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Beijing uncut by Sarah Morris

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Sarah Morris’ filming of the Beijing Olympics is an ‘erasure of ego’, Helen Nianias discovers

Sarah Morris has forthcoming solo exhibitions at Air de Paris (Paris) in March 2011. This screening was part of the Architecture Foundation’s film program

British-American filmmaker and painter Sarah Morris was given unlimited access to the behind-the-scenes activities of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and presents what she saw in the film Beijing, recently on show at London’s Barbican.

Her experience of the city is shown in a slew of images that go beyond the familiar shots of Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, including children playing ping-pong, shop workers grinning at customers and families eating.

The film opens with a different type of bird’s nest: hundreds of white-feathered, orange-billed geese waddling in a wonky pattern around a warehouse. A farmer’s knees are the only things in frame breaking up the floor of geese. It becomes apparent that Morris’ experience of the Olympics goes beyond the Games. 

The film, according to Morris, is about the ‘erasure of ego’, and this means anything or anyone can be a star. Rem Koolhaas, Ole Scheeren, the China Central Television Station CCTV tower and a flock of geese are all treated in the same deadpan way.

An electro-buzz of music pulses over the film, blocking out any sound from the city itself. It is an act of control that shows Morris’ studied obliviousness to the people and places she films. By stripping every scene of its ambient sound, Morris presents the Bird’s Nest stadium and the goose farm as equally significant parts of the Olympics. Her paintings treat cities in the same way, with repetition and converging images key to her grid-like inspection of skyscraper windows.

Morris captures the smallnesses of a huge event in a huge urban environment through brief snapshots. CCTV-tower architect Ole Scheeren is filmed at work in his office. Workers are shown scrubbing one square of a vast marble floor. Shops swarm with customers. The CCTV tower is glimpsed out of a car window. Buildings are not shown as monuments, but living things that are built, used, cleaned and changed.

As Morris herself put it, ‘obsolescence is built into something’ in her film. The Olympics lasted two weeks, but the buildings are supposed to last for much longer. In fact, architecture increasingly must adapt to circumstances around it. The building that housed the swimming pool that Morris showed in her turquoise-saturated presentation of the diving competitions is now a shopping mall.

In films such as Midtown (1998), Morris shows an interest in planned distractions, allowing for no heroes and no single subject. Beijing is no different. This film also rejects obvious narrative. Morris weaves her own kind of story out of moments of convergence. The currents of Morris’s micro-narratives, whether of architecture, money or food, are not obvious, but are beautifully and indelibly there. A man shovelling meat into his mouth recalls, gruesomely, the geese at the beginning. The city is part of a massive interaction, out of which stories emerge. 

As for the lack of ego in the film, famous people and the buildings of Beijing are treated with composure, but that moment of delight when you recognise a person or thing in the middle of strangers is still there. Morris may mistrust the construct of fame, but she still works with it: hence Jackie Chan, Henry Kissinger et al occasionally popping into the frame. Perhaps, rather than being hypocritical, these unexpected appearances are just yet another of what she calls ‘planned distractions’

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