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Tanya Syed

By Helena Blaker

1. Flaneuse

In viewing Tanya Syed's second film, Salamander (1994), it is hard not to think of the 19th century figure of the Flaneur, the emblematic figure of the modern metropolis, whose movement through its urban spaces has left an image of the urban scene.

Though this is a figure at first imagined in the texts of the poet Baudelaire and critic Walter Benjamin, it is one which is responsible, still, for a sense of the city as an environment: from the spaces of the 19th century's new arcades and boulevards, to new ways of looking and an expanded range of social scenes. Here, a leisured man could wander freely through the crowd, observing the public spectacle and the displays of the commercial world. Amongst the objects of his gaze were women, described not as viewers of the environment, but as images in his cultured imagination.

In Salamander there is an echo of the physical movement of this figure through the city; but Syed's 'Flaneuse' is invested with a different, more democratic, or more consciously female, gaze. Her figure explores the urban environment directly, but in doing so evokes the presence of a multitude of viewers. The gaze is partial and transitory, encompassing a complex of perspectives. The Flaneur's freedom of movement through the city continues; but there is no longer the privileging of a particular cultural viewpoint, or of the images that define and express such a vision.

But Syed's work also questions another field of images related to this earlier singular perspective: the framing of nature in 18th century 'landscape painting'. Here the 'picturesque' - the landscape framed through the artist's vision - was seen as the true image of nature, leaving all outside the frame chaotic and unformed. In the same way, the Flaneur's gaze saw women too as image: not as active viewers of the landscape but as formed in the image he the viewer gave them: both nature and woman framed as 'the seen' to the eye that conceived these scenes.

In various ways, Syed's films contest this frame around the image, in relation both to the landscape and to the figure viewed. Her films propose alternatives both to these earlier images and to the viewer's fixed perspective, evoking the complexity of the contemporary environment with the complexity and contingency of contemporary vision.

This shift is achieved through what Syed does with the body in her films, as she evokes the slippages of race and gender that inform her mixed-race background, and the cultural complexity she perceives. In her own body, as Flaneur, she evokes the presence of historically unacknowledged or made-invisible figures: a multitude of viewers; women; other-cultured, other-gendered figures. These now, through her control of the camera frame, exceed a controlling gaze. At the same time her films create a more profoundly expanded view both of the urban landscape and of nature, allowing the environment to exceed, and through diverse sensory impressions to question, the limits of this earlier framing vision.

So while it seems that Syed's concerns in her films are of a different order entirely - concerns with performance, identity, choreography and rhythm - it is the play of visual memory - the evocation of urban spaces through the movement of the figure - that creates an echo in her work, and the sense of the landscape, and of the body, as a space of negotiation.

2. The Elusive Gaze

The alternatives presented in Syed's work are most clearly seen in Salamander. Here, an ambiguous, androgynous figure guides us through the streets, pulling our gaze away from the camera by turning away her head.

Her eyes are off-camera, and for most of the film we see only parts of her face, her neck and shoulders, her clothes and hands. Though elusive and fragmentary, her presence is pervasive; but she remains unknown to us, un-framed.

Syed is a composer as well as a film-maker, and the film's sense of space, and a complex, fluid, environment is created by overlapping sound sequences: footsteps, snatches of music, recordings and Syed's own compositions, which evoke the sounds of the street and the locations it leads to and encompasses. A sinuous flute sound creates the sense of a particular journey, but also evokes the sound of passing traffic, the wail of brakes in the distance and a vivid spatial and temporal scene. The flute sound is adapted to carry the visual material, like eerie fragments borne on a recurring wail. "The tail end of the sound" is combined with extraordinary visual phenomena - the glistening vertical surfaces of a vehicle in motion, its industrial underside and hidden horizontal surfaces - to convey the light, enigmatic gaze that travels through these public spaces, recording their resonance in this shifting cultural scene.

