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Greek myth and the ghosts of Bexhill-on-Sea Daria Martin

Olivia Plender looks at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, one of the first Modernist buildings of its kind in the UK, and watches Daria Martin shoot a film there.

When asked to describe the filmmaking process by documentary maker Gideon Bachman, Federico Fellini talked of the emotional strain involved in making ‘all the phantoms with which you have lived during the preparation… materialise in a concrete objective image’. During the making of Fellini Satyricon 1970 – the eponymous director’s version of Petronius’s tale of excess in the last days of the Roman Empire – Bachman was allowed access to the world behind the scenes. The ensuing footage in Ciao Federico 1969 shows an encampment of bored actors waiting on a beach for their turn in front of the camera, or rousing themselves into a frenzy of libidinal excess. The film shoot is revealed as less than spontaneous, every second actually recorded on celluloid a result of months of planning and meticulous attention to detail. The year-long preparations for Daria Martin’s latest short film Wintergarden have some similarities, though without the excess.

In the weeks running up to the shoot, Martin and her team of collaborators are busy preparing. Their activities range from costume fittings at Hamish Morrow’s east London studio – the fashion designer responsible for the cast’s outfits – to rehearsals at the Laban Dance Centre, where Martin and her cinematographer Noski Deville look on, as choreographer Heni Hale works with the three dancers who are to play the sirens. Wintergarden is intended as a thirteen-minute film loosely structured around the ancient Greek myth in which Persephone is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. The sirens, Martin says, are ‘three peculiar creatures’ and the angular movements the dancers rehearse reflect this. There is an air of nervous excitement as the cast and crew get ready. The film will be shot on 16mm at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex. One of the first Modernist buildings of its kind in the UK, it was completed by architects Serge Chermayeff and Erich Mendelsohn in 1935, the latter a Jew who escaped the growing political tensions in Germany, bringing International Style architecture to England’s south coast – to the chagrin of many of the inhabitants.

The building has a rich political and social history. It was commissioned by the ninth Earl De La Warr, a socialist aristocrat (then mayor of Bexhill), to replace the Victorian Wintergardens – an elitist seaside entertainment complex favoured by his father. Plans to place a large statue of Persephone on the seafront outside were scrapped because of escalating costs and hostility from the townspeople. So by resurrecting this mythic character Martin evokes the pavilion’s ghosts, as well as the political and emotional tensions of its past. But Wintergarden’s aim is to avoid a nostalgic visual style, and it does this using Morrow’s dayglo costumes, assembled from high-tech fabrics and influenced by contemporary sportswear. This is appropriate, as the De La Warr Pavilion coincided with the democratised expansion of the early twentieth-century leisure industry – a place aping the style of a luxury cruise liner, where people from all backgrounds could engage in sporting activities in the healthy sea air.

On her first day of shooting, Martin watches the action on a monitor, and then discusses the next shot with Deville, encircled by more than 30 cast and crew amid the dust and noise of the pavilion’s renovation work. It has been a typical English summer and weather conditions are less than ideal. The sirens endured the previous day in the cold rain swept ocean, but things look brighter as Persephone, played by actress Nina Fog, spends day two slowly ascending the pavilion’s magnificent spiral staircase in unorthodox fashion, wearing a climbing harness. Her progress is stilted as it takes time to set up each image, as every small section of Persephone’s journey is recorded separately: a view of her face poised in concentration, a close-up of her hands attaching the climbing rope to a bracket, a long shot of her taut body sliding up the banister. All will be fitted together in the editing room like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

There is no dialogue in Wintergarden. The soundtrack is made up mostly of the versatile voice of Norwegian modern classical musician Maja Ratkje, who has a dual role, both composing the score and playing the part of Hermes. She specialises in ‘noise’ music and for Wintergarden combines eerily sung melodies with disconcerting screeching, laughing and occasional snatches of spoken word. However, during the shoot, Ratkje competes with the noise of the building works.

Hermes is a mercurial character who moves easily between milieux – the worlds of day and night as well as male and female – a male god played here by a woman; a dashing figure dressed, according to Martin, like a nightclub magician, and reminiscent of Eisenstaedt’s photograph of Marlene Dietrich wearing top hat and tails. The dramatic climax of the week will be the night-time scene in which Hermes and the sirens are filmed descending into the underworld to tempt Persephone back above ground. Persephone is to hang in the middle of the stairwell wearing a harness covered by glass crystals – as if transformed into a human chandelier – but the costume is so heavy that it has to be suspended separately. In the absence of the builders, this will be the most demanding part of the shoot.

The references to Germany during the Weimar Republic that have appeared in Martin’s previous works (such as 2000’s trilogy of short films In the Palace, 2001’s Birds and 2003’s Closeup Gallery) are brought to Bexhill. And by awakening these phantoms from the past, Martin evokes the collective fears and desires of this British seaside town: Victorian chintz and class-consciousness replaced by clean lines, social change and the dangerous progressive ideals embodied by Mendelsohn’s Modernist architecture.

Daria Martin’s Wintergarden premiered at the refurbished De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, and will be screened at Tate Triennial 2006: New British Art, 1 March - 14 May 2006.

Closeup Gallery was purchased in 2005 from the Frieze Art Fair Special Acquisitions Fund.