Margaret Salmon’s Icarus (after Amelia) [2021]

Posted on September 23, 2021 by Laura Guy

Categories: The Cinema of Ideas

This month on The Cinema of Ideas we are presenting two films by Margaret Salmon, one of Britain’s most vital cinema artists, in a double bill which places her latest work Icarus (after Amelia) [2021] alongside her 2016 film Bird. In addition to the screenings, we will be joined by Salmon at 7pm on 29 September for a live-streamed Q&A. Book tickets now.

Ahead of the event, Glasgow-based writer & curator Laura Guy discusses the themes of Icarus (after Amelia) and the creative context in which it was conceived.

What kind of work is happening in Margaret Salmon’s Icarus (after Amelia) [2021]? Throughout the film, women are shown making the repeated gestures associated with different forms of labour. Teeth are examined. A cut of meat is sliced. Books are reshelved. Shelves are cleaned. Spreadsheets are filled. Hair is washed. Customers are served. Children are supervised, fed, and carried. Fabric is stitched, folded, and hung out. A film is made. “One day we will use ourselves up”. Lines from writer Maria Fusco’s prose poem ‘Machine oil smells sweet’ (2014) accompany a sequence showing a seamstress threading a sewing machine.[1] Her hands feed blue cloth under the presser foot as her own foot works the peddle. ‘We leave a small gap in the pattern / by hand / the pattern completes itself without us / learns more quickly than we ever will’, Fusco reads.

Icarus (after Amelia) was made in Govan, an area of a city that was once, to borrow from novelist Denise Mina, ‘commerce unfettered. [Glasgow] centres around the docks and the river, and it is all function’.[2] Govan borders the Clyde on its north side. It is the former home of Fairfield, the largest shipyard in Glasgow, and now bears the effects of deindustrialisation and the associated indicators of large-scale urban regeneration. Early in Salmon’s film, aerial footage of the city is shot from a light aircraft that glides along the snaking river. The material evidence of heavy industry is legible in the urban wasteland of ruinous dockyards but it is also present in its absence as the plane passes over the gleaming redevelopment of the pacific quay. Following waterways, railway tracks and tenement-lined streets, the aerial view emphasises infrastructure as a kind of connective tissue through which social relations are materialised and goods and services provided. Here the shifting patterns of work and life are established.

The film credits local businesses, community groups and various individuals among those that Salmon collaborated with while she was making Icarus (after Amelia). The film was initially conceived by Salmon as part of the exhibition Home Economics organised by curator and researcher Kirsteen Macdonald at the Pearce Institute, a building housing various community groups that serve the people of Govan.[3] The relationships that Salmon made while working on Icarus (after Amelia) are not the subject of the film, but they facilitate its examination of relations within the economic structure of society through a feminist lens. This theme connects many of Salmon’s films – from the 2007 triptych Ninna Nanna that depicted three mothers living in Italy to her 2017 meditation on masculinity, power and language, Mm – yet was amplified during the production of Icarus (after Amelia), which Salmon filmed throughout the pandemic as and when (and how) government guidelines allowed, in between her own unwaged and waged work.[4] As Macdonald wrote in her essay accompanying the exhibition, ‘it is an understatement to say that over the past fifteen months we have experienced dramatic changes in the way that ‘women’s work’ is organised and paid’.[5]

A photo of an exhibition in a large room with wooden panelled floors. In the middle are tables with assorted objects placed upon them. On the right is a small red chair with a blue globe underneath. At the back of the room is a board with photographs attached to it.
Margaret Salmon, Surplus, 2021. Installation view in Home Economics at Chapter Thirteen. Photograph by Ruth Clark.

Icarus (after Amelia) attends precisely to the interconnected questions of, on the one hand, the organisation of production and, on the other, the determination of economic value. The film opens with Sara Cantillon, Professor of Gender and Economics and Director of the Wise Centre for Economic Justice at Glasgow Caledonian College, presenting a summary of feminist economics. Cantillon explains the gendered division of labour, the devaluation of household work and the work of feminist economics to redefine this work as productive within a political economy. This is a process of learning. The artist – and by extension the audience – watches Cantillon lecture from a laptop set up on a desk. Then Salmon picks up where Cantillon leaves off, elaborating on the misconception of freedom of choice within the relations of production. A woman is shown juggling as another, younger, voice begins to speak. Although initially didactic in its presentation, Icarus (after Amelia) is not simply a film about feminist economic theory. It is a work structured by it as well. Salmon studies how gender is implicated in production as she stages the complex relationship between labour and visibility.

