Birth From Above

Donigan Cumming's Erratic Angel

by Daniel Lynds Volume 2, Issue 4 / October 1998 6 minutes (1401 words)

After four years of faithfully trying to recover from a life of drug and alcohol abuse Colin, 50, reflects on numerous episodes of his life. Stories of his estranged family, dead friends, medical treatment, and addiction dwell in his words. Attempting to explain these disjointed narratives, he is no longer able to tell what’s going on inside or outside. Claiming that he will be reborn by his own means and that he already considers himself dead, Colin casts himself as somewhat of a mythical hero. Constantly enduring a battle between flesh and spirit, he is the protagonist of Erratic Angel , the latest video offering from Donigan Cumming.

For years Cumming has exhibited internationally as a photographer and has produced a video a year since 1995, when A Prayer for Nettie won the Telefilm Award for Best Canadian Discovery at the twenty-fourth Montreal Festival of New Cinema and New Media. Nettie , the first of three videos, was followed by Cut the Parrot in 1996 and After Brenda in 1997 . These three videos, the first a tragedy, the second a comedy, the third a romance, have won awards at other festivals and were shown on a program together at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Themes being studied in Cumming’s photography and video work come from various fields. The human body is presented in his photography in a staged manner as people are shown under artificial light in their own surroundings. A tension is born here between the real and the staged. In moving to video Cumming is able to transform this tension into a moving drama. Using lightweight steadicam equipment Cumming moves the camera in, out, and around spaces creating a direct in-the-moment feeling. The camera picks up direct sound which allows for an audio landscape that consists of anything from a dripping tap to wind and even allows for Donigan to speak from behind the camera. These concerns for theatre and drama are important interests for Cumming as well, and his videos have been called ‘The Videos of Cruelty’ in reference to Artaud’s conception of the body in theatre. Sometimes Cumming’s subjects are presented in the nude and small details including lips and bare stomachs are revealed. These details are revealed under a microscope which seeks the nucleus of drama. The camera often tracks along the floor to eventually tilt up into the action that is taking place. Cumming believes that drama is possible anywhere so sometimes the camera reveals a character threatening to cut off his finger, while other times it follows an oxygen tube to it`s point of origin: an ailing elder woman in bed. Some of the characters in these videos pray or sing songs which they don`t fully remember, sometimes with Cumming cueing them along. Insisting an a quasi-scripted, quasi-improvised method of working his presence is felt in every moment and he sometimes becomes a character himself. Thematically these videos focus around many themes, one of the most apparent being bereavement. In A Prayer for Nettie the characters recall stories and offer prayers to Nettie, who has passed on. Cut the Parrot centres around the loss of Albert, and After Brenda follows a character named Pierre who has lost his lover, Brenda.

While Erratic Angel reflects themes and methods visible in the first three videos, is also signals something of a departure. Perhaps not so much a departure as an arrival at something else, or an understanding of what endings and beginnings mean in themselves. The video’s structure has no definitive ending, with the first and last shots being the same except that the last shot runs in reverse. These shots serve as a paranthesis to the entire action of the film, and embody a conceptual summation of the work. The first shot of the video has a title superimposed over the image of an elderly nude man slowly spinning in circles. We hear the voice-over of a man recounting physical problems he has suffered. The angel of the title suggests a form of rebirth, which is presented visually as the man rubs his stomach and seems to be attempting flight. In mixing these elements, Cumming begins a circular motion that recurs in many ways throughout the work.

An analysis of the possible meanings of the title is relevant to this circularity. Cumming is already on record stating the importance of titles and how they can relate to many meanings within the work. With each attempt to overcome his situation, Colin finds himself back where he started. After his shave he seems much happier, claiming to feel brand new or reborn. Yet he acknowledges that things will return to their original state. He is caught in a spiral leading neither up or down, and since the video centers on him it would seem that he is the erratic angel. Yet other possibilities are present. If an angel is someone who helps others out, then Cumming could be the angel. He shows up and buys Colin a shave, offers him advise, and spends time with him. He brings the camera with him to record Colin’s story and becomes a conduit between Colin and the viewer. But Cumming is not necessarily the angel. In Erratic Angel the camera is higher up than in the other videos and there is a lot more circular motions. So in a sense the elevated camera becomes a wandering entity. This brings the possibilities of the camera-as-angel to light. The title may be any of these things, but also may be none of them, revealing the diversity of the work.

In repeating certain images a battle occurs between their first meanings and ones they eventually incur. This battle is most apparent in the numerous ways that the body is represented. As stated before the body is a major motif in Cumming’s work not only for what it is, but also as a carrier of metaphorical meanings. In the second shot of the video Colin likens himself to the remnants of an unrecognizable car. Later in the video he remembers a time when he felt as though his head was being put into a car compactor. The earlier reference to the car is reinforced through the compactor. Metaphorically his car has already gone through the compactor, just as he considers himself already dead. If we accept Colin as already dead (or accept his belief) then we can imagine him as a mystical figure capable of visions. He has glimpsed into an entirely different universe and at one point claims to have been literally struck by an angel with a sword. So his body exists not only in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual sense. The age-old battle between flesh and spirit is reborn in Colin’s experience.

Earlier in the text I mention that part of Cumming’s working approach involves his on-screen presence. By inserting himself in the work through shadows, as an off-screen voice, as a character, or in mirrored reflections, he presents himself in the midst of creation. This choice allows us to often see him struggling in the events he creates. As part of his method he becomes one of the combatants or performers, knowing that each scene will present a different battle. If each new video is born from this type of process then Cumming is not only the field commander but a soldier as well. He will draw out a rough plan of attack, head to the front lines, and battle a medium that is in it’s infancy.

Erratic Angel was awarded the Telefilm Prize for best Canadian work in the short and medium length program at the twenty-seventh Festival of New Cinema and New Media in Montreal.


November 13, 19H30

Québec City at the Salle Multi de Méduse
Revers D’univers: Le Théatre de la Douleur De Donigan Cumming
Contact: (418) 640-2586

January TBA

Leuven, Belgium at New Harvest
A Prayer for Nettie, Cut The Parrot, and After Brenda
Contact: 32 016 236 773

February 2-5

Montreal at the Cinématèque Québécoise in the Salle Fernard Seguin
A Prayer for Nettie, Cut the Parrot, After Brenda, Karaoke, Erratic Angel
Contact: Cinema Libre (514) 861-9030

March 5

Toronto at Ryerson Polytechnic University
Extracts of the videos will be shown as part of a lecture
The Kodak Chair Series
Created Communities: Actuality and Invention
Contact: (416) 979-5000

Volume 2, Issue 4 / October 1998 Essays   documentary   donigan cumming