Skip to main content

< Return to artist's essay

Cordelia Swann

By Sotiris Kyriacou


Perfidia, a title chosen by Cordelia Swann for a video made in 2002, is also the name of a woman with no particular faith or allegiance.

As the soundtrack reminds us she is, like Marlene Dietrich in the film Morocco, a 'suicide', a 'one way ticket' who has stepped off the ship never to be seen again. In Swann's film, she becomes an 'itinerant and a tourist', immersing herself in a kaleidoscope of London sights and sounds which manage to allude to a multitude of experiences and beliefs but adhere to none in particular. The film is loosely wrapped around a narrative centred on the consequences of a fire at the protagonist's home, but that is just a ruse. She relishes as much the prospect of revisiting those life-saving firemen as ruminating on the angels occupying the different firmaments. For Perfidia, grounded in her immediate environment but always urging her mind to roam beyond, reality is a trigger for metaphor and the imagination.

Cordelia Swann (aka Perfidia), born in America 1953, has lived and worked in London since 1973.


Swann's embrace of fantasy in general and cinema in particular is evident throughout her work in different ways.

Central to one strand of her work is the direct quotation of short sequences of melodrama from Hollywood films and television, where moments of emotional or visual intensity and kitsch are manipulated and re-articulated through repetition, re-filming, close-up and superimposition, to accentuate their intensity.

A film still from King Creole provides the raw material for The Ten Commandments of Love (1979). The image, of an embrace between Elvis and his co-star Carolyn Jones - and the heightened emotions it depicts - is put in quotation marks by Swann. By handpainting different parts of the background and figures in different copies of the stills and filming them, Swann creates an almost stroboscopic animated effect, to the tune of 'The Ten Commandments of Love' by Harvey and the Moonglows. Hollywood's paradigm of heterosexual coupling infuses the film yet is constantly at odds with the flatness of the manipulated image.

Passion Triptych (1983) makes use of three different sequences from the then popular television police series Hill Street Blues recorded on VHS tape. Swann re-filmed the sequences on Super-8 in slow motion, creating a three screen semi-abstracted, colour-saturated triptych. The images depict men and women in ambiguous situations of embrace or violence, creating a frieze of charged scenes whose effect is heightened by overlaying the original soundtracks with the wailing of police sirens and other sound effects. Jim Divers with whom Swann collaborated closely between 1979-1984 mixed the sound.

In a precursor to scratch video, Lust for Life (1983) goes to town with Vincent Minelli's overblown take on 'high' art. Kirk Douglas' rather extravagant portrayal of Van Gogh, the archetypal zany modern artist, is subjected to the scratch treatment. Repetition, syncopation and disruption of syntax serve to accentuate less the almost mythical intensity and 'madness' of Van Gogh but, rather, mainstream culture's interpretation of it.

By isolating and reworking these differently saturated and intense moments, Swann reminds us of our persistent fascination with spectacle and narrative whilst at the same time insisting on the artifice and constructedness of these fragments.


Apart from Super-8 and video, Swann's other favoured medium until around 1986 was tape-slide - sequences of slides accompanied by a soundtrack.

This way of combining sound and vision has now become almost obsolete and those who have not seen examples of such work may wonder as to whether it was different enough from film or video. In reality, its relative economy of means allowed very rich effects: 35mm picture quality versus 16mm or super 8, synchronicity (or not) of image and sound, controlled timing, portrait and landscape formats, fading or merging of images into one another and a general array of 'special effects' (superimposition etc) through relatively low-tech and low-cost means. Slide projection also offers both a plush iconographic potential, allowing the depiction and contemplation of long shot and detail - as well as the conscious placing of images in potential narratives.

Swann exploited this versatility in a range of works that utilised both found and made images. The most notable examples are those which utilise superimposition as a way of making the image both strange and eloquent. In Rosemarie (1983), for example, two images of women - one of the Virgin Mary, the other a 'Greek beauty' from a 1930's advertising campaign - are superimposed in different permutations in both landscape and portrait format. This overlapping of the sacred and the profane, the virgin and the whore, offers not just the more obvious readings of such a juxtaposition, but explores the way the images visually echo one another in Swann's seductive morphing of the superimposed images into a kaleidoscopic effect.

In All Kinds of Torture, the rape and pillage depicted in Delacroix's 'Death of Sardanapolis' is turned upon itself through the superimposition of different parts of the painting to achieve simultaneously beautiful and macabre Roscharch ink blot effects. Symmetry and abstraction interact so that new images are seen within images, the operatic soundtrack of Mozart's 'Il Seraglio' heightening the sense of drama and baroque excess.


Phantoms (1986) was a transitional film for Swann in that it marked a watershed between her previous work in tape slide with its basis in the manipulation of secondary or found images to work using footage shot by the film-maker and with a more discernible narrative structure.

The film's technique echoes the working methods of many of Swann's contemporaries at that time; film-makers including Derek Jarman, Cerith Wyn Evans, John Maybury and Steve Chivers (branded as the 'New Romantics') favoured the use of the domestic format of Super-8.

Phantoms' often exquisite, atmospheric images of nature, architecture and interiors hark back to the opulence of the earlier work, yet are harnessed into a narrative of yearning and unrequited love through intertitles and the appearances of the male and female (Swann herself) protagonists. The film is an essay in desire using images rather than words. It's like a prose poem, with the intertitles giving it syntax. Swann acknowledges the influence of silent film at the time and especially that of Russian lyricism in literature and film, with its conflation of the landscape with the personal.

A Call to Arms (1989) was Swann's first project to use a script. The images were shot and then put together using index cards, in the same way Swann would later make 'Desert Rose'. For Swann, the film's feminism comes out of autobiography and not feminist agendas per se. It is presented as a gift to her grandmother, who was a suffragette; and is a combination of a tribute to her and the film-maker's continued interest in a 19th century lyrical aesthetic.


