The work of Richard Sides isn’t tied to a specific medium, in fact improvisation plays a key role in his practice. Drawing on the complicated distinctions between existential expectations and the social status quo, in his recent video work ‘Like a Pig in Shit’ (2019) the English artist presents a disorienting audio visual compilation on contemporary anxieties.
Words by MATTHEW HANSON & SOPHIA ROHWETTER
Summer, 1879, and as teen Richard Strauss hikes the Heimgarten in the Bavarian Alps, a thunderstorm looms. The hike, the inclement weather and the suicide of failed portrait painter Karl Stauffer-Bern will inspire the first sketches of the composer’s Artist’s Tragedy, later developed into the epic, daybreak to dusk, cycle-of-life tone poem An Alpine Symphony Op. 64 (1915). The work will come full circle some 104 years later, featuring (twice) in the similarly symphonic, epic and existential film Like a Pig in Shit (2019) by British artist Richard Sides.
Like a Pig in Shit is a twenty-minute video piecing together audio and visual material found online, a collage technique common to the artist’s practice. It comprises nine movements and a spiraling, ultra-introspective, stream-of-consciousness monologue that diarizes the cumulative effects of life in the mediated, surveilled, freelance matrix.
Throughout the film, seemingly random songs actuate moving and still images. First is the Bee Gees’ soul-searching “Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself” (1971), a song later described by band member Robin Gibb as marking “the dawning, or the closing, of the ‘gotta find out who I really am’ era.” Its sense of loss/longing is exacerbated by the film’s polished montage of multi-story highways and digital billboards: city life as an all-consuming ad. If the sense of self-discovery Gibb referred to waned over the ‘70s, it was certainly recouped into an economy of competition by the time Billy Ocean’s 1985 hit “When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going” was released. When that song plays later in the film, it’s hard not to hear its chorus as a Thatcherite slogan of neoliberal individualism.
In-between these songs, DJ PayPal’s “You Got Me” gives optimism to a scene of ambitious looting (a digger plows through a shopfront) and Hex’s upbeat ‘90s club track “Alright To Love” amps up footage of protest in France. (In the track’s YouTube comment thread, The Sharpest Critic reminisces: “I was 15 in 1992 and my life made sense.”). A scooter flies over the frame towards policemen as they backtrack; the film title appears on cue.
Sides’ errant mixing and sampling not only prompt immediate associations of image prosumption and content creation, but also raise fundamental questions about the impossibility of meaning and signification, or as described in the film: “getting in a zone / from one zone to the next zone / on top of the last zone / inside another / packaged up as somewhat unclear meaninglessness.” Later, an anaphoric train of thought seeks to position the role of the artist—bound as they are by endless lengths of bureaucratic red tape—to an industry of image-production-as-entertainment. It suggests a tragic entrapment: trying to find meaning within an image-based economy in which art can only add more images and create more types of meaninglessness, and to which the only recourse might be, with Karl Stauffer-Bern in mind, “melting your mind for the sake of finding a way out of oppressive cycles.”
Richard Sides (English, b. 1985) is an artist who lives and works in London. Solo exhibitions of Sides’ work have been presented at Kunstverein Braunschweig, Kunsthalle Winterthur, Frieze New York, Carlos / Ishikawa in London, and Ravenna Planetarium. His work has also been included in group exhibitions at London’s ICA, Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, and The Drawing Center in London, among other institutions.
Video courtesy of the artist and Carlos / Ishikawa.
Photo credit: J. Pryde