The film opens with a view of the distant Cyprus Kebab House: two overlapping shots, blurred and brightly-lit in the vortex of the midnight street. The image is broken and continues as people pass. A wail of sound brings closer the passing traffic, and a blur of lights coalesces into the movement of the road. The film's fragmented visual scenes are somehow linked to the movement of this figure; but there is no eyeline and no exchange of views. Rather a flow of scenes and locations are documented and returned to as if in passing: a group of people playing cards in a bright interior, traffic moving towards the camera, people passing a distant doorway; and between these, close-up fragments of this enigmatic figure's clothes and hands. Since her eyes are beyond our view, the city exists outside her gaze; just as the figure exists beyond and without our vision.

On one level, the film expresses the encounter between different cultures, through the rippling sound and rhythm that suggests an interior world, and the harsher sounds of popular songs. On another level, the encounter is with the enigma of other women. Off the street, in a hazy interior, the traveller's hands tap keys to flick up playing card images of queens. Outside, a woman is driving, her bracelets glinting at the industrial wheel in the city light. Though we do not follow her gaze (any more than that of the other women Syed encounters in passing), there is a glancing connection, an erotic charge as the driver's hand pushes the gears forward. For a moment there is a pause in the film's sound and visual rhythm: a red light; and we see the Flaneuse' eyes.

In Syed's film there is no one originating point of vision. It is a view into a continuum, with overlapping signs and variable entry points according to the rhythm and texture of the scene. With no eyeline views and with fluid, fragmentary shots of these various locations, the city is evoked as a place of multiple and co-existent presences, existing beyond one defining or unifying perspective - although a temporal presence is hinted at in the presence of this enigmatic figure.

3. The Anchor of Nature

Delilah (1995) creates a different, complementary, and more anchored sense of the relationship between the figure and their environment.

A number of women perform directly to the camera, one completing a cycle of martial art movements, another sweeping her hair repeatedly away from her face and eyes. The performers are lit while the space around them is in darkness. Their movements are amplified by the sounds of a tabla rhythm and the extended chords of a vocal breath.

These figures pose an explicit challenge to the viewer, both unsettling the viewer's gaze and conveying their own relationship to the environment through a form of movement which creates both an anchor and a temporal flow. This effect is brought out in the film's opening sequence where the camera slowly rises up a vast architectural figure, tracing its illuminated contours to complete a distinct triangular form. Abruptly, this is revealed to be the space between the legs of a performer by a movement of her arms outwards and upwards towards the camera, throwing the space into negative behind the human figure, to reveal the monumental certainty and stillness of her legs poised in motion.

As well as their movements, it is the women's eyes in Delilah that challenge the camera, while this play of ritual movement establishes their autonomy as well as their direct engagement with the viewer. Momentarily, we are equated with the historical Flaneur, as a controlling vision is unsettled and other positions described and offered.

Syed has described the performances in her films as delineating "a play of forces". In Delilah, "this is based on gender, and comes from a dream of invasion ... It could be the lover or the enemy. ... You project onto it [as you will]." Using gestures which convey "archetypal symbols of power," the performers represent masculine and feminine energies through their movements. One performer's pose takes "a masculine shape [in] the pose of a gun," though this is "just her fists;" and at once combines "the masculine within the feminine". There is "a doubling" as gestures change "from one thing into another." Filmed in extreme chiaroscuro, the dark background creates a symbolic landscape, "a space without, or a space of challenging, boundaries." Within this, Syed says, "a minimal female gesture can be so powerful - a flick of the hair, a look or a turn of the head."

4. Delilah, Chameleon

But Tanya Syed's films also confront the viewer with another form of movement within the image.

She has described a particular interest in the choreography of the camera. Delilah is filmed with "a circle or a line ... in the camera movement [and also in] the movement of the figure." In her earliest film, Chameleon (1990), these movements create the sense of a literal and metaphorical 'interior'. The body of a female figure spins before the camera, her dress reflected in a slowly-closing glass door. The image of a 'veil' floats down an interior stairway - "a vaginal image" where the hollow of a skirt floats above us and down this staircase, where a woman's feet are followed and a hand is withdrawn into the hollow of a sleeve. Outside, her arms and hands dig over and over, repeatedly, into the earth. The impact of these movements is felt in the final shot of the film where a door opens to the street and the woman meets the gaze of passing men who view her. While the interior space unravels in silence, the exterior image is frozen by sound.

