Marine Court Rendezvous: Sketches in Space and Time

By Iain Sinclair

marine-court-rendezvous-iain-sinclair-chris-petit-6.jpgMarine Court Rendezvous, 2008

Marine Court in St Leonards-on-Sea is a period survival, a gaunt remnant from the age when concrete was king. It was once the tallest residential structure in Britain. In a promotional brochure of 1938 it was described as a ‘Hymn to the Sun’.

The brochure attempts to explain the original inspiration. The ‘general lines’ are based on a vision of the ocean-going ship, the Queen Mary. ‘It would be hard indeed to imagine a better situation... It stands in the centre of St Leonards Front. Every flat, also every public room, has a South aspect. The southern façade is only about forty yards from the sea and the spacious balconies are so constructed that one can easily imagine when reclining on them that one is on the deck of a liner.’

The Second World War unpicked the fantasy. Walkways beneath the promenade, giving access to curved sun-lounges and private retreats, became holding cells for Air Force defaulters and potential German prisoners. The boat-building never recovered its swagger. It became a place of exile and involuntary expulsion; a warren of drug dealers and the socially excluded, retired gentlefolk whistling in the dark. The lifts creaked and shuddered. Pigeons nested on balconies, occupied deserted units. The Queen Mary had been boarded by pirates. The modernist playground was now an iceberg waiting to be dragged out to sea. Its interior spaces, endless corridors, forgotten ballrooms, humming radio masts, anticipated Stanley Kubrick’s out-of-season resort hotel in The Shining, with its freight of memory, its cocktail-bar spectres, unappeased vampires. A writer doomed to repeat a single sentence in Borgesian torment. A film dictated by its setting.

marine-court-rendezvous-iain-sinclair-chris-petit-5.jpgMarine Court Rendezvous, 2008

And that, in constructing our 12-screen installation for Sketch, is where we began: Marine Court as a generator of images, a primitive device for tapping into films made and unmade. As well as The Shining, the hothouse temperatures of the lobby, the patterns on threadbare carpets, the covert lives, invoked Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby. Hastings has its Satanic pedigree, its tame Goths: this is where Aleister Crowley died, in a boarding house where he feasted on brown Windsor soup and heroin.

Chris Petit, the co-director of Marine Court Rendezvous, enlarged on his reservations and on how they might be resolved. ‘I have always thought the problem with installations is that they never amount to more than one idea, whereas I have always liked projects with no ideas or too many. The appeal of Marine Court is its unusual architectural character and its multiple narrative possibilities – which also suggest the opposite, absence of any narrative at all, just empty space. The building resembles an ocean liner, but also an abandoned space ship. It is very cinematic. This is somewhere Fritz Lang could have had fun with. Hence, one line of approach, and the one we chose to adopt: the memory of cinema rather than cinema itself. Takes amounting to fragments of a film that might one day exist or might once have existed.’

marine-court-rendezvous-iain-sinclair-chris-petit-4.jpgMarine Court Rendezvous, 2008

At night, standing on the balcony, as if on the stern of a mock-up of the Titanic, you catch glimpses of blue, the trapped lightning of television sets playing in empty rooms, in rooms through which strangers pass, meet, touch, pour drinks, iron their clothes, slump and smoke. The constant argument between the actual (random documentation of the senses) and computer-generated visions and fictions (old movies on the loop, dead divas in their hot prime) is out there, painting the town or reflected in spectral colours on the grey fact of the English Channel. Lost souls ponder the philosophical conundrum: are they viewing Rear Window or are they themselves unrehearsed actors performing for other witnesses lurking in the darkness? When does a building decide that its only future is as a set?

marine-court-rendezvous-iain-sinclair-chris-petit.jpgMarine Court Rendezvous, 2008

Petit invokes Fritz Lang, the paranoid master (with Dr Mabuse) of surveillance systems, disguise, double identities. And the man who becomes, monocle in place, strolling on a terrace above the sparkling Mediterranean in Godard’s Le Mépris, the ghost of a particular kind of heroic and embattled cinema. Homeric glories recalled with a cynical smile. The last act for any director is as a performer, not quite managing to play himself. John Huston, never sure on which side of the camera he belonged, goes out clutching an oxygen cylinder in one hand and a cigar in the other as he shoots The Dead (by James Joyce) with too much respect. Joyce, of course, opened the first cinema in Dublin. He was backed by a couple of small businessmen from Trieste. The venture failed.

Le Mépris highlights another challenge we wished on ourselves. The star. The woman in red. The blonde in dark glasses. The presence who soothes bankers and money-men. What do you actually do with Brigitte Bardot? What business do you invent? The human being with her complicated life gets in the way of the narrative which isn’t there. Producers demand more flesh. Body doubles sprawl. The diary of the shoot with its sulks and slaps overwhelms a terse and wholly mendacious script. The real fiction is that a film is being made. Critics talk up lacunae, bits that never happened. We edit in our heads, see what we want to see.

marine-court-rendezvous-iain-sinclair-chris-petit-2.jpgMarine Court Rendezvous, 2008

Marine Court Rendezvous it becomes apparent, after the event, is a deleted feature inspired by its location. Twelve documentary-fictions hung around the wall and ready to shatter like the funhouse mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai. Perhaps Rita Hayworth, blonde hair cropped, can emerge from reformed crystals of broken glass? Two old movies, from the era of melancholy romance, haunt the project. Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Dorothy Malone floating from the sky in Tarnished Angels. Plane crashes and waterfalls. The embittered Joseph Cotten, a prisoner in a honeymoon motel, is costive with memories of Citizen Kane, The Third Man and Shadow of a Doubt. Those slatted blinds are the bars of the English seaside flat. A novel by William Faulkner, drowning in alcohol and hallucinatory prose, is fashioned into an autopsy sketch of its failure by Douglas Sirk: angels do indeed rust on Marine Court balconies like devices for keeping seagulls at bay. And Faulkner, master fabulist and Hollywood hack, finds his novels chopped into grapefruit segments to pad out a Godard movie.

The Sketch installation is a film that was never made, containing within it numerous false starts, trial shots, one-off auditions in blind corridors. There is even a travelogue about the performer’s walk through the town towards the set. Everything is definitively provisional. Defiantly unresolved. It could be assembled in any order. The score by Susan Stenger is constructed in another country around footage that has never been seen.

marine-court-rendezvous-iain-sinclair-chris-petit-3.jpgMarine Court Rendezvous, 2008

Whatever you call it, so it will become. Marine Court Rendezvous: where the silenced dead catch up with their fugitive souls. One of the films within a film is a lost Petit road movie, a story he couldn’t bring himself to resolve. A woman with a troubled history travelling towards some shrouded destination, another pointless interrogation. The seafront building and the young woman waiting inside it trigger suppressed memories. There was a purpose-built prison in Germany. In another life.

‘The shocking experience was that I could not hear any noises apart from the ones that I generated myself. Nothing. Absolute silence. I went through states of excitement, I was haunted by visual and acoustic hallucinations. There were extreme disturbances of concentration and attacks of weakness. I had no idea how long this would go on for. I was terrified that I would go mad.’

Sketch presents the new 12-channel video installation, Marine Court Rendezvous, from 20th September to 25th October at the Gallery, Sketch, 9 Conduit Street, London.

Iain Sinclair is the author of numerous books on London and its associated mysteries. His major new work on Hackney will be published in early 2009. Thanks to him, to Robert Petit for images, and to Victoria Brooks at Sketch.