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Documentary Review: B. Catling or Where Does It All Come From? – BBC4 Arena

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers and Directors: Geoff Cox and Andy Starke

A new Arena documentary profiling British artist Brian Catling, B. Catling or Where Does It All Come From, looks at the disturbing and surreal imagery Catling uses across a range of mediums.

Born in 1948, Brian Catling’s approach is multi-form, using sculpture, painting, writing and performance art to startling effect. His work is confrontational, vigorous and steeped in the gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe and the science fantasy of H.P Lovecraft.

For the documentary, film-makers Geoff Cox and Andy Starke have assembled an impressive set of contributors. In one scene, Catling discusses a series of beach paintings with His Dark Materials novelist Philip Pullman. They talk about the empty eeriness of the scenes, and their correlation to Catling’s interest in the ghost stories by M.R James.

What the documentary illustrates is the connectivity of Catling’s influences, and how they steer the direction of his art. Catling is a genial, grounded presence who articulates the people and places that have informed his artistic vision. The key figure is, of course, William Blake. The visionary poet and artist echoes Catling’s own desire to exist and perform without boundaries. It would be easy to get bogged down in the detail, but Where Does It All Come From favours a chronological structure, which highlights Catling’s growth and development. As the layers of interest build, they begin to interact with each other. Sculpture leads into performance art, and performance into writing. But Catling doesn’t leave one discipline behind in order to explore another. They are all equally valid.

The challenging aspect of Catling is front and centre, as it needs to be. The clips of his performance art are anarchic, and larger than life. In a 1994 performance at The British Library, Catling pours ink into his eyes. The performances see Catling using himself as material. When interviewed, Catling admits to using the audience’s reaction to “feel and change the work”.

The documentary captures an artist constantly in motion. Manufacturing sculpture from materials already around him, the physical work itself is transitory. When Catling is offered a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, he has nothing to give as most of his work has ended up in skips. Instead, Catling improvises and makes live work for the space. The ephemeral quality of his art is what really stands out in this programme – Catling’s method of producing art has aged well and makes his work feel fresh and consistently modern.

Where Does It All Come From is thorough in tracking Catling’s lines of interest, and careful to present Catling’s work in context. It gives the viewer clarity on what Catling is about, and where that places him within the contemporary art scene. The enthusiasm with which Catling’s world is shared with us is hard to resist. Catling’s self-confessed “normalisation of weirdness” is unsettling, but also intriguing. Free of inhibitions, and loaded with ideas, Where Does It All Come From is a great introduction to an artist who occupies a unique space, and unique point of view.

B. Catling or Where Does It All Come From will be screened on BBC4 on 21 November 2021. [Photograph ©David Tolley]

The Reviews Hub Score:

Strange but beguiling

The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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