Peter Hutton

UC Press/Afterimage Link


Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, Massachusetts
July 30, 2011-March 27, 2012

Throughout his four-decade career as an avant-garde filmmaker, Peter Hutton has worked to transcend the limitations of words and sounds, allowing images to speak eloquently for themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, Hutton’s work recalls the sense of scale, and awe of natural grandeur, that characterized the Hudson River School painters, especially Thomas Cole. Yet Hutton’s work rejects Cole’s “mythopoeic vision” portraying sublime and pristine beauty. Instead, Hutton is haunted by ambivalence toward the mixed blessings, for humanity and nature alike, of human invention.1

In a time when the majority of commercial film and television editing seems increasingly manic, Hutton’s silent, lyrical, and melancholy portraits of global locales evince a temporality of placidity and stillness. As critic Scott MacDonald has observed, “Hutton’s films help us to respect perception itself, and to enjoy an experience of cinema that seems to lie outside the conventional world of hysterical consumption.”2

Hutton’s two works on display at the Peabody Essex Museum, At Sea (2007) and Two Rivers (2001-02), constitute both a continuation of, and departure from, his past creations. Hutton’s works have tended to be non-narrative, black and white, and made from a series of stationary viewpoints, eschewing pans, tilts, and other sorts of camera manipulation. Rather than capturing images, his films seem to invite the kinetic, boundless energy in the environment to manifest itself. As Hutton, once a merchant marine himself, has observed, “One of the great revelations of traveling by sea is how slow it is compared to airplane or even train travel. You can actually go backwards in time on a ship, you can sail into a storm and make no headway.”3 Rather than seeming anachronistic, Two Rivers and At Sea bear witness to the precarious interface between postmodernity and the natural world. While echoing the rhetoric of both painting and traditional still photography, the films vibrate with the temporal evanescence that escapes the single image. “In my films,” says Hutton, “each shot becomes its own small film.”4

In At Sea, Hutton departs from his previous work in his decision to utilize color film stock. Broken up into three twenty-minute sections, the film begins in a shipyard in South Korea during the construction of an ocean-going container ship. A jaw-dropping economy of scale is immediately established and is maintained throughout the film. Through the wonders of automation, immense sections of the ship are moved into place using wheels, pullies, winches, and cranes, as what appear to be Lilliputian men clad in jumpsuits and hard hats move about a network of scaffolds and passages.

The middle section takes place aboard a container ship, where the viewer, positioned on the ship’s bridge, surveys a vast and colorful array of steel freight containers and gazes out at the ship’s disappearing wake, watching the sun and the moon upon the face of the deep. As the ocean cradles the enormous vessel, we watch with rapt amazement at the serene and incongruous beauty before us. Here, as the stability of solid ground gives way to the vessel’s buoyant motions, the words of Joseph Conrad – with which the film opened – come back to us: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea.”

In the third section, the film stock changes to black and white, and suddenly we are on a beach with ship scraps strewn about like hulking carcasses. The effect of contemplating this “apocalyptic dystopian . . . tableau,” as Hutton calls it, is almost hallucinatory.5 Seagulls scavenge and laborers clad in sandals, saris, and the occasional baseball hat toil away at an enormous, beached hull. Set in a scrap yard in Bangladesh, the final section reveals another aesthetic departure for Hutton: his election to embrace narrative structure to portray the life cycle – the birth, life, and death of a container ship.

Two Rivers utilizes a split screen to show two films simultaneously. One is shot from three of the freighters still traveling the Hudson River between Albany and Yonkers. The other is filmed aboard a small tourist boat, traveling a section of China’s Yangtze River later flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. The contrast between the pastoral, ancient quality of the Yangtze imagery, rendered in gentle sepia tones, and the saturated blue cast of the Hudson River imagery is striking. It is a polarity that highlights the two underlying phases of industrial development – of a China on the rise and a post-industrial American region on the decline. That Two Rivers was originally inspired by Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage, up the Hudson River in search of the Northwest Passage to China, only deepens the historical scope of these contrasts. To call them profound is an understatement. “Being on the ship forced me to slow down,” Hutton asserts, “and allowed me to take time to look.”5 And the fruits of this heightened state of awareness are now for the rest of the world to enjoy.

NOTES 1. P Adams Silbey, “Instrument Domain: P. Adams Sitney On The Films Of Peter Hutton,” Artfourim XLVI 9 (May2008):366. 2. Scott McDonald “50 Frames~ Peter Huteon’s At Sea (2007),”Escpus JO (Spring2008): 25.3. Sitney. 354.4. McDonald 428.5. IhioL, 26.6. Shoaey, 364.

Publication: Afterimage
Date published: January 1, 2012