Delayed in 2020, Home Economics opened at the Pearce Institute in June 2021. The exhibition worked out from Icarus (after Amelia), which was projected within a former billiard room as part of an installation that Salmon titled Surplus. Shown alongside photographs by Franki Raffles, documenting women working in Govan and surrounding areas in the late 1980s, Surplus reflected Salmon’s recent interest in situating her films within constellations of images, sculptures and site-specific gestures. Objects were arranged on three tables configured in the first part of the space. A pile of plates balanced high. The blue spine of the Pelican edition Mothers Alone: Poverty and the Fatherless Family lent on a glass dish filled with juggling balls. The structures were playful, even childlike in their sensibility. They spoke, as the editors of the Glasgow-based art writing journal Nothing Personal wrote recently, to the ‘derangement of scale felt over the past eighteen months’.[6] The ready-mades also functioned as visual metaphors—sculptures made by an image-maker to foreground material as the vital component of materialism and precarity as the condition for the work that shapes Icarus (after Amelia).

A green-blue board with black and white photos stuck to it.
Margaret Salmon, Surplus, 2021, Black & white fibre prints (straight prints, solarizations, test strips) of photographs made before and during filming and mixed materials. Photograph by Ruth Clark.

Alongside the sculptures, works on paper were pinned to a freestanding wall that formed the reverse side of the screen. Mainly consisting of photographic portraits and studies from the film, it also included test strips. These small torn and striped sections of larger prints represent experiments with exposure time in a darkroom. As well a page ripped from a newspaper (the earth, half eclipsed, hovers above its jagged edge), the ambiguous stitched reverse of a piece of card and a list of chapters that might be sections of the film but at times reads like a ‘to do’ list. (‘Chapter 2: Jeanne Dielman’ draws a line between Icarus (after Amelia) and Chantel Akerman’s classic of feminist filmmaking in which women’s labour becomes both subject and form).

The wall reminds me of the way an artist might pin up work in progress. Watching Icarus (after Amelia) again, I notice that the desk in the opening sequence is set beneath just such a constellation of images and its surface is studded with some of the same objects featured in the show. Most everything in Surplus is a product of process, excess stripped and saved to be useful elsewhere. Salmon tells me that the photographs were made using ends of paper she had left in her studio and that they were printed in the darkroom of Street Level Photoworks out of hours. Throwing additional light on prints that she thinks might not come out right, she creates the effect of solarisation on the surface of some of the images. One photograph of cheap silky fabric threaded through a sewing machine shimmers, silver in tone. In the film, footage shot in a darkroom is interleaved with women from the Govan Allsorts Choir giving a rendition of ‘Pawn Shop’, a traditional tune with the cadence of a work song. “When I get paid on a Friday night, I’ll get them back again”, they sing of a pair of chelsea boots. The skin of the singers is saturated red by a stage light, reminiscent of the safe light in a darkroom. Their faces cut to an image of a clothed pregnant belly that emerges from a container of developer solution.

The economical means by which Surplus is made, resonates with the forms of production that come under scrutiny in Icarus (after Amelia), particularly in its second half. This part centres around the testimony of three women. Salmon asks each what a regular day would consist of. They outline a familiar rhythm. Waking, feeding, cleaning, shopping, cooking. The first watches her child negotiate play equipment in a park in one of a few scenes that shades between work and leisure time as caring often does. Another woman cuts and irons bright pink fabric with her child strapped to her back, a sewing machine at her side. The final scene shows musician and educator Midya Jan prepare a meal as she describes her life between Syria and Kurdistan and subsequently seeking asylum in Scotland. She speaks of the necessary labour of learning English but also of maintaining a mother tongue. Singing the Kurdish folksong ‘Were Gulê (Baran bari)’ from her living room, Jan conveys the joys of communicating and community too. Salmon’s gaze is steady, intimate, as the filmmaker negotiates the semi-public and private spaces of these women’s waged and unwaged labour. The insights of feminist economics are sharpened here as are the limitations of theories that have historically relied on universalising white middle class experience.

