File Note 07: Runa Islam - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Willem de Rooij



Runa Islam Images References Quote Biography Credits

Runa Islam

When actress Elisabet Vogler, one of the two protagonists of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic film Persona, decides to stop speaking she is advised to take some time off at the seaside. Together with her private nurse Alma, she ends up in a summerhouse on the rocky coast of Fårö, a remote island off the coast of Gotland where Bergman has been living since the early 60s and where several of his films were shot. Elisabet’s deliberate muteness, and her retreat to Fårö, can be read as attempts to isolate herself from her surroundings by simply refusing to interact with them. At the same time, she can’t help but pick up on signals from those same surroundings. The ongoing confrontation with Alma and radio broadcasts of Bach make for intimate psychological encounters with herself and those closest to her, while the world at large comes in through two significant ‘borrowed’ sources. Before leaving for Fårö, Elisabet watches TV in her hospital room. The television set is filmed showing documentary footage of anti-war protestors in Vietnam, followed by images of the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Quang Duc, highly topical at the time Persona was filmed. The images are inter-cut with close-ups of Elisabet’s horrified face. The second documentary ‘insert’ is historical: when Elisabet opens a book, a photograph (that probably functioned as a bookmark) falls out. What follows is a sequence of details of the photograph that turns out to be one of the most enduring images of the Holocaust: seven-year old Tsvi Nussbaum raising his hands as Nazi soldiers force Warsaw ghetto dwellers to surrender after their May 1943 rebellion. Both scenes are accompanied by a dramatic musical underscore by Lars Johan Werle, intensifying the visual experience.

These drastic formal juxtapositions, in fact documentary inserts in a fictional framework, recall Martha Rosler’s 1967 collage series Bringing the War Back Home, in which Rosler intricately inserts journalistic still images of the war in Vietnam into cut-outs from lifestyle magazines. In both Bergman and Rosler’s position the territories of documentary and fiction still seem clearly divided and connotated. The fictional seems to be associated with middle-class decadence, the documentary with the (victory of) truth and (consequent) moral superiority. 

Runa Islam’s How Far to Fårö consists of three large-scale video images projected onto three joined, free standing screens. The three screens are positioned at a slight angle to one another, so that the set of projected images becomes a sculptural entity rather than a two-dimensional construct. The monumental character of the imagery, the fact that the piece as a whole is a loop and that the three screens disable primary identification with each individual image, further enhances the strong physical quality of this set of moving images. The piece is structured as a series of short scenes underscored by an impacting soundtrack. The scenes are divided by sudden intervals, during which the screens turn black and the sound drops off. All the scenes combined have a duration of 17 minutes, each scene a triple-sequence of meticulously framed, lit and timed images, all with a certain thematic and/or formal coherence. How Far to Fårö could be seen as a road movie, capturing the travels of a film crew sailing from Stockholm to Fårö. Most of its images are panning or dolley shots, making for a slow, deliberate pace. Islam carefully scans, not only all dimensions of her physical surroundings (sky, earth, wind directions), but also all elements present: the ocean, the vessel, a forest on an island where the crew makes a stop-over, the film-crew and its equipment, the process of image production, and herself. At the same time, Islam seems to go to great lengths to defer any deeper identification with these elements. Actors and crew members are seen in a blink, out of focus, or positioned partially out of the frame. Sometimes their shadow is the only proof of their presence. The ship’s monumental architecture appears in details only, giving no clue to its entire volume. The camera’s angle remains narrow, on the ocean, and in the forest. Only once does Islam allow herself to be tempted by the visual splendour of Stockholm’s archipelago, inserting a short but breathtaking wide angle shot of the bay and its islands. Thus How Far to Fårö becomes a story of a virtually face-less crew setting out to shoot an un-scripted film, on their way to an island that’s never reached.