The film The Citadel evokes both a homecoming and a coming of age for its banner-waving main character, who ends up, after her adventures in shining armour, in the nurturing presence and embrace of an older, maternal, symbolic figure of solace and redemption. It marks the beginning of a thematic journey in Swann's work about the relationship of women to war.

The Citadel (1991), the first of three films Swann made in 1992, marked a new stage of maturity in Swann's newly adopted autobiographical mode. It was also the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with Marek Budzynski as her editor and co-producer.

Centring on the story of a woman who continues her life and goes about her everyday business in the relative safety of London as the Gulf War rages thousands of miles away, the film is overtaken by it's sumptuous visuals of the city which manage to combine grandeur and the everyday. The underlying theme of danger and death is a grounding foil to the visual sumptuousness of the film and a contrast that can be found in a lot of Swann's work. The Citadel also consolidated Swann's use of the third person voice over which has appeared almost without exception in her films since. The clipped pre war British accent of the voice over provides the right amount of distance.


In what have been called her 'autobiographical' or 'personal documentary' works - an ongoing series began in 1986 with Phantoms, Swann's strategy of simultaneous engagement and distance is exemplified by different contrasts.

Opulent iconography and exaggerated colour or luscious narratives veer from the bittersweet recollections of a far from perfect childhood to the harrowing realities of death. Fact and fiction meet, blur and interweave, but the basis of engagement is always that which has been experienced, consciously filtered through Swann's subjective eye and retold. This embellishment of 'real' narratives with fantasy and artifice can be seen as a proposition for a way of relating to and coming to terms with life and the world.

As Swann says, the films started with a compulsion to look back at her own life through the use of images which recreate or act as triggers for memory. The use of a narrator in many of the films adds another vivid layer of conjuring pictures through words, whilst at the same time, image and sound work together to evoke and allude.

Out West (1992) and Back East (2000), as the titles imply, mark the beginning and end of a personal trilogy set in America, interspersed by Tall Buildings (1992). The films, shot in the saturated colours of Kodachrome, are very reminiscent of the immediate post war era. This further accentuates the way in which Swann presents contemporary visuals as an entry point for retrospection, fantasy and reminiscence.


The voice over in Out West describes how Swann and her father (later to be joined by her grandmother) travelled up to a house in the mountains to help Swann recuperate from tuberculosis, a place made magical through the film-maker's subjective filter.

Moonlight is recalled as a stream of silver dollars, wild horses graze outside the window and the snow covers everything in a white quilt. As the journey down the mountain back east begins, Vegas, in the distance, is mistaken for a planet in the sky.

The film is infused with the same combination of longing, melancholy and wonder which permeates Tall Buildings and Back East, both films set in New York. Back East focuses mainly on the relationship between father and daughter in their neighbourhood in New York's Upper West Side. All the time, both the images and the voice of the narrator persist in relishing the delights to be found in Swann's revisited neighbourhood: the colours and lights of the signs and shopfronts, the kitsch in Woolworth's - including a fake set of Elizabeth Taylor eyebrows - the bunting in the streets, Madonna statuettes, the gaudily decorated cakes in the diner window. Swann revisits childhood to recreate and share memories that are literally both light and dark.

In Tall Buildings Swann's majestic images of New York's archetypal tall buildings in this eponymous short film are infused with a soundtrack telling of an overbearing narrative which rewrites the city; of the trauma of violence and death. The ostensibly familiar and mediated iconography of this great metropolis is recoloured by the witnessing of a violent incident and the indelible psychological mark left by the suicide of a loved one. The urban landscape becomes a stage for the re-enactment of memory - every building, and every picture of one, has many stories to tell.


Light and dark are central to Desert Rose (1996), shot in black and white.

A voice-over relates the stories of people dying from radiation built up through the use of the desert as a nuclear test site in the 1950s, when the whole place became a tourist attraction, with people being bussed in to gamble in the casinos and look at the explosions. Children would shake the 'grey snow' of the nuclear dust off the oleander blooms and the lights of Vegas would shimmer and sparkle. The film interweaves the evocative, ancient desert landscape and its bleaker, modern realities with the myth-invoking kitsch and spectacle of Las Vegas to create what Swann calls an ''emotional architecture'' of the epic and the personal.

The film-maker's insistence, especially in her later work, to accentuate place and context, is a constant reminder that events - and other narrative triggers - have a grounding in specific contexts and what may be conveniently called 'the real'. However, it is the potential of the 'ordinary' to become 'extraordinary' through a combination of existing narratives and subjective investment which constantly informs Swann's practice and exemplified at its best in Desert Rose.


On the surface, Freedonia (2004), named after the imaginary state in the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup, is a collection of footage of different political protests, marches and street events in London.

Each proceeded by a title indicating the date of the occasion; the sequences declare their derivation from the real and the contemporary but also do a lot more. The individuality of each scene, (which can range from a shot of the Queen looking sad to a fainting guardsman being carried away on a stretcher to Tony Blair, grim, at the cenotaph), triggers the viewer to concentrate on details and differences, on the individual within the mass, on idiosyncrasies, nuances, incidents and specific messages within the whole.

The different camera vantage points in the films indicate the variable shooting conditions encountered on each occasion, so that the images become a combination both of necessity and a desire to 'convey' the event. The use of both short and longer sequences give the film an added texture and punctuation, whilst the apparent simplicity of the film hides the patience and effort filming such situations demands. Such persistence, echoing that of the protestors and revellers it depicts, adds to the poignancy of Freedonia as a very human tribute to protest and imagination despite the odds.

Sotiris Kyriacou is a freelance writer and Director of Exhibitions at Program, London.

< Return to artist's essay