Fluffy white clouds float beneath a light blue sky.
A still from Icarus (after Amelia) [dir. Margaret Salmon, 2021].

As well as the central concerns stemming from feminist economics, Icarus (after Amelia) is structured by a flight. Two archival recordings bookend the film. The first features aviator Amelia Earhart describing her 1932 solo trip across the Atlantic. ‘My flying was done entirely in the cockpit. That is, I depended on instruments alone to tell me the position of my plane in space. I could not see even to the wing tips, and I could only know that I was flying right side up by what my instruments told me’. Earhart is famously the first woman to make this journey alone and she explains that having crossed the Atlantic as the first female passenger in 1928, the solo flight was a personal mission. At the end of the film, as Salmon’s own aircraft ascends above the clouds, a Mrs Gallagher is heard recalling for BBC Ulster receiving Earhart when she landed unexpectedly in Derry.

I wonder what Earhart’s solo flight might mean to an American artist who has landed in Govan. While she is making the film, I tell Margaret that I hope she is managing to get some downtime. ‘I’m up in a plane tomorrow’, she replies. It makes me laugh. It also makes me think of one of the first conversations we had, some years ago now. Sat in the coffee shop beneath Margaret’s studio, we discuss a mutual interest in Margaret Bourke-White’s aerials, which the documentarian made both abroad as a war correspondent and in the US for commercial purposes associated with the domestication of aviation in the early twentieth century. Though usually prohibited from pursuing the former, the latter became the domain of women. I read in Karen Piper’s book Cartographic Fictions: Maps, Race, and Identity (2002) that Earhart, who was prohibited from flying on her first trip across the Atlantic, was expected to act as photographer.[7] She did this lying on the bottom of the plane on her stomach.

When in Icarus (after Amelia) Salmon is shown filming with her 35mm Ari 2c – traditional red sandstone tenements visible behind her – the frame gives way as a square of mirror slips from view and takes Salmon with it. The iconic image of the auteur filmmaker and his machine is disturbed. Instead, Salmon’s presence relies on interdependence. Carolyn Steedman retraces the economical means by which a rag rug is made. ‘The rag rug is made from the torn fragments of other things, debris and leavings, the broken and torn things of industrial civilisation’.[8] In the economy that Steedman describes, nothing is wasted. The same is true of Icarus (after Amelia). The subject is extraction, but the work that produces the film is organised otherwise.

Icarus (after Amelia) and Bird will be available to watch on The Cinema of Ideas from 24-30 September. At 7pm on 29 September, Laura Guy will host a Q&A with Margaret Salmon to discuss her work. Book tickets here.

Laura Guy is a writer and curator based in Glasgow where she works as a lecturer in Fine Art Critical Studies at Glasgow School of art. She has published various texts on the subject of queer and feminist artist moving image including on the work of Peggy Ahwesh, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, Jamie Crewe, Sandra Lahire, Charlotte Prodger, Sarah Pucill and Rehana Zaman. She is a member of the LUX Scotland advisory group.

[1] Maria Fusco, ‘Machine oil smells sweet’ in Vestoj: The Journal of Sartorial Matters, Issue 5: On Slowness, 2014, pp. 225-226.

[2] Denise Mina, The Long Drop, London: Harvill Secker, p. 2.

[3] The exhibition took place at Chapter Thirteen, a co-operative and project space that Macdonald helped to found and which is based at the Institute. Their programme is dedicated to critically examining forms of cooperation within curatorial practice. See more here.

[4] This relationship between subject and representation in the context of lockdown is the theme with another work that Salmon made in 2020. Lens Diary (2020) was made at G20 Youth Festival, a youth club in Maryhill, Glasgow, that provides a meals on wheels initiative run by and for the local community. It features a slideshow of photographs accompanied with a voiceover in which Margaret discusses the characteristics of the three different lenses that she worked with over a three-day period. In Lens Diary, Salmon considers technical process as a material component of the relations that are shown in, and which constitute, the images.

[5] Kirsteen Macdonald, ‘Home Economics’, Glasgow: Chapter Thirteen, 2021. Available online.

[6] ‘Editorial’, Nothing Personal Issue 1, Glasgow, p. 5.

[7] Karen Piper, Cartographic Fictions: Maps, Race, and Identity, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, p. 79.

[8] Carolyn Steedman, Dust, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001, p. 128.

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