Friendly Conversations About Art: Dominic Powell talks to me about Ballet Mécanique

In this series, I will be getting people to pick an artwork, tell me about it, and have a conversation. Through this series, I aim to make talking about art more fun, casual, and accessible to those without an arts background.

Dominic Powell (he/him) is an undergrad student studying Law with French Law at the University of Birmingham. He has recently returned from a year abroad studying at the University of Strasbourg. He proofreads everything that I write. 

JW: So, what have you chosen to talk to me about today?

DP: I have chosen Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique, a Dada film that features a series of nonsensical images combined together. It doesn’t have any narrative, but rather takes random shots of different things and chops them all up together.

JW: Why have you chosen this film?

DP: I saw this film at an exhibition of Fernand Léger’s works at the Tate Liverpool. For years I’ve been very interested in art, but I haven’t understood modern or abstract art, and as a result, have not enjoyed much art that isn’t a nice pretty picture. But this film is one of the first works that represents everything I didn’t enjoy or understand beforehand, which actually really captivated me, and as such has led to me looking far more into modern art and gaining a far greater appreciation for it.

JW: What do you think that it was about this film that sort of caught your interest, or that exhibition in general? What is it that fascinated you?

DP: Generally I loved Léger’s paintings, and the rest of his work. I really, really enjoyed it. I enjoyed his use of bright, bold colours, and his use of shape. I found the way he represented machinery and people in paintings peaceful, despite not being what I had enjoyed prior to that. I felt the film was very similar to that, whilst being very different, less stylised in the way that the rest of his paintings are. It is a film of people and objects and actual things. The way that seemingly unrelated objects and motifs are muddled together worked really well. On top of that, I found the music complements the film fantastically. I’ve had an incredible passion for classical music since I’ve been tiny, but I generally have very little interest in contemporary classical music. I enjoy music with a nice melody. Something that’s catchy, something I can listen and sing along to. So I’ve generally found a lot of works by composers like John Cage uninteresting and uninspiring.

Les Plongeurs (The Divers), 1943, Museum Ludwig

JW: Well, you’re a musician yourself and I know you’ve said before whenever you’ve done modern pieces in orchestra, they might sound great but they’re often boring to play. So, not enjoying playing or not having interest in playing it then limits your enjoyment of the piece on a whole.

DP: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this unfortunately led me to being very closed minded in terms of music. I would listen to the music of today that I enjoy, but I was very limited in terms of what classical music I did listen to. The music of this film perfectly represents everything I hated about modern music, but I found that it works fantastically with the film. I think this has been a start to me exploring genres of music and new periods of music that I hadn’t previously enjoyed. The pairing of this bizarre film with disjointed images with a score that is just intense and lacking in anything resembling a melody, or nice harmonies, or anything that sounds nice and pleasing on the ear, I found actually massively captivating. And I can’t explain exactly why but prior to this exhibition, I had generally only ever regarded films in art galleries as being an opportunity to sit down and relax for a little bit and just watch something unfold. But this one genuinely interested me and caught my attention.

JW: Was there any imagery that specifically caught your interest? 

DP: In terms of imagery, I particularly liked his repetition of the same motifs, such as the pots and pans being repeatedly used. They’re just single frame pictures of these pans, repeated and rotated. General repetition and very quick transitions between different images makes it exciting, whilst being very basic subject matters. 

JW: In a very basic way, he creates a really interesting rhythm, with his use of imagery in combination with the sound. Even if you watch it without the music, there is a rhythm to it that you can follow and feel. You understand the use of motion and the chopping of the frames. There is a very purposeful rhythm in the film that keeps it going, keeps it driving forward.

DP: It never stagnates, despite using a very limited number of images and motifs that repeat. But it’s kept interesting by varying them, and repeating them. I also like the repetition of the washer woman climbing the stairs. And the way that that is exactly the same clip repeated, time, time and time again. If you were to explain that to me without showing it to me, I’d think ‘how boring to have a film that’s just the same clip repeated over and over again’. But despite that, it’s an exciting motif and remarkably powerful, for being so mundane.

Still from Ballet Mécanique, 1924

JW: Yeah, the washerwomen clip is played a total of 21 times, and it’s only included in one small section of the film. It does just go on and on, on repeat and you do get to this point where you’re like, when’s this gonna be over! When is it going to move on to the next image? But within that, it does something, it was intentional by Léger to make it exasperating for the viewer. The film was purposefully designed to visually attack the viewer, it was meant to be this aggressive chaotic film. 

