Bruce Conner: Breakaway review

4 out of 5 stars
Bruce Conner: Breakaway review
Bruce Conner, 'Breakaway' (still) 1966. © The Conner Family Trust. Courtesy The Conner Family Trust and Thomas Dane Gallery

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Forward, backward. Backward, forward. Forward, backforebackward. The more times you watch Bruce Conner’s short film ‘Breakaway’ (1966) the less sure you become of which direction the action is running in.

The black-and-white work, which lasts for approximately five minutes, shows performer and singer Toni Basil dancing to her song of the same title as Conner’s film. Basil starts off wearing a pair of dark opaque tights with large polka-dot holes sliced into them. The footage then flashes through a series of outfit changes: pale silk negligee, basic black panties, baroque flowered bra, and complete nudity.

She dances the ‘dance like nobody’s watching dance’ that people dance when they know people actually are watching, her eyes fixed down the camera lens at the invisible viewer. At one point she executes some elegant jetés, leaping across and out of the shot. The rest of the time she shakes, twists and flips her shoulders around, a half-controlled ramshackleness.

Then the film stops, switches, and shows the exact same footage in reverse. Basil’s movements instantly look wilder, stranger, more out of control. The Motown-inspired pop track, however, sounds surprisingly undistorted. The lyrics could be mistaken for Russian, while the inside-out drum beats aren’t a million miles away from The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the final track on ‘Revolver’ which uses backwards masking, reversed guitar and psychedelic looped effects.

And that’s it. That’s the whole film and, here, the entire exhibition. But that’s okay, because it forces you to focus on something you otherwise might pass by. It also, unless you’re in an extreme rush, forces you to watch it a few times. And it’s then that you start seeing the interesting things about an essentially pretty simple artwork.

It’s unmistakably the product of the ’60s, to the point that certain elements of it – the nudity, the pubic hair, the Nico-esque eyeliner – now seem closer to clichés of the era than the symbols of liberation probably intended by Conner.

But it’s the backwards and forwards that remains interesting. The artist is remembered for his collages and assemblages and ‘Breakaway’ is essentially a filmic collage, the repeated flip-side giving the whole thing the air of exhaustive repetitiveness, an unravelling as you dress, undress, dance, stop, dance, dress, undress, dance. Repeat. Basically, it’s the perfect recreation of the Christmas party season, when you’ve no idea if the track’s playing backwards and you’ve lost all your clothes.

By: Rosemary Waugh



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