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Lost Objects

Rushnan Jaleel  •    15.06.2024

Cold Clay Emptiness Hill Crest.jpg

Cold Clay, Emptiness (2010)

For a body of work spanning 17 years, SJ. Ramir has forged a remarkably consistent cinematic language. Many of Ramir’s early efforts presage his later films, with images of silhouetted figures, abandoned houses and desolate landscapes reverberating across his entire corpus. It is as if Ramir’s films are sketches for a larger work eternally awaiting completion. At the same time, each subsequent film appears to extend and efface the lineage of its predecessor.


Ramir’s first video work, the aptly titled Man Alone, follows the journey of an unidentifiable figure through a barren landscape. This basic narrative would form the skeleton of many films to follow, notably Departure, Cold Clay, Emptiness... and Disquiet. Other early works also foreshadow images that the filmmaker would return to time and again: an abstracted horizon in Gulf Transmission, and the diorama of a cabbage tree in Taupiri. Many of Ramir’s films could be said to use these three motifs – the figure, the landscape and the object – in various combinations. Shortly afterwards, another motif begins to pervade Ramir’s films: the house, which acts as a potential destination for the figure.


Curiously, each of Ramir’s motifs occupies its own space in a given shot – the house and the figure, for instance, are never seen together. The montage, then, is perhaps what is most essential to Ramir’s cinema. It acts as an interlocutor that binds disparate figures, objects and landscapes to each other temporally rather than spatially. It could be said that the montage invokes a claim the film will never fulfill – it anticipates the moment the figure will cross the landscape in order to enter the house. Of course, this never happens.


Why does the figure undertake a quest it only ever abandons? The question is posed but never answered. Veering towards abstraction but unable to fully shed the specter of narrative, films such as Disquiet digress from the figure entirely at moments to contemplate the landscape and its degraded features. This degradation exists at two levels – on one hand, the landscape itself is often depicted as arid, stagnant and desolate. On the other, the degradation is the result of the light-limiting lenses Ramir attaches to the camera, while shooting almost exclusively in miniDV.


Ramir is one of the foremost proponents of low-fidelity digital video, emphasizing its finite granular texture to blur the boundaries between figure and ground. Ramir’s films don’t simply move, they breathe; a shiver runs through the stillest image. Abetted with the lenses he created, the images are stark, minimal and tenebrous (but not nocturnal). Landscapes become islands of darkness, objects are nullified of their essence, and figures are reduced to wraiths without face or form. Spaces of inhabitation turn into vast, black lacunas that are the very absence of space itself. As a result, the viewer is forced to discern what is being shown precisely from what is not seen. In No Place to Rest, thick, black bars periodically disrupt the view of a road; after a moment, it becomes apparent that the bars are windshield wipers, serving as the only indication that the camera is positioned inside a car. A truncated horizon hovers aslant in the darkness, blossoming slowly into the crest of a hill in Cold Clay, Emptiness... The closing shot of My Song is Sung features a gray disc sheathed in an expanse of clouds, recognisable as both sun and moon – or perhaps neither.

Ramir’s films open up in conversation with each other. The subtlest changes in method engender starkly different effects. Cold Clay, Emptiness... features an anonymous figure making its way towards a house, only to abandon its pursuit, turn away from us and disappear into the distance. Disquiet also depicts a similar figure making its way towards us and by extension, the house that is its presumed destination. However, rather than turning away from us, the closing image of Disquiet depicts the figure’s stroll as it might appear when seen from the back: it appears to be moving away from us. Perhaps we merely misunderstood the nature of its quest. In this way, choices that may feel arbitrary or even incidental at a glance amount to the difference between an abandoned pursuit and an illusory one. Therefore two films that appear to resemble each other on the surface are in reality, antithetical.


1-2 No Place to Rest (2013)

3-4 In This Valley of Respite, My Last Breath (2017)

Reorientations of off-screen space recur throughout Ramir’s oeuvre. No Place to Rest confounds the viewer through the use of an image that uses the shadow of a glass bottle in place of the bottle itself, before revealing both the object and the shadow it is casting in the subsequent shot. In This Valley of Respite, My Last Breath also follows this pattern of substituting the object for its shadow; however, at no point does the film reveal the actual source of the shadow. In neglecting to distinguish between object and shadow altogether, Ramir appears to suggest their planar equivalence when seen through the eye of the camera – through a glass darkly. The object, subsumed by the gaze cast upon it, bears no further inquiry.


In both cases, the figure’s journey and the shadow-object, there is a shift in emphasis from a space that is navigable towards one that is non-navigable yet infinitely divisible. The figure of Cold Clay, Emptiness... no matter how anonymous, asserts its agency over the visible space by turning away, while the figure of Disquiet is an object without objective. It is a shift in our own perspective that recolors our understanding of this latter figure. Ultimately, all objects in Ramir’s work are looking to shed themselves of distinction. Paradoxically, it is at their highest moment of degradation that they register to us as ‘real’. This degradation itself is tethered to the hand of the maker, who modulates the manner through which the lens allows or disallows light to enter the image.


No Place to Rest occupies an important place in Ramir’s filmography as the bridge between two periods: the ‘journey’ films of his earlier career, and the studies of enclosed spaces that characterize his later work. It could be said that Ramir’s filmography is one that proceeds by degrees of blindness, of aggregating absences, culminating in a triptych of late-career films: My Song is Sung, In this Valley of Respite, My Last Breath and We Are Without. This triptych heralds a significant departure from the filmmaker’s earlier work for two reasons: the absence of the figure, and the viewer’s access to the house. 


While never losing sight of the landscape that enshrouds it, it is the house in Ramir’s late films that represents the final pit-stop for the figure that has abandoned its quest. Rather than a destination, however, the house is the very site of absence – the final limen between act and disappearance. The figure, now altogether absent from these late films, has been effectively replaced by the hand. While the hand was always important in Ramir’s work as the invisible mediator in the modulation of what was seen, it takes on another function when it appears in the frame. Now another lost object enclosed by darkness, the hand ventures blindly where the eye no longer can.


Nowhere is this more apparent than in We Are Without, where hands fold, caress and burrow into the very darkness they inhabit. It is an enigmatic gesture that creates a deep, yet invisible resonance with the rest of the film. Most especially, the final shot: the seemingly bioluminescent petals of a flower appear to be suspended in darkness. Clockwise, each petal sheds itself of the light it carries, becoming hardened and opaque. This image is perhaps the key that unlocks Ramir's entire filmography as a world of objects illuminated by nothing more than the gaze of the maker, a gaze that is itself tied to the hand. Just as the house and figure exercise an invisible yet vicious pull on each other, so too does the eye on what it sees. And it is the breath of the eye upon the image that obscures it at the same time as it reveals its fragility. 

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