Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Those That at a Distance Resemble Another, A Degree of Distance
Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another is the latest work by artist-filmmaker Jessica Sarah Rinland, continuing her long-standing engagement with questions relating to conservation within the site of the museum. The film merges objective and subjective modes in documenting the passage of an elephant’s tusk from poachers in Malawi through the structures of various ecological institutions.
A degree of distance is implied by the camera’s preference for capturing the processes and routines of the scientists handling the objects in their care, and it focuses on the details of the practices involved in creating ivory replicas. The camera observes the tusk passing through multiple conservation sites where experts run tests on its delicate surfaces, before it is used to repair ivory encrusted jewellery boxes held in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The objectivity of the camera allows for humour to seep into the film as viewers become aware of the international spaces the work is taking place in, and the subtle differences in the working environments and cultures of the institutions (which spread across the UK, Argentina, and the USA) Rinland has travelled to.
Contrasting with this studious objectivity are instances where Rinland draws attention to her own presence through the camera’s focus on hands. The way in which the conservationists who appear in the film undertake their tasks allows for the camera to highlight how these hands caress, preserve and create within the space of the workshops. Rinland’s close-ups underline the tactility of their work which creates a dialogue with the hands of the filmmaker herself, whose hands we see throughout the film. Her bright pink nail varnish draws attention to her presence; she also seems to have learnt some techniques herself by observing the conservationist’s daily routines. The filmmaker’s hands recall the filmmaking process itself, centring the tactility of the film equipment. Rinland’s preference for working with 16mm film continues here, and the tactility of the conservationist work mirrors the work of the hands in the editing process and in operating the 16mm stock and camera.
An additional theme of the film—which occurs throughout Rinland’s larger oeuvre—are the questions relating to authenticity and reproduction. These concepts are explored literally as we witness conservators undertaking acts of moulding and casting to create copies of the attained ivory tusks. The processes of reproduction which we witness here implores the viewer to reflect on the mechanical reproductions created by the camera. This is another gesture that references the act of filmmaking.
The international journey through archaeological sites and restoration centres we witness highlights the imperialist and racist structures of the museum and the circulation of objects taken from the Global South to become prized artefacts held in the archive. This disconnection between an object’s origin and ultimate destination recalls the countless journeys made by other artefacts pillaged and infinitesimally changed as they travel from space to space before finally being inserted into the structures of the museum, as well as the seeming impossibility of reversing these processes.
Matthew Barrington is a researcher, writer, and curator based in London.