This is a pretty rare opportunity to view work by the American polymath Bruce Conner in London. Conner, who died in 2008, was a painter, sculptor and video artist who worked over a massive range of media.
This time, the focus is on his mid-60s video art: on show at Thomas Dane is Breakaway, from 1966, which he shot with popstar and choreographer Toni Basil, whose similarly long career improbably peaked a decade and a half later with the stone cold novelty classic Hey Mickey!
In that music video, Basil was a very young looking 38, shaking her pom poms in the guise of a high school cheerleader. But it’s a very different star who appears in Breakaway. Shot by Conner in moody black and white, via hundreds of flashy jumpcuts, as she sings the titular song, which seems to have been recorded especially for the video, she’s a long way from high school. She has great screen presence: I’m not surprised she found fame in music videos in the end, with Hey Mickey coming just in time for the launch of MTV in 1981.
Cleverly, Conner plays us Breakaway twice, as Basil, sometimes nude, sometimes not, bops along. First, we hear the song as normal; second, played backwards. With the soundtrack divorced from normality, we notice that Conner is shooting at different frame rates, occasionally whiting the screen out when cutting, lending his muse a spectral, uncanny quality.
One critic has called Conner “A genius of the recondite and the banal, of occult disciplines and popular culture,” who “possessed the third or inner eye, meaning he was capable of microscopic and macroscopic vision, of delving into the visceral while attaining a state of illumination”. All true: simply by playing a 60s pop song - and video - backwards, he renders it unforgettable.
Or, more accurately, he and his fellow artist, respectfully credited in the video by her full name, Antonia Christina Basilotta, make the song unforgettable. She’s still going strong at 76, by the way.
Bruce Conner: BREAKAWAY is at Thomas Dane Gallery (London). November 26 2019 - February 22 2020