A man kneels on books to protect the earth beneath him, Wild Flowers under one knee and Dragonflies under the other. The books are stores of information and cushions of cellulose paper pulp, made from wood and grasses like the ones he’s exploring. He is a member of the Elmbridge Natural History Society, the subject of British-Argentinian filmmaker Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Black Pond (2018). The film follows the society observing moths, measuring trees, and surveying fungi. Kneeling on the books, the man embodies something that all Rinland’s films do. They combine physicality with bookishness; they are both sensual and cleverly thought-out. Shot on 16mm—another type of celluloid—their very material is a coalescence of nature and science.
Combining elements of documentary, fictional narrative, artist installation and essay film, Rinland’s cinematic vocabulary is varied. A film that nods to Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), Necropsy of a Harbour Porpoise (Seeing From Our Eyes Into Theirs) (2015) documents a porpoise being dissected. Watching is both visceral and thought-provoking: this is an animal, this is industry, this is flesh like or unlike my own. In Expression of the Sightless (2016) a blind man explores a sculpture with his hands, reminding us that we learn with our bodies as much as our minds.
Gardens and museums appear in Rinland’s work as heterotopic spaces where species or cultures meet. Entanglements of people, animals, history, scientific knowledge and myth transform spaces into places. Anthropologist Tim Ingold describes place as a ‘meshwork’ of different energies and interests; Black Pond exemplifies this. Common land like Elmbridge was once occupied by The Diggers, a 17th century radical group whose campaigns to reform social order anticipated modern anarchism. Black Pond inflects The Diggers’ questions with a contemporary concern with the Anthropocene and technology. What is it to share land? Rinland asks, and to share it with flora and fauna, with planes flying into Heathrow overhead, and with traces of The Diggers who hoped to establish ‘a common treasury of livelihood.’ The ‘common treasury’ present throughout Rinland’s work is like Bruno Latour’s ‘parliament of things:’ a chorus of animal, vegetable and mineral constituents.
Rinland is fascinated by hands-on applications of science, and how they vary between disciplines. A project currently in development, Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another, is made in collaboration with museum conservators, scientists, ceramicists and archaeologists in the UK, USA and South America. During the course of the film, different hands, chisels, machines and knowledge systems are seen at work, and a replica ceramic elephant tusk is made. The museum is presented on one hand as common land where people share knowledge, and on the other, as a territory that different disciplines contest. In playing with time by reproducing a seemingly old artefact, the film winks at the cinema’s own temporal legerdemain and material fabrications. The natural history museum, like cinema, is shown to be as fabulous as it is real.
Fable and humour are never far from Rinland’s films, and curiosity drives them to surreal places. Nulepsy (2011) is an 8-minute portrait of a man’s pathological need to be nude. Beginning from seemingly simple questions (‘what would life be like without clothes?’), Rinland unravels myriad social and historical threads. ‘How does the world look from a tree top?’ generates Not As Old As The Trees (2014), a portrait of an octogenarian who spends his spare time climbing trees. ‘What is a whale?’ is the focus of We Account the Whale Immortal (2016), a tripartite film projection whose images and spoken narration weave myth, history, scientific inquiry and art. Images frequently contradict verbal information, playfully undermining any single claim to truth; Rinland’s narrators are as unreliable as they are well spoken.
In a 2016 commission for Channel 4, The Flight of an Ostrich (Schools Interior), a shy eight-year-old girl watches a wildlife video which informs her that the ostrich is incapable of doing the one thing birds are known for—they cannot fly. An animal analogue for spreading one’s wings, the ostrich—like the girl—eventually triumphs. The girl’s resolve recalls another young scientist, the botanical prodigy in Adeline For Leaves (2014)—and, perhaps, Rinland herself. With insatiable inquisitiveness, her films soar above convention.
Artist and filmmaker, Jessica Sarah Rinland has held international exhibitions in galleries, cinemas, film festivals and universities, including the NYFF, LFF, Rotterdam, Oberhausen, Edinburgh and Mar del Plata. She received grants from the Arts Council England, Wellcome Trust among other institutions. Her Artist-in-Residence includes: MacDowell Colony, Kingston University, Locarno Academy and Berlinale Talents. In 2016, she exhibited We Account The Whale Immortal using an installation equipped with multiple, randomised screens at Somerset House, London. She is currently the Associate Artist at Somerset House Studios, and Film Studies Center Fellow at Harvard University.