Both the movement of the camera and the movement of the performers in Delilah and Chameleon are part of Syed's further agenda, which is, she has said, "to destabilize the viewer; for the point of view never to be fixed. Our sense of centre is gravity. I want to shakne that," she explains. "All the films are done in this way, to make [you] question who you are, or - remember who you are."

5. In Land

In her current film, In Land (in progress, 2004), Tanya Syed continues the outward trajectory of Salamander by investigating the landscape of the natural world. This is preceded by her gallery installations, which have explored the potential of her images in different viewing situations prior to the completion of the film.

Here too, the various elements in Syed's film attempt to break the frame around the image. The landscape itself is drawn together visually, to become one place - one global location - from "mountains shot in Spain, Scotland, Norway and India". The environment is conceived as both a psychic and a material field. Its forces are elemental as well as animal and human; in Syed's vision reflecting elements in the human psyche. It is also a temporal location which exists at a particular period. The sounds which evoke the presences in this landscape include "piano music, location sound - the sound of crickets - but also the sound of the sea: the sound of the elements." Amongst these are "also the sounds that humans make - secular and sacred sounds, the sound of people demonstrating [or] chanting." But there is also the sound of bombs. This is "because there is a war on," Syed says, so "war forms the backdrop, almost the location, of the film." Although they are never seen, it is the sound of these presences - the sound of horses thundering towards and around us as viewers, for example - that locates us also, physically, within this complex environment.

Throughout Syed's films there are extraordinary single images, many of them yoga or martial positions of manifest physicality. Here, a figure performs a ritual movement in the foreground of a powerful image of nature: a desert plain or a plateau before mountains. These images have an extraordinary impact, existing as metaphysical as well as physical ones, and ones which, in the film-maker's words, "bring gender into one and spirituality into being." One of these is a "prayer shot" near the end of the film, where a figure's hands are seen cupped together, rising and falling against an ocean background. The image runs backwards as well as forwards, and the landscape loses focus and becomes visible behind the figure. It is as if this ritual movement is a way to balance such conflicting forces; and a means of expressing one form of human presence amongst the landscape's complex of presences. With this the film also extends the choreographic movement of the camera: "we move through spirals," says Syed; as she aims "to work with the still point at the centre of the spiral, the still point at the centre of movement."

6. Breaking the Frame

In her gallery work, Syed uses elements from In Land to explore the potential of these images and this way of filming.

With a circular movement the sea tilts and turns before our eyes, intensified by a slow zoom-in, to convey the power of elemental forces, the power of sea-water held between rocks. In another view the perspective on the sea is ambiguous, as if the tide moves forward while moving away, both familiar and reversed. An image of water suspended on its side moves like cloth or mercury. A reflected image of trees in water allows a phantom or mirage to emerge in the viewing: in this reflected image, Syed explains, "there is the actual mountain that we see - the body - and ... then there is the reflection - the body in representation: neither are real, both are illusion. Filmed a certain way, a third thing emerges, pointing to the unseen, the invisible self that [appears] through a slight shift of focus."

As well as her representation of the complex forces in the living environment, Syed's exploratory techniques in choreography have a bearing on her concern with individual and social identity. All her films test a subtle formulation of gender, and gradually the primary figure of her films becomes "the androgyne - the embodiment of neither, or of both." This is consistent with her aim to challenge a fixed viewpoint, and to maintain a fluid viewpoint in her films. Like the composite landscape of In Land, her aim is to expose social space to a composite new view.

Like the rest of Syed's work, In Land attempts on various levels to open up the representation of the environment to a reality beyond the frame of unitary vision - beyond both an optical and a particular cultural frame. At the end of this film a figure walks out into the sea at the convergence of two tides. This relates back to the earlier films but is a significant departure from them, a further shift in Syed's own point of vision: "When you look at all three of the earlier films together ... you realise they all end with someone coming out of a doorway. It's like a threshold," she says. "...In this new film I don't have a doorway. I am outside."

Helena Blaker is an artist and writer who has researched and managed new commissions in public art for international artists working in Britain, and curated a number of exhibitions of artists' work in performance, video and experimental film.

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