What strikes me first with Hetain Patel’s To Dance Like Your Dad (2009) is the subtly contrasting presences of father and son. Pravin Patel seems relaxed in his workplace environment whereas Hetain’s masterful performance in an empty studio, of the same tasks as his father, seems stiffer. Stiff because of representation or more precisely, stiff because Hetain’s body has had to actively seek out and learn the accent, language and actions that his father uses. This is an altogether extreme form of inheritance. You immediately detect the absence of the factory but simultaneously see the fullness of the studio or more tellingly, the body as the site that Hetain works with. It is down right delightful to see such generous demonstration, and at times uncanny synchronicity of movement and the visual gags that arise. I also felt a treasured sensation of father and son’s shared expertise within their individual work. There is evident discovery and craft in Hetain’s process of memorising his father’s actions and language and, to return to my earlier point about different presences, it is actually a relief that even though there are clear genetic similarities, the way the bodies operate in space – how their respective working lives has moulded them – remains different. They walk at the same pace with exactly the same steps but not in the same way and this lifts the film away from pure imitation and onto more complex ground, questioning where the gaps between two generations are and what the implications are of son coming to know father in this physical way.
My body swivels to change direction and my eyes are met by Mussulman (2006).
The film rushes and in a fast stream of thoughts:
Mark. A marking out. Musculature is inked on but visually there is a violent unpeeling.
Looks like a blade. The incessant marks have the precision of a scalpel knife.
Cuts with the henna black blood.
He looks up more to himself than to me and I wonder about cultural recognition.
Layers of interweaving muscles and the vulnerable elbow undersides.
I feel how it feels – a mark that tickles.
Implicit violence and medical cadavers.
Is this a destroying of the skin’s surface or do we see more of what holds this man together?
I realise that the ink is henna and suddenly I don’t know how it feels.
The texture of the ink, of the performance, is suddenly thicker.
And cultural uh-huh.
In a way that is his and important.
I do keep expecting the blood-lines to fall, seep, bubble and goblet out.
My ears acknowledge, as I enter the room, that there is a subtle echo to the voice I can hear, as if the speakers are out of synch. I soon realize they’re not. The voice is actually two voices, very much in synch. To Dance Like Your Dad runs on two adjacent screens. Patel’s father on the left, giving us a tour of his car factory and Patel on the right imitating his father with affectionate accuracy. The movement, the voice, the framing of the camera – all the same. The setting (Patel is in a dance studio not a car factory), the skeletal proportions, the degree of tension to which the eyes are held open – all a little different. It is gorgeous to watch. It is also a bit mind-boggling. When else do we watch imitation to such a degree? It connotes aspiration, mockery and slapstick… yet it is none of these things. It is very unsuggestive and pure. I laugh with delight, rather than with incredulity or mockery, and on repeated watch the simplicity does not wear thin. The simplicity in fact becomes more impressive – the effort and the technical skill needed in the act of copying become more exposed.
Opposite these two images Patel’s other film, Mussulman plays. Entirely different, entirely relevant. These two pieces sit together well in their solo-ness and watchfulness. Patel is looking at himself, be it in the mirror in Mussulman, or via the body of his father in To Dance Like Your Dad. And both works are compelling. They don’t tell me much – in fact both pieces somehow smooth over human complexity and value the execution of task over the exposure of character – but there lies the interest and the space for me to want more.
To Dance Like your Dad & Mussulman are on until Tues 9th (not Mon 8th) October, 5 – 10pm.
Central St Martins College of Arts and Design