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Shadowland: John Skoog’s tribute to cinema’s golden age

1 April 2015

Colour-saturated photographs of movie theatres with peeling exterior walls and interiors covered in red plush velvet that has seen better days can hardly fail to evoke the term ‘Lynchian’. But in his second exhibition at Pilar Corrias, there’s little sense, at first, that the Swedish artist John Skoog is trying to get away from the visual clichés David Lynch has trademarked in films such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Upstairs, Skoog’s photographs of cinemas in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California show faded examples of Moorish and French-baroque-style cinemas, some of which have since been repurposed for bingo or for God. The prints are modest in size and understated in subject, concentrating on swirls in carpets and the rings of chandeliers. However the exhibition becomes more ambitious, and more interesting, when its two distinct halves are considered together.

More obvious excitement is to be found downstairs in the room screening Shadowland, a 15-minute black and white film that moves through rugged Californian locations, which have masqueraded as other parts of the world, from Afghanistan to the French Alps. The films themselves are never named, though a look at the end credits where each location is listed would allow a patient cinephile to puzzle it all out. At one moment, an unknown figure (we don’t see his face), is leafing through location photographs. He explains that a particularly craggy landscape has doubled as Afghanistan more than once, most recently in Department of Defense training videos from 2007. The change of genre says more about Hollywood than it does about the Pentagon. As the studio system was dismantled and the technicians became more casualised, it became cheaper and more possible to film abroad. (By the late 1960s, only in the USSR could the Red Army have provided Sergey Bondarchuk with 120,000 extras for his 1969, eight-hour adaptation of War and Peace.)

Installation view 'John Skoog: Shadowland',

Installation view ‘John Skoog: Shadowland’, at Pilar Corrias

Skoog is deliberately piling on a sense of uneasy melancholy: the footage, originally shot on 16mm film before being transferred to video, is grainy and the sound a lo-fi rumble of snatches from the original films. It all contributes to a sense that the landscape of the golden age of Hollywood is as out of work as much of the theatre network that screened its films. Skoog’s wry photography and film-making is an elegant, intelligent tribute to a bygone era.

‘John Skoog: Shadowland’ is at Pilar Corrias, London, until 17 April.