. A darkly symbolic gem in the Kötting crown and, quite miraculously, occupying 20 minutes of Channel 4 in 1991, it might on first viewing appear at odds, in both tone and narrative structure, with its neighbours. However, in its coding of key traits, at once ascetic and layered, like Jaunt it's a pivotal distillation of concerns, washed in a Paradjanovian symbolic sheen and a Sean Lockian black comedy with an implacable logic all of its own.

To a chest-wrenching cello-melancholy score, tidal flats are revealed, huge skies, glistening sand and little landfills of organised refuse. This might be a nod to post-apocalyptic gleaning, or to the kind of society we have already and why it might nudge us towards collapse, but such speculation is pushed in the detail, in the outlaw trolley of the white-line woman, the silent, wizened one who watches all and never tells. And the England she passes among… a woman in a rudimentary bathroom, co-habiting with molluscs and toads, fed through a hatch and prone to hear a baby's wail, turning her face down in the tub's few inches (certain challenges of autobiography perhaps). An 'artist weighed down by his own self-importance', conjuring sphinctered quiz challenges in his solipsism. An elderly couple in a cyclical duel of TV-gazing with lounge-scale pitch and putt. A green-tighted junk store magpie, feeding on archive broadcast theme-tunes and tales. A multi-faith convergence at a stone circle, Albion's psyche borrowed by any old robe-wearing aspirant.

What then of these multifarious denizens of the country lanes, whose private worlds, briefly glimpsed, seem to sustain them. Why here and how collected? A fabulous parable of an almost chosen containment (claustro-philia perhaps...) and wide-vista, expanding potential, Acumen nurtures constantly slipping readings within its ornate, spiralling snail's shell.

What might be its covert moral? Are we fish out of water? We live in the lives we live in. Somehow, there is a surreal making do, a strange survival. We follow our own compulsions and somehow get through.


'Reality is often pregnant with utterly unexpected possibilities. A powerful spiritual dimension can be found in one's life through the exercise of the imagination... We make our own weather.' JG Ballard

Kötting's features to date stand in significant opposition to almost all contemporary British production. Of the two, the award-winning Gallivant takes the lighter path. The littoral truths of this island are perambulated in a shaggy circuit activated by family across three generations (it cannot be better analysed than in Iain Sinclair's Sight and Sound dispatch 'Big Granny and Little Eden'). What must be mentioned however is the democracy of its looking. It has a wide ear and eye, both for folk, their ways and for signage, for the scale sweep and the sweet stall. It makes the personal a generous filter into the social. It understands the switchback exchange between the two. Deeply, it belongs.

This Filthy Earth, meanwhile, offers an altogether darker act of witness. Nothing prepares you for its singular locality after Gallivant's wayward, rambling charm. A foreigner working in a remote moorland farming settlement - sisters, family, village all taprooted into the oldest soil - precipitates its partial implosion after he is scapegoated for social and meteorological ills.

A vaudeville cow opera, This Filthy Earth honours John Berger's Pig Earth but digs deepest into Zola's La Terre. It lives absolutely in a material world - bull and man sperm on the hands, pigs in branches, rooms like caves or armpits, piss in graveyards, phlegm, pus, shit, rock, rain, mud, mud. A biblical downpour might wash it all away (indeed, by the film's climax, there will be a felled church, a routed flock, a bog opening like a reverse birth-canal to retrieve offspring; and outcasts united in ceaseless passage across the earth).

This Filthy Earth visualises Kötting's instinctual association with the dispossessed, with regions, with dialect, with margins, with the visionary, with the body; all being aspects of an attitude that refuses the majority cultural production of a rational, managed reality.


'A certain process suggested itself to his mind, a work partly mental and physical, and after two or three experiments he found to his astonishment and delight that it was successful.' Arthur Machen, from The Hill of Dreams

More than almost any other of his works, Kötting's Mapping Perception project perhaps best illustrates the personal, collaborative and formally exploratory aspects of his approach to experience and its shaping into art. Four years in the making, and incarnating as a gallery installation, experimental documentary, book and cd-rom, Mapping Perception is an ambitious research initiative, family essay and poetic treatise on consciousness, made in collaboration with curator Giles Lane, neuro-physiologist Mark Lythgoe and Kötting's daughter Eden, born in 1988 with Joubert's Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder leading to impaired brain function. Here she is both celebrated and investigated in an ambitious enquiry into notions of dis/ability, the diverse qualities of different communicative languages and the nature and limits of perception and sensual awareness. Science meets Art and a substantial dialogue ensues, exploring in great depth the issues raised for both disciplines by open-minded and creative exchange.

The book and accompanying cd-rom embody this shared journey, offering a series of essays, image sequences and fragments covering all aspects of the aesthetic and scientific territories in question. A mock-up of Rembrandt's famous Anatomy Lesson provides the gateway into writing and diaries by Kötting, Lythgoe and Professor Richard Gregory, while the cd-rom almost mirrors the brain's own constitution, with its lucid links and routings through numerous contextualising platforms. An exemplary undertaking of great precision and reach, it is finally most remarkable for the generosity and love it proffers, to partnership, imagination and most importantly, a daughter.


'Time and memory, anguish and desire tug at us and it is necessary to keep diving back into the wreck, going on through the long night, making our temporary refuges and being prepared, when the time comes, to abandon them without regret. No final revelation is at hand but, with trust and patience, something can be made which will speak truthfully of the joys and sorrows of our condition. And that, surely, is enough.' (from Andrzej Jackowski: Reveries of Dispossession, with an introduction by Gabriel Josipovici; Purdy Hicks Gallery, 1994)

Gareth Evans is a writer, film programmer and edits the moving image journal 'Vertigo'.

< Return to artist's essay