Cecily Brennan: Black Tears

Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork

Where to begin? There is a lot already written about Cecily Brennan’s Black Tears, which is currently being screened at the Crawford Gallery as part of their Screening Room programme. Most of it has to do with the actress Britta Smith, the central character, who died before Brennan had completed the final edit; the hiring of a DOP and lighting technician from the world of cinema; the magic of digital manipulation; and the piece’s high production costs and values. But what about the artwork itself? What is it trying to tell us?
Our encounter begins with the face of an elderly woman, in her late 60s / early 70s, in extreme close-up. She is set against a strikingly vibrant red background, luminous and deep as infinity. She hovers. What unfolds is a play of two acts where the woman slowly breaks down, cries, then wails, followed by a pause, before the sequence is repeated in the final act until her tears turn black and run down her face. This ordeal last about 7 minutes.
Peter Greenaway talks about the four tyrannies of film: the text, the frame, the actor, and the camera. Does Black Tears suffer from the tyranny of acting? How do we get beyond the reading of the subject as anything other than an actor performing for her supper? Smith’s sorrowful keening, while obviously dredged from the bottom of her personal experience, pivots between the masterful and the cloyingly irritating. We are left without any degree of empathy, and yet knowledge of Smith’s untimely death draws us in close.

Image: © Cecily Brennan Black Tears 2010 HD Video 8’
Image: © Cecily Brennan Black Tears 2010 HD Video 8’

For me there are a number of other key elements, undercurrents which need uncovering, and may give us a reading beyond the dominance of the actor. I happened to be present at the opening screening, at which Brennan gave an allusive, if a little unnecessarily opaque, talk. Between the fog and mirrors her comments seemed to make possible an alternative understanding of the work. First, Brennan, who began her career as a painter, and still paints today (I believe there is a large watercolour that accompanies this video work), has painted a 3-D 21st century portrait. She has used here all the devices of a traditional portraitist. There are similarities to the humanism of a Holbein, for instance: it feels like work from the Renaissance, an art of close and considered human representations, at once humble and admirable, warts and all. There is craft here, the craft of an artist manipulating a medium, creating a humanist realism contemporised by technology. It’s in the brush strokes.

That is to say, Brennan is not just interested in making a video artwork but is concerned to work her material, as she would bronze, aluminium, watercolour or oils, in telling her story. Black Tears is not just an autonomous work, but includes the exterior factor of the act of making, the ‘breath of the artist’, perhaps. Brennan wishes to express the unique effort of the artistic process, to imprint the final work with the labours of the artist.
Brennan spent an awful long time finding the right actor for the role, and when she found her gave her little direction. She employed Seamus Deasy, a renowned Irish cinematographer, and recorded everything in the first take. She then sourced a top CGI expert, and the black tears draw us further away from the subject, thus highlighting the process. In other words, Brennan seemed to steadily move away from her subject. There is a fleeting moment ‘at the death’ when Smith looks straight down the lens of the camera, ‘reaches into our souls’ and forces us to acknowledge our presence together in the virtual space. Maybe, like Michael Haneke’s troubling Caché, Brennan is implicating us, in a manner from which we cannot extricate ourselves, in both the construction and understanding of the artwork.
Black Tears was on view at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, 13th January – 26th February.