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Absent Forces: The politics of the eerie in English rural moving image

Drawing upon Mark Fisher’s theorisation of the eerie as the sensation of absence, of either a presence or an absence, these works activate the dissonance between our imagined notion of the countryside and the political realities of this landscape.  

Framed by both its critics and advocates as a bastion of uncorrupted tradition isolated from the many developments that have emerged following the industrial revolution, the popular perception of the countryside has taken on an (ideological) emptiness, serving only as a romantic uncorrupted foil against which the complexities of urban and international life can be compared, often in a reactionary manner.  

These films engage with these conventions of the rural eerie to argue that England’s landscape has in fact been as shaped by modernity as its cities, with industrial, agricultural and military sites shaping large areas of the supposedly untouched land. Questions of identity, including gender and race also remain live on these sites, their manifestations different, but no less complex than in urban areas. 

In doing so, these works make the case that the eerie is not just an aesthetic choice in moving image works responding to the English landscape but a discursive tool that is able to expose and critique the political forces acting upon the rural and the reactionary ideologies that seek to hide them. 


Followed by a Q&A with Dan Guthrie, Emily Richardson and Rhea Storr.


An Untitled Film 

David Gladwell / 1964 / UK / 9’ / 16mm / sound 

Ordinary scenes on a farm take on an ominous quality through Gladwell’s montage of slow-motion footage shot at 200 frames per second. Made eleven years before his feature Requiem for a Village, the two films share a concern for capturing a form of English rural life that was increasingly threatened by modernisation, industrialisation and mechanisation. The haunting shots of a bonfire being lit or livestock being handled are at once an elegy to ever more obsolete agricultural practices whilst also testifying to the force that even this simpler form of farming exerted on nature. 

Sky Light 

Chris Welsby / 1988 / UK / 28’ / 16mm / sound 

Shot 48 hours after news of the Chernobyl disaster broke, Sky Light continued Welsby’s exploration of images from the natural landscape but with an added threat of oblivion from the nuclear age. Disruptions to idyllic scenes of a river flowing or a cloudy sky clearing assert the presence of human technologies, visible and otherwise, in even these seemingly pristine sites. Over three sections, the scenes of nature come to be further erased and overwritten with chemical and mechanical interference with the images becoming abstracted and then erased altogether as the final frames of the film were stripped of their emulsion. 

The Image That Spits, The Eye That Accumulates 

Rhea Storr / 2017 / UK / 11’ / Digital / English spoken 

Racialised bodies and Norfolk’s coastal landscape are examined in parallel to one another as sites that are subjected to erosion and erasure. These bodies and this landscape are depicted on images – in this case 16mm and digital footage – and through language and yet, even these representations come to feel obsolete, attempts to fix a moment in time with technology that itself is static and subject to being left behind. Storr’s work with Kodachrome film, once innovative for its colour and archival properties but now out of production and only able to be processed in black and white, epitomises these concerns.  

Coaley Peak (A Fragment) 

Dan Guthrie / 2021 / UK / 6’ / Digital / sound  

Guthrie set out to film Coaley Peak, a viewpoint in Gloucestershire, to revisit a photograph of his relatives taken there. An incident early in the shoot disrupted this plan and forced the film to be made with what little footage he had already shot. Without being elaborated on any further, this incident forms an unsettling undercurrent to Guthrie’s narration, set out on captions that play over loops of the two clips that he had managed to shoot. The resulting film documents its own creation whilst serving as speculation of what could have been and what caused it not to be so. 

Cobra Mist 

Emily Richardson / 2008 / UK / 8’ / Digital / sound 

Across the twentieth century, Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast was used as a site for military research, most notably by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and for testing radar systems, one of which provides the film’s title. Whilst the site has been abandoned for decades, many of the activities which took place here remain classified and the derelict buildings maintain a sense of secrecy, heightened by the film’s soundscape use of on-site field recordings. Captured on timelapses, the military architecture remains unsettlingly still in the timelapse footage whilst the surrounding landscape twitches restlessly in the fickle coastal weather. 

A Journey to Avebury 

Derek Jarman / 1971 / UK / 10’ / Digital / sound 

Shot on a visit to the neolithic stone circle in Avebury, Wiltshire, this early short by Jarman consists of vistas in the West Country encountered while walking around the site. Typically picturesque images of rolling hills and neat fields take on an otherworldly quality through the sheer absence of any human figures in these highly-maintained landscapes, an absence that is only emphasised by the single fleeting shot of people that is glimpsed midway. As Jarman wrote, “silence is golden, not yellow,” and the rich yellow hue that floods each frame, accompanied by a sparse electronic soundtrack by COIL, hints at something simmering beneath the stillness. 

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