Johanna Billing Retrospective at the MAC

The Swedish artist's video installations are so atmospheric, you can almost smell the sweat

The I’m gonna live anyhow until I die exhibition at the MAC is a retrospective selection of videos created by Swedish artist, Johanna Billing. Place, people, movement and time are all used to create beautiful, looping scenes that interrogate society, history and the idea of performance.

‘This exhibition consists of seven different installations, including a new film that has not been shown anywhere before,’ Billing explains at the launch. ‘The new film is about the celebration that Italy had last year, for all the regions becoming Italy, and the work was made in Rome.’

Scattered between the Tall and Upper galleries in the MAC, the videos are masterpieces of mundanity. Not in a bad way – Billings just creates astonishingly beautiful, lush videos of normal, day-to-day activities.

In one sun-saturated video – all flat blue skies and heat that can be almost be felt through the screen – a woman dithers atop a diving board: will she or won’t she take the plunge? In ‘I’m gonna live anyhow until I die’, the MAC co-commission with the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo from Italy that titled the exhibition, a group of children play unsupervised.

Although Billing stages the situations in the video, they inhabit an odd, liminial space between documentary and performance.

The result is to shunt the viewer into an equally strange space while they study the works. Compared to the vibrant, unself-conscious scenes in the videos, the dimly lit, politely hushed galleries at the MAC feel strangely tenuous. It is like those dreams where you are trapped outside, peering through windows at friends and family inside.

The dissonance builds the longer you spend in the gallery. Most of the audience wander, drifting from video to video as something catches their attention. Others settle in for the long haul, watching intently as the sequence of events loops its way back to the beginning.

Whichever viewing option they chose, the combination of unconventional narrative, repetition and seamless editing makes catching the join a rare event. Instead, you are three minutes into the repeat when you realise you’ve seen this bit before.

Perhaps the best example of this is the diving woman in the old-fashioned bikini. The piece is off-set to the side of the gallery and elevated on scaffolding, so that the viewer is forced to look up at the diving board. It is easy to get caught in a viewing loop, always just missing the climactic moment where she takes the leap.

‘There’s some kind of narrative in all of them, but not that you’d have to follow them from one point to another,' adds Billing. 'I like that you can enter in the middle of something. Then you might go away and come back, putting the pieces together.’

Effective though that is, it is the video installation in the Upper Gallery that stays in the memory. A room full of students struggle with a variety of old fashioned typewriters, tugging at ribbons and tearing paper. The echoing of the keys being hit and the tight, anxious looks on the students' faces is incredibly dramatic, confidently capturing the essence of an examination. You can almost smell the sweat.

I’m gonna live anyhow until I die is at the MAC until November 4.