Islam’s suggestive images appear simultaneously reduced and dramatic. They are obviously staged, but whether they were staged to appear as documentary or fictional remains open. Where Bergman used the emptiness of Fårö as a metaphor in his highly constructed narrative, Islam avoids interpretation of any kind, creating another sort of emptiness. Images of the unearthly and impressive landscape of Fårö were shot, but not used in the piece. It is by this negation of her compelling yet non-committal imagery that Islam seems to reflect upon the crisis in contemporary image production and interpretation.

Most of the 500,000 rickshaw pullers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are countryside migrants; the families they left behind often depend fully on their income. They face internal struggles fighting off competition and crime. At the same time, Dhaka’s government tries to ban them from main roads, blaming them for the city’s endless traffic jams.

The First Day of Spring was filmed in Dhaka in 2004, when Islam returned to her place of birth for the first time in 23 years. It can be described as a group portrait constructed almost entirely out of slow tracking shots around and in the midst of a group of motionless rickshaw wallahs as they are resting on their bicycles. The 7-minute 16mm film loop is projected on a free hanging screen. As in How Far to Fårö, Islam clearly indicates floor (the dusty ground under the rickshaw’s wheels), ceiling (the sky seen through a roof of leaves), and all sides of her location. She takes several points of view, ending in a series of close-ups of each individual character, before watching them ride off into the evening sun. In contrast to How Far to Fårö, the protagonists in The First Day of Spring are being placed ‘centre stage’ as Islam puts it: ‘One is more used to looking at the backs of their heads than at their faces’ 1. The intense visual gratification of the footage is thematised, not avoided, and while there is no narrative as such, the way Islam positioned and filmed her subjects makes for a highly stylised, seemingly rehearsed and fictional whole.


1 From an e-mail conversation between the author and Runa Islam

Film as a Subversive Act Amos Vogel, Random House (1974) ISBN 0954707117 (2005 edition)

Existential Imagination F.R. Karl and L. Hamalian (eds.), Picador (1963) ISBN 0330238086

Antonioni, or the Surface of the World Seymour Benjamin Chatman, University of California Press (1985) ISBN 0520053419

F for Fake Orson Welles (dir.) (1974) 

Ciao Maschio Marco Ferreri (dir.) (1978)

Benny’s Video Michael Haneke (dir.) (1992) 

Bad Timing Nicolas Roeg (dir.) (1980)

Le Mépris Jean Luc-Godard (dir.) (1963)

Il Deserto Rosso Michelangelo Antonioni (dir.) (1964)

Heavy James Mangold (dir.) (1995)

Close Up Abbas Kiarostami (dir.) (1990) 

Solaris Andrei Tarkovsky (dir.) (1972)

The Last Movie Dennis Hopper (dir.) (1971)

Taxi Driver (Original soundtrack) Bernard Herrmann, Arista (2005) 

Black Orpheus (Original soundtrack) Polydor (2002)

Blue Velvet (Original soundtrack) Varese Records (1999) 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Original soundtrack) Disney (2005)

'To be considered a classic, a film must succeed in making at least three generations of movie goers yawn.’ Attributed to Marco Ferreri

'By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension
of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.’ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936


Runa Islam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1970 and lives and works in London. She originally studied art history and philosophy before undertaking a residency at the Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam (1997-98) and an MPhil at the Royal College of Art, London (2002-04). Among her numerous recent solo exhibitions are (during 2005): Dunkers Kulturhus, Helsingborg, Sweden; Centre d’Arte Santa Monica, Barcelona; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and Museo di Arte Moderno e Contemporanea di Trento (MART), Italy.
Out of the Picture at Camden Arts Centre is her first one-person exhibition in London since 2001. Recent group shows include ‘More Than This!, Negotiating Realities’, Gothenburg Biennial; ‘Always a Little Further’, 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and ‘Critical Societies’, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe (2005).
Runa Islam is represented by White Cube, London.


Willem de Rooij is an artist and writer based in Amsterdam and with Jeroen de Rijke, one half of the artist partnership De Rijke and De Rooij.

Supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Bloomberg.