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Andrew Kötting: voyages of an English visionary

Andrew Kötting: voyages of an English visionary

June 18
21:35 2017

I barely know where I am when I knock on the door of Andrew Kötting’s studio in Old Hastings, a glass-fronted bulk 18 winding steps up from a Sussex street lost in time. But isn’t that the point of this British artist, teacher, mage and filmmaker? Despite the German-descended umlaut — or helped by it — the 57-year-old maker of Gallivant, Swandown and now Edith Walks has established himself as a kind of stateless visionary. (The name is pronounced Kotting, not Kerting.) He commutes between homes in England and the French Pyrenees. And he’s best known, and by many loved, for journey films in which the viewer gets hopelessly, blissfully, fecundly, provokingly lost.

Edith Walks follows Kötting and five friends, including his regular mate and muse the writer-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, on an English walk from Waltham Abbey to St Leonards-on-Sea (a mile down the coast from his studio). The walk retraces the last route of King Harold. The film came out of a perambulant performance piece commissioned last year for the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.

“It’s not a feature film, the material only goes so far,” he says with assertive modesty. “That’s why it runs ‘60 minutes and 66 seconds’ (says a title). It’s a nod to the battle. And my daughter’s film” — the short which will accompany Edith Walks — “is 10 minutes, 66 seconds.”

His daughter, who suffers from the brain-affecting Joubert syndrome, is a learning-disabled artist who shares Kötting’s studio; though not on the day of my visit. Aged six she co-starred with dad and grandma in Kötting’s lauded debut Gallivant (1996). “We started at the De Le Warr Pavilion in Bexhill [a listed modernist sea-palace also just down the road] and did a journey all round the coast.” The film found ad hoc drama, comedy and humanity on the way. “My background is performance, I like performing in public. I like encouraging people to open up and incorporating their stories into a kind of shambolic, serendipitous narrative.”

Eden Kötting, left, and Gladys Morris in ‘Gallivant’ © Tall Stories/Bfi/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Gallivant,” he says, though, “was more structured. If you’re working with public money, because that was one of the first British Lottery-funded films to come out, you have to be more mindful of the audience. It was more solid than Swandown” — Kötting’s hilarious/poetic pedalo journey from Hastings to the burgeoning London Olympics site — “and certainly than Edith Walks, which is very ramshackle.”

Yes, but ramshackle the way Lewis Carroll or Laurence Sterne or W.G. Sebald is. The ramshackleness of genius. With a multimedia élan — music, song, poetry recitation, accidental encounters, fantasy flashbacks to 1066 — Team Kötting hoofs along in the steps of the last English monarch, when he and his army long-marched south from Stamford Bridge, after beating the Vikings, to face the invading Normans near Hastings.

The 11th-century abbey north of London where Edith Walks starts sows a potent, preludial spell. Then the film enters a denser din of history, with modern-day vibrations. If Edith Walks commemorates the violent, convulsive coming together of Britain and Europe (exit Harold the Saxon, enter William the Frenchman), aren’t we now living through the exact opposite? Is that the hidden message and mischief of Kötting’s film?

“We were conscious of it, of course, filming last year. London, when we walked through it, was very ‘Remain’. Outside London you’re aware there are a lot of Brexit posters and Union Jacks. It all connected with the conversations we had on the way: themes of Englishness and what it means, the absurdity of demarcating land, the effects of the Norman invasion. None of us believed Brexit would happen. When it did, it was quite shocking.”

His film’s title heroine is a barely discovered diva of history. Edith Swan Neck, Harold’s common-law wife, is portrayed in the film by singer-performer Claudia Barton. She’s the walker who wears Saxon-queen robes and hums or chants period ditties.

“Edith was a kind of paganistic heroine. She’s mentioned very little in historical documents. She was never really married in the eyes of the church. She was called Edith Swan Neck because she was very fair and beautiful and — ”

Andrew Kötting

Had a long neck. Got it. She’s a starry fugitive from history, or becomes one here, because Kötting makes brilliant use, with a gyrating camera and multi-angled gazings, of a weird Victorian-era statue by the St Leonards seafront. It depicts a kneeling Edith tending, though to the casual onlooker it looks more like strangling, the wounded Harold. So she was in at his death?

“That’s a legend. There are others.” According to one, she gathered his sundered limbs and distributed them in different spots across England. “There’s another story that the Normans placed his severed head on the seafront, near where the statue is. They placed it facing towards France so he was turned away from the country he loved.”

The graphic novelist Alan Moore, another Kötting chum who features in Swandown and Edith Walks, “has a theory”, Kötting says, “that Harold never died. That he was badly injured and ended up in the Cambridgeshire fens. But it’s like the Christ legend. Every new story is a chance to increase the potency of the myth.”

I had decided to give our meeting 30 minutes before mentioning the word “psychogeography”. It can kill a conversation, never mind an interview. Instead Kötting leaps at the word and plays with it gleefully. On spare days he’s a professor of time based media at the University for the Creative Arts, so he should know the egghead Esperanto. And he sees why people link him with other walk-the-landscape filmmakers like Patrick Keillor (London), Grant Gee (Patience (After Sebald)) or early Peter Greenaway.

Iain Sinclair, left, and Andrew Kötting in ‘Swandown’

His own interest, though, is “what I’d call the psyche of the geography. The subjective engaging with the environment and the topography and geography. Iain [Sinclair]’s got a more journalistic mind. He’s very good at connecting things cerebrally or literarily. I’m after something more absurd, haphazard, something that plays with anachronism.”

He’s aware that psychogeography, not least the British brand, can occasionally be absurd in the wrong way. “There’s an intellectual, essayist approach that can be off-putting. ‘Did you realise that So-and-So once lived in this house?’ and that connects up with a ley line that ends in a blue plaque in Bloomsbury where some other author . . . It can infuriate people. ‘Oh stop showing off with all this intellectual bollocks!’”

He admires Derek Jarman, another filmmaker he’s been compared to, but not the Jarman prone to message-making. “I never had a political aim in my art. I prefer an indirect approach. In four years’ time we’re thinking of doing Gallivant 2, going the other way around the coast, in camper vans.” (You have to grab the Kötting flow of thought here: “I’ll keep doing my own counterintuitive thing, thank you, because that’s my life and art.”)

‘Forgotten The Queen’, by Eden and Andrew Kötting

“My daughter will be 33. She was six back then.” Which is more or less where we came in. But Kötting won’t let me go out the same way. First I’m filtered through the time-space capsule of his editing shed — a literal, DIY wooden shed built like a roofed island within the larger studio — to see daughter Eden’s short film, the animated Forgotten the Queen.

Eden did the bright, enchanting, playfully visceral drawings. Kötting had them animated and crafted the stream-of-zaniness soundtrack. Music, speech, poetry, weird sonic effects. Add imagery and that sums up Kötting’s screen art. It’s the kind of free-associative, lyrical, friendly yet provocative delirium that gives psychogeography, and indeed individual-vision indie cinema, a good name.

‘Edith Walks’ is released on June 23

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