Unexpected behaviour is revealed in Hetain Patel’s ‘Don’t Look at the Finger’

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Don’t Look at the Finger, commissioned and produced by Film and Video Umbrella, with Manchester Art Galler and QUAD, is the most recent offering from conceptual artist Hetain Patel, following The Jump (2015). Review by Ruth Malkin

Photo of a film installation in a darkened gallery space showing a still of a group of Indian people

Hetain Patel’s installation is currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery. Image © Michael Pollard

The Jump and Don’t Look at the Finger are two short, paired, non-verbal films on display at Manchester Art Gallery until 4 February 2018. Patel’s latest film features ritualised movement incorporating dance, martial arts and American Sign Language. The final installation represents a collaboration between artist and film maker Patel, martial arts expert and choreographer, Chirag Lukha, and writer and artist Louise Stern, a Deaf American artist whose input was production of the American Sign Language.

In the film, a couple meet for the first time (allegedly) in an undetermined setting, to undergo a drawn out silent ritual, which may be a wedding ceremony, possibly being conducted in sign language. They are dressed in elaborate, colourful costumes that could indicate an African origin.

Nothing is explicit in this film, although it could have been subtitled Their First Fight, as upon what seems to be their union, they take up positions to embark on an exquisitely staged sequence based on martial arts. Playful, unexpected and in places intense, this is the heart of the film which, until that point, appears to be slightly uncertain of itself.

Photo of a figure dressed as Spider Man, seated on a podium overlooking a stairwell within the gallery

Hetain Patel’s installation is currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery. Image © Michael Pollard

The ritual movement that explodes between the couple energetically captures the ebb and flow of a conversation without words, a fight without physical hurt. It’s a ‘duel-logue’, so to speak.

There are lots of languages on display here – the language of film; of costume, of martial arts, of ritual and of course, American Sign Language. Now, it has to be stated quite clearly here that sign language is not non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication is communicating feelings through mechanisms other than words.

Photo of a film installation in a darkened gallery space showing an image of Spider Man

Hetain Patel’s installation is currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery. Image © Michael Pollard

Sign language is an indigenous, living language in its own right, with words and a grammar structure. It is not merely constructed from gestures. Hearing people struggle to understand this and it would appear this misunderstanding slightly taints this film, which could be said to be about communicating meaning without using words. Don’t Look at the Finger is apparently a reference to a martial arts movie, but it is an interesting choice of title for a film that incorporates sign language, where looking at the fingers is the only way of gaining understanding.

The use of sign language does not seem to connect to the core of the film in the way the martial arts language does, and it is uncertain how much it adds in the way of meaning, understanding or depth. It feels like a missed opportunity – or perhaps it is a work in progress, as Patel has promised us a third film to complete the sequence. Perhaps this is something he intends to return to, to develop further.

Don’t Look at the Finger is, in the end, a playful short film that grips the viewer as the visually spectacular, ritualised martial arts sequence unfurls in a pastiche of ritual, dance and fight movies.

As the camera spins round the faces of the breathless couple, finally still, gazing enigmatically at each other, there is a sense that their story is not complete. This is Hetain Patel behaving unexpectedly, as we have come to expect. If an artist’s ambition is to leave the audience wondering what will come next to follow on from these twinned films, he has succeeded.

The Jump/Don’t Look at the Finger is on display at Manchester Art Gallery until 4th February 2018.