Stuart Layton: Time and its Impossibilities

Published on Native Monster

Stuart Layton was born and grew up in Wolverhampton, but now lives in Malvern. He graduated from Worcester University last year after studying Fine Art, and is currently studying in London, aiming to complete an MA in the subject. 

Stuart Layton’s filmic duo, ‘The Devil’s Haircut’ and ‘The Impossibility of Living in the Present’ undeniably explores political issues, expressed through recollected conversations and tales local to home. Layton encourages narrative and storytelling, creating work that comments on historical and current social contexts.

The work also encourages the viewer to consider film’s aesthetic qualities; the final edit resembling painterly language. Film is coloured and footage is layered to expose the painterly abilities of light.

Perhaps the most profound challenge Layton suggests to his viewer, is the question of time and the suggestion of its impossibilities. Layton expresses his artistic concerns with time through scientific fact and leading questions. Based upon the understanding that ‘everything…our sensory inputs take in are…delayed by the organic data transmission processes involved’ making our ‘“present” … forever outside of our grasp’ Layton asks: ‘Are we forever locked into experiencing the past?’

Stuart Layton

Stuart Layton, Still from The Devil’s Haircut, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

This question reflects existential theories, such as Martin Hedidegger’s ‘Being and Time’, and founds the basis of quite profound artistic and philosophical explorations, resulting in work that explores film in relation to painting, myth and narrative, and essentially comments on the universality of human experience.

One of the most striking elements within Layton’s work, is the demonstration of a sophisticated cross-over between painterly and filmic language, that relates to memory and it’s flimsy, transitory nature. Based upon a ‘legend’ and reflective of a mythical tale, footage from various sources is layered in fragments, and is used to tell Layton’s own version of a story that has been passed through generations. In The Devil’s Haircut, fragmented sounds and multiple images are overlaid to create the character of ‘The Butcher of Bagdad’, whilst in The Impossiblity of Living in The Present, footage from various sources, including retro computer games, is selected and merged with derelict landscapes, and is forced into the viewer’s memory through the use of intense classical music.

Considering memory, Layton states that the work ‘becomes this self-contained document of its own history. [It] embodies the process through which it is made’. This relates to the nature of ‘a’ memory; something that is a document of history, ready to be passed on. The merging of different footage reflects the nature of a myth or a memory; the merging of different people’s accounts of the same event.

Exploring ways in which to ‘make the process of producing video as similar to that of a painting as possible’, Layton uses light to expose painterly qualities within the film; footage becomes translucent and fluid. Footage is also coloured blue, suggestive of a sombre mood, or literally understood as being ‘tinted’; that is, a memory that has been tainted by the infliction of the personality of another. This, coupled with the film’s fragmented and constant transitional nature, suggests memory as being untrustworthy; something that can be grasped at, but never caught, completely.

The potential of film as an artistic medium is also explored. Multiple fractions of footage (stories, narratives, lives) are fed to the viewer through a combination of sound and image. Simultaneously there is too little information revealed, and too much to digest. The viewer is pulled into the personalities within the film, captivated by their (possible) stories. This is made more intense by the soft and constant sounds playing throughout; music, voices; the familiar and the mundane. Sound and image are used in conjunction to provide an experience of film that is inviting, paced and unlike the usual cinematic format. Perhaps a metaphor for the process of Chinese whispers, both films suggest personal stories that are merged with fact, where fact and fiction are undistinguishable.

Finally, through the use of layered footage, coupled with combined sound and image, exposure of light and a variety of sourced material, Layton explores the challenge of time.

Within the work, time is extended. Elements of history, through found footage and re-told ‘legends’ from years ago are brought into the present (although the present, in Layton’s terms, is still the past). This merging of time, past and present, is undoubtedly underpinned by political and social issues; let’s think about Iraq (and sadly, let us now think about Syria) but also becomes a philosophical investigation.

Time is considered in relation to sync; the present can ‘never’ be experienced, and we are ‘forever’ chasing time, because we are never in time, nor are we ever within time. Heidegger famously declared it ‘vulgar’ to consider time in terms of ‘past, present [and] future’, suggesting instead that we question it’s existence outside of this close-minded context.

It is undeniable that political issues underpin Layton’s artistic concerns, but pushing that aside for a moment, a sophisticated exploration is revealed, where different medium are exploited to translate a direct and personal response to humanity as an experience. An aesthetic and conceptual exploration of the language of film is used as a tool to encourage an existential exploration of our existence, our relationship to history and events, and our understanding of memory and narrative as a way of relating to others.

Through his work; the grappling with snippets of stories, the exposure and manipulation of footage, the filmic and painterly cross-overs, Layton, like Heidegger, seems to be questioning our relationship with time, and a new existential question is born.

I return you to the introduction: Layton asks, ‘are we forever locked into experiencing the past?’

1 Comment on Stuart Layton: Time and its Impossibilities

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