Originally published in Sight & Sound, November 2017
Concerned as much with its subjects and their surroundings as it is the material and aesthetic constituents of its presentation, the work of British artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers conjures highly tactile worlds of objects and ephemera. That Ben Rivers: Ways of Worldmaking, a new hardbound collection of Rivers-related art, essays and ephemera is itself a beautiful object should come as no surprise: all of Rivers’s films exist at once as audiovisual indices of largely anonymous people existing in vivid yet anonymous places, and as physical manifestations (i.e. documents) of their highly unique means and modes of production. Lest we forget, Rivers once titled one of his films Things (2014).
A collaboration between the Camden Arts Centre, La Triennale di Milano, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and Kunstverein in Hamberg, each of which recently hosted solo exhibitions by Rivers, Ways of Worldmaking presents a holistic view of the artist’s practice, embodying both the spirit of his multifarious approach to anthropological cinema and the interdisciplinary scope of his gallery work. What this amounts to is a generous selection of full-page, glossy images taken from Rivers’s 30-plus films and the exhibitions in question; a trio of essays by noted scholars and curators Ed Halter, Melissa Gronlund, and Andréa Picard; a number of shorter texts, poems and transcripts taken from or in some way related to individual works or their inspirations; and notes on a majority of the films by Rivers himself. From this foundation an entire aesthetic and artistic sensibility can be gleaned, from the rough-hewn patina of Rivers’s hand-processed 16mm images to the utopian ideals embodied by his willfully isolated subjects and the remote environments they occupy, to the many literary referents that haunt his quasi-narratives.
Extending this thoroughly Riversian ethos (the filmmaker is billed as the book’s co-editor, alongside Kunstverein director Bettina Steinbrügge), Ways of Worldmaking is organized in an associative––one might say poetic––manner. Texts are presented with little contextual information: an excerpt from Robert Pinget’s novel Fable, for instance, is offered as a complement to Rivers’s notes on Things, but its connection to the film, for those unfamiliar with the source, is left obscured. Similarly, ‘Edgelands,’ a short travelogue by Renee Gladman, is in thematic accord with Rivers’s nomadic practice, but its kinship with the filmmaker’s work is never explained.
Luckily, the essays provide a useful through-line and, just as importantly, approach Rivers’s work from fresh angles. Halter discusses the director’s methodology in relation to philosopher Nelson Goodman’s own 1978 work Ways of Worldmaking, as well as Rivers’s predilection for speculative fiction; Gronlund takes up theoretician Bill Nichols’s notion of ‘the observer effect’ and triangulates the concept between subject, audience and artist in the constellation of works comprising The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015); and Picard dissects Rivers’s singular ability to warp and distend time, not simply through montage, but via intricate sound design. It’s enough to make one yearn for more in the way of critical prose; after all, as Rivers notes, his work presents a “multiverse of innumerable interpretations.” Here are a few of the most persuasive. ♦