Amie Siegel is known for her slow-paced films interrogating cultural systems of labor and value in forensic depth, as in two films she presented at the South London Gallery in 2017 for her show “Strata”: Fetish (2016) tracks an annual deep-cleaning of collected objects in Sigmund Freud’s former London home, now a museum, and Quarry (2015) follows the tortuous journey of marble from deep underground caverns to luxury apartments in New York. Siegel applies a similarly investigative approach in her new video Bloodlines. Commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland, where it is now on view, and recently shown at Thomas Dane Gallery in London, the film obliquely takes on Britain’s class system by tracing the trajectory of paintings by 18th-century English animal portraitist George Stubbs on loan from aristocratic estates around Britain to a 2019 exhibition at the public MK Gallery in southeast England.
Stubbs was famed in his day for the anatomical accuracy and liveliness of his depictions of horses and dogs; members of the British upper classes sought him out to paint them and their prized pets. Many of the canvases featured in Siegel’s film have remained within the original patron families and serve as signifiers of status, by virtue of their financial worth as well as their content, which emphasizes the importance of pedigree for both animals and humans in this social stratum (hence the film’s title, Bloodlines).
Touring the opulent homes where the paintings reside, the camera glides dispassionately through wood-paneled rooms hung with chandeliers, pans around chambers furnished with four-poster beds, and looks down from a colonnaded marble staircase. There is no commentary, but Siegel’s layered editing and painstaking attention to detail suggest certain themes. The camera lingers, for example, on two figurines of Black servants astride leopards, reminding the viewer of Britain’s brutal colonial past, which supported many aristocratic fortunes. Gilt-framed portraits everywhere testify to the owners’ noble lineage. Interspersed among them are Stubbs’s depictions of domestic and exotic animals and of the gentry at leisure on their land, shooting pheasants or hunting foxes on horseback. These painted scenes materialize uncannily in another sequence of Siegel’s film that captures a modern-day hunt—rite of a bygone era that has, for the wealthy, largely retained the same customs and attire since Stubbs’s day.
Accompanying footage of the estates’ sweeping parklands are field recordings of bleating sheep, whinnying horses, and singing birds. Indoors, by contrast, ubiquitous gilt clocks tick and chime, underscoring the jarring collision of eras in these spaces. Indeed, the arrival of the art handlers in shorts and sneakers, with their tattoos and latex gloves, seems to wrench these stately houses out of their centuries-old time warp into the present. The handlers’ discussions contribute much of the dialogue. Siegel shows their meticulous care as they disconnect lights, take down heavy works, wrap them, box them in foam-lined crates, and carry them onto special trucks. Meanwhile, other workers tend the fireplace, wind clocks, mop floors, and vacuum to keep these estates immaculate.
The owners are absent amid all this busyness. Standing in for them are well-groomed animals that lord over palatial homes: a somber-looking Labrador perches on a chintzy sofa and a spaniel eyes the viewer from a long corridor lined with portraits and dust-sheeted antiques. The camera dignifies those serving this strange privileged world of the aristocracy, from the workers to the animals, lavishing time on them as well as on the endless material wealth on view; in this way, Siegel seems implicitly to question hierarchies of value in these grand deadening spaces.
The visual shift to the Stubbs exhibition then feels like a brief moment of liberation, the film’s climax. Removed from their elite context, having traveled from all over Britain, the paintings seem to take on a new life as they are united and exhibited to a wide audience in a public gallery. But soon they are packed again and returned to their mausoleum-like environments. It is a truism that it takes an outsider’s perspective to reveal what is hiding in plain sight. In the process of tracking the Stubbs paintings’ transit, Bloodlines quietly exposes the mechanics of Britain’s inequitable social system. Taking us behind the scenes in homes of extraordinary splendor, barely penetrated by 21st-century changes in sociopolitical values, Siegel shows us how cultural wealth is inherited and reinforced: largely out of the public view, yet requiring the labor of others to maintain it.