Ralph Overill, Over the hill (2017)
- Unique screenprint on fabric, 59 x 116 cm. Printed and published by the artist, Havering College, Essex. £400.
I have a dim—possibly apocryphal—recollection that, at some point in the mid-1970s, I read an article in the International Herald Tribune about the history of updating the 20th-century Arabic lexicon to accommodate new technological and cultural innovations. Just as the Académie Française had endeavored to banish foreign intruders like “le weekend” from Parisian lips, so members of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo and the Arabic Academy of Damascus struggled for years to agree on an innately Arabic word for “movie” whose use would obviate the need for outside adoptions. The result, as I recall it, translated back into English as “that which is not real.”
I’ve not been able to locate the article, and in any case my Arabic-speaking friends assure me that these days people just say “film” (فيلم), but the implications of this poetic reimagining of the essence of movies seem too promising to cast aside. Where the English word derives from its mechanistic antecedent, “moving picture,” the putative Arabic term draws attention to film’s inherent spookiness. A movie is indeed just a rapid sequence of still images—its neurological underpinnings haven’t changed, from the flipbook to the zoetrope to iMax—yet the transition from a static image to an immersive evening in a darkened theater remains distinctly unreal.
The fascination of movie stills—from the power of the pause button to John Baldessari’s film noir avec points colorés—springs in part from a desire to explore the transmutation of that continuous stream back into discrete pictures, to make the unreal real again. Ralph Overill’s unique screenprint Over the Hill evokes that process on several levels. The images are taken from B-movies and the artist’s own video recordings, printed onto a scrim-like fabric of Cinemascopic proportions if not scale (large for a print, it is small for a movie). One imagines that, hanging unframed on a wall, these stills will never truly be still: the frames will flicker in response to the slightest draft—momentarily movies once again. The artist writes that he aims to exploit “the motion inherent to screenprinting to merge and mutate the still frames through primitive swipes of the squeegee, introducing a celluloid-esque ruin to the formerly digital files.” Through solid gesture and flimsy material, he imposes the flow of film-time back onto the images that we expect to remain still until they are projected.
The left half of the print shows a nondescript flat landscape with telephone poles—the kind of scene that could have been shot from the window of a moving vehicle in 1957 or 2017 without much difference apart from the camera resolution, a development neatly undermined by the meeting of fabric and squeegee. It is the kind of image that shouts “real.” The giant spider on the right may also have been real, but its apparent size as it descends on a town somewhere in what looks to be the American southwest is surely unreal. And yet for kids sitting in darkened theaters in America in the mid-1950s, at the height of the Red Scare and of cinematic plots involving overblown arachnids, from Tarantula (1955) to Earth vs. the Spider (1958), both the bug and the Communism it may have been intended to embody would have been scary. Really.
The print’s title is a pun on the artist’s name, but it also alludes to the obsolescence that characterizes the technologies he makes use of here—black-and-white film, simplistic special effects, screenprinting itself—and may suggest as well that giant spiders with possible ties to Comintern are not the scariest threat we face today. Images of monstrous environmental cataclysms are certainly back in our cinemas: a new high-def spider is surely coming toward us over the next hill, even as the grainy black-and-white one recedes into nostalgia.