Amie Siegel is known for her slow-paced films interrogating cultural systems of work and value in forensic depth, such as in two films she presented at the South London Gallery in 2017 for her exhibition “Strata”: Fetish (2016) follows an annual deep cleaning of objects collected from Sigmund Freud’s former London home, now a museum, and Career (2015) follows the tortuous journey of marble from deep underground caverns to luxury apartments in New York. Siegel applies a similar investigative approach in his new feature video Lines. Commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland, where it is currently showing, and recently shown at the Thomas Dane Gallery in London, the film obliquely tackles the British class system by tracing the trajectory of the paintings of the 18th century English animal portrait painter George Stubbs lent from aristocratic estates across Britain to a 2019 exhibition at the public MK Gallery in south-east England.
Stubbs was famous in his day for the anatomical precision and vividness of his depictions of horses and dogs; members of the British upper classes sought him out to paint them and their prized pets. Many of the canvases featured in Siegel’s film remained in the families of original patrons and serve as signifiers of status, due to their financial value as well as their content, underscoring the importance of pedigree for animals and humans in this social layer (hence the title of the film, Lines).
Visiting the opulent homes where the paintings reside, the camera glides dispassionately through paneled rooms adorned with chandeliers, pans around bedrooms furnished with four-poster beds, and gazes down from a colonnaded marble staircase. There is no commentary, but Siegel’s layered editing and meticulous attention to detail suggest certain themes. The camera lingers, for example, on two figurines of black servants riding leopards, reminding the viewer of Britain’s brutal colonial past, which supported many aristocratic fortunes. Portraits with gilded frames testify everywhere to the noble lineage of the owners. Interspersed among these are Stubbs’ depictions of domestic and exotic animals and the nobility at leisure on their lands, shooting pheasants or hunting foxes on horseback. These painted scenes eerily materialize in another sequence from Siegel’s film which captures a modern hunt – a rite of a bygone era which, for the wealthy, has largely retained the same customs and dress since the days of Stubbs.
Accompanying images of the estates’ sprawling parklands are field recordings of bleating sheep, whinnying horses and songbirds. Inside, by contrast, the ubiquitous golden clocks chime and chime, highlighting the jarring collision of eras in these spaces. Indeed, the arrival of performers in shorts and sneakers, complete with tattoos and latex gloves, seems to rip these stately homes from their age-old time warp to the present. The discussions of the dog handlers contribute a great deal to the dialogue. Siegel shows their meticulous care as they disconnect lights, dismantle heavy work, pack them up, pack them in foam-lined crates, and transport them on special trucks. Meanwhile, other workers tend to the fireplace, wind clocks, mop floors and vacuum to keep these areas pristine.
The owners are absent in the middle of all this commotion. In their place, well-groomed animals dominate the lavish mansions: a grim-looking Labrador retriever perches on a chintzy sofa and a spaniel gazes up at the viewer from a long hallway lined with portraits and dust-covered antiques. The camera pays homage to those who serve this strange privileged world of aristocracy, from workers to animals, lavish their time and the inexhaustible material wealth available to them; in this way, Siegel seems to implicitly question the hierarchies of value in these large spaces of amortization.
The visual move to the Stubbs exhibit then feels like a brief moment of liberation, the climax of the film. Removed from their elite context, having traveled from all over Britain, the paintings seem to take on new life as they are brought together and displayed to a large audience in a public gallery. But soon, they’re wrapped up again and sent back to their mausoleum-like environments. It’s a truism that it takes an outsider’s perspective to reveal what’s hidden in plain sight. Tracking the transit of Stubbs paintings, Lines quietly exposes the workings of Britain’s inequitable social system. By taking us behind the scenes of homes of extraordinary splendor, barely penetrated by the shifts in socio-political values of the 21st century, Siegel shows us how cultural wealth is inherited and reinforced: largely out of public view, but requiring the work of others to maintain it.