DP: I think when you ask what it is about the film that particularly grabbed me, that is a big part of it. The whole thing is so obvious what he is saying, it’s so obviously a commentary on life at the time. It was a very chaotic time. Between two world wars, technology was increasing massively, and modern day life at the time was so fast paced. It’s so obvious that he’s critiquing and commenting on that. With the washer woman, he’s showing the repetitive nature of her work. It’s someone on a very low income, someone that’s not of the upper classes, the repetitive nature of her life, without ever really getting anywhere. She’s continuously just having to work. 

JW: It does show it as being futile and mundane, and there’s a very heavy anti-bourgeois sentiment to it. It’s essentially a Dada film, and at the heart of Dada is an anti-bourgeois position. While it is all meant to be chaotic and humorous and inherently meaningless, in that lack of meaning there is a rebellion against societal structures. It’s interesting that this is the film that caught your interest as there’s still a lot in this film that is relevant. Dada is having a resurgence. If you look on social media, there’s the completely nonsensical memes. There’s accounts, like FutureBertBert on Instagram, that just post the most bizarre stuff that feels essentially Dada in spirit.

DP: It’s definitely noticeable now. And if we consider the political and social climate, you can draw comparisons from 100 years ago to now. We’re living in a time when politics is changing massively, and right now we’re going through a global pandemic which is not something that people have been able to say for years.

JW: Léger lived through the last global pandemic!

DP: Dada was born out of a time when life was changing and people were wanting to rebel against the bourgeoisie, against the fast paced nature of the changes in society and I think that’s still prevalent today. Life is still moving at an unbelievable rate really. Life is far more fast paced with social media and the internet. As much as it’s a very positive resource and enhancement really, it’s created a very fast paced life with very little respite. And it’s noticeable currently. When you’re in lockdown, people go to the internet and go to memes and funny Facebook and Instagram pages for some light relief from actually quite difficult times. Dada at its heart was nonsense and funny, and poking fun at the bourgeoisie and art. I think that’s very much still prevalent and important today.

JW: The film is a constant barrage and harassment. The developing city life back in the early 20th century must have felt so intimidating and constantly changing, constantly evolving, and we do have those similar constant barrages of stuff today. If you look at the news cycle, stories that 20 years ago would have taken months to unfold are pushed out over the space of a few hours, and if you want to stay up to date with the news cycle you have to be checking it every couple hours or more in order to actually stay involved. But we’ve responded to that with the meme cycle, and how that updates. It’s the humorous version of that constant news, which is what I feel Ballet Mécanique is, it’s a humorous nonsensical reflection on the barrage of daily life.

DP: I suspect that the way that young people, throughout history, adapt with the times is by making light of things and poking fun and making the most of the situation. The speed at which technology is changing leaves you behind unless you really make an effort. Every time I’m home I have to go over how to find certain things on Spotify to my parents. I hope they don’t see this!

JW: Can relate to that!

DP: If you’re not growing up with the changes in technology, you’re swiftly left behind with how fast everything is moving. So, it’s very much the case that in order to stay afloat and stay aware of how things are progressing, you need to adapt and often make fun of things. It’s just everything is going far, far quicker now, because life has sped up exponentially, and Léger represents that feeling really well in this film. I’m sure that the older generation at the time watched this film and thought what rubbish! I don’t understand this.

JW: It caused a controversy when it was first shown.

DP: I’m not surprised! Even today it’s a work that many people struggle with.

JW: I think it’s a work that you have to have a basic understanding of Dada to appreciate. And other movements like Surrealism, Vorticism, Futurism and Cubism. It takes a lot from various different art movements. If in the way you’re seeing it, you’re not given that base knowledge, then it is hard to make any sense out of, it’s hard to follow. It doesn’t have a narrative, there’s no plot to it or anything, it is just a barrage of images and if you’re not necessarily prepared for that visual assault, then it is hostile. It’s a hostile film in many ways.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Vortograph, 1916-17,  Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund

DP: I think that is potentially why I see this film as a turning point in how I view art, and Modern Art in particular. Prior to this, I’d spent many years seeing art and really trying to understand it, but never quite getting there because I was trying too hard, trying to find something that potentially wasn’t always there. I saw this work with you and we had a discussion beforehand about how the whole purpose of art is to get a reaction. And so it doesn’t matter what our reaction is, whether it’s to laugh at it or to think ‘that was weird’. From accepting that, you can enjoy it so much more. The film is just about images, because as much as you can delve into the styles used, it is a barrage of images that don’t make sense, no narrative, nothing to piece it together. Once you’ve accepted that, then you can enjoy it far more. And from that point, you can then look into it a bit more and see how he’s created it and why he created it, but if you don’t accept that it is just nonsense, you’re not going to enjoy it.

