Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Portrait of a River (2013)


When the tide is going out and a wind is blowing from the East, crossing the Thames in a ferry is a skilled and hazardous affair. It is tempting to say Larsen charts a similar path.

Work by this Danish artist rocks back and forth between beautifully composed segments of art film and fascinating clips of fly on-the-wall documentary. Sans voiceover, he lets editing tell his tale.

Talking heads, who would not be out of place on BBC4, fill his ‘Portrait’ with personality. He might be the first contemporary artist some of his cast have ever met, but this one sets them at ease.

Little do they know just how atmospheric it will seem. Most voices here are off camera, allowing Larsen to focus on environmental details. River folk are heard but not always seen.

Elsewhere he depicts silent figures who seem almost unaware of his presence. With some degree of intimacy we watch a shiphand splice a rope; we watch an old boy settle down to fish.

In keeping with the quotidian mood, Larsen offers panoramic landscapes from time to time. An oil barrel is caught in the wash outside Dartford. The sun is setting over a pinky, orange 02 Arena.

From another elevation we look out over Tower Bridge as a fleet of no less than eight helicopters float into view and travel out downstream. They speak for the river’s mystery.

The most compelling chapter in the series, finds the camera is trained on a navigational chart. It is a history lesson accompanied by a pointing finger, the closest we come to the facts of the matter.

But perhaps there is no reason a film should not convey information and deal with impressions. It can be both factual and expressive, realist and dare one say even romantic.

Somehow we know we are in safe hands with Larsen’s ferrymen and master bargemen. They know that not everyone is “boat-oriented”. For the length of this digital film, however, we totally are.

Portrait of a River can be seen in Estuary at the Museum of London Docklands until 27 October 2013.

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