JW: Art is, in many ways, hostile to the general audience. The way that art is presented in institutions is very limiting and elite. So unless you come from a very artistic background, you’re not necessarily going to know how to react to art or how to engage with it. A lot of people think that you have to be very academic to get art, but ultimately, you don’t need to have any knowledge, really. Art is there just to be enjoyed or viewed, it’s there to get a reaction out of you. And whether that’s a good or a bad reaction, doesn’t matter! Art is there for enjoyment. People get intimidated by art because of how it’s presented in institutions which forget that art is generally created for the general masses, it’s there for the people and it shouldn’t be this standoffish thing. It can be something that is enjoyed by everyone. There is no right or wrong way to relate to art.

DP: I think that’s the key thing, really. Something that art galleries and anyone that writes about art or discusses art, needs to get right is that, ultimately, what art can and should be is something that everyone can enjoy in their own way. You don’t have to like it, but you can look at it and still appreciate it for what it is. It’s a work of art and you can like it or not, but it’s still art. I don’t have an artistic background, potentially more so than lots of people, but the extent of my knowledge is limited. I understand very little, and, as a result, for years I was intimidated. I was intimidated by modern art, I was intimidated by art that I didn’t understand. It would be so possible for art galleries to get far more interest from people, not in catering to what they like, but by explaining the things that they don’t like and explaining the things that we don’t quite understand. That’s the key really, because so many people would love more art if it was more accessible. Ultimately, entertainment is one of the biggest and most important industries now. Everyone has this interest in visual entertainment. There just needs to be an understanding that you don’t have to enjoy it in the same way as someone else does.

JW: Definitely. I think most people think that when you go to a gallery, it has to be a very serious place and you have to be quiet, you have to walk around and take note of everything and treat it all very seriously and walk straight and be quiet. But, genuinely the best way to experience a gallery is just to walk around and see what pictures you like, see what catches your eye, be casual about it, listen to music as you go around, be there with someone and talk about it. If it’s your first time in a gallery, or your first time going to a gallery with the aim of purely enjoying it, the best way to do it is to go and see what things you find funny. So much art is funny, whether that was the artist’s intention or not, but it’s good to laugh. That is a valid way of engaging with art. What’s so great about Dada is that there is no meaning to it. There’s nothing really you need to understand. All you need to understand is that it’s not serious and it’s funny, and you’re allowed to laugh at it. I think most people don’t realise that you’re allowed to laugh at art, and it doesn’t have to be taken seriously. As soon as you get over that boundary of viewing art as a very serious thing, you can start to enjoy it and you can start to find humour in it.

DP: I think that is another reason why I find this film so powerful in terms of encouraging me to read more about things. Dada allows that, lets you laugh at things and encourages it! I’ve recently read a book that describes Duchamp’s ‘fountain’. The author describes how Duchamp would find it hilarious that people look at that work and stand there seriously analysing it, discussing it, because the whole idea of it was that it was funny, it was a bit of a laugh, and that’s all it was ever meant to be.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917, replica 1964, Tate Modern

JW: Mad For Real, two performance artists, got kicked out of the Tate Modern for trying to piss in Duchamp’s fountain. And I’m so sad that they got kicked out and weren’t able to complete it, because Duchamp would have loved that! That whole work being like art can be anything, and he was taking the mick out of elite institutions. It was, I’m an artist, I’m saying this art, it’s a urinal and you’re going to treat it as art. Always tongue in cheek, it was all meant to be humorous and a bit of a piss-take. He would have loved having two perform artists coming in and trying to urinate in it. He would’ve absolutely loved it.

DP: Exactly. There needs to be a removal of this stigma around art. This is why I chose to discuss Ballet Mécanique with you today. It is the artwork that began to remove the stigma around art for me, and opened my mind up enough to be able to appreciate Modern Art in a way that I wasn’t previously able to.

Thanks Dom for having this chat with me! I’m really glad we were able to talk about this film and I can’t wait to introduce you to even more nonsensical modern art.

Dom’s Linkedin

Dom and me at Versailles in Paris, November 2019

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