“I feel some kind of affinity with the cormorant” – David Blandy’s
How to Fly


“Watching the film, you become entirely present.” Mike Pinnington finds time to breathe, with a new artwork from David Blandy…

“Hi guys. I’ve been thinking about making a film about flying.” So begins How to Fly, artist David Blandy’s recent commission for John Hansard Gallery. As a piece of lockdown artwork it was, necessarily, created with the materials to hand; in this particular case, that meant Blandy making good use of Grand Theft Auto V’s editor mode – a feature he’s no stranger to. Now, if you aren’t a gamer (or familiar with the artist’s work to-date), this is where it could lose you, but stick with it. It’ll be worth it, I promise (and with a running time of less than 10 minutes, it’s hardly a daunting prospect).

Using this set-up, Blandy ushers us behind the curtain, into his – the usually hidden creator’s – world. He makes things simple, explaining as he goes: “choose your avatar,” his voiceover instructs, as we see him click through the options on screen. “There’s lots to choose from, but I feel some kind of affinity with the cormorant.” Then: “set the time of day – sunrise is always nice”, and so on. Up to this point, and for those who’d like to have a crack at something similar, it functions pretty much as a very clear, step-by-step tutorial – a no fuss introduction to the process of world building.

“An undulating river, dirt road and a landscape of mountains and trees serve to calm frayed nerves”

More impressive, though, is that having immediately broken the fourth wall, we’re then taken “into the scene” and, shortly afterward, we see the cormorant take to the sky. Despite our full understanding that what we’re watching is just a pretty niche aspect of a video game from 2013 (with the kind of ageing graphics you might expect), it is nevertheless somehow majestic. As in real life, because it is physically beyond us, to gaze upon any bird in flight (even one in a video game) is special. Beneath it, an undulating river, dirt road and a landscape of mountains and trees serve to calm frayed nerves – reassuringly in these times, there are no humans veering into view to concern ourselves with. Our only responsibility is simply to gaze off at the horizon and that sun – an energising, warming ball of yellow – as clouds slowly move overhead.

This tranquil visual experience is complemented by an almost hypnotic script which, in other hands, could come off as corny, especially as it imparts such pearls of wisdom as “Life is symbolic.” Here, allied to the view, this platitude becomes meaningful, almost profound. A little later, we’re asked rhetorically “How many of us can stand stock still for more than three minutes… How many of us can exert the kind of patience the cormorant does, in waiting, watching?”

“It gave me something to concentrate on in those weird early days of lockdown”

The beauty of it is that it’s not long before you find out, as, inhabiting the cormorant and its smooth, easy motion, the seconds quickly turn into minutes as you comfortably exceed the somewhat limited reserves of patience we’re all used to. Watching the film, you begin to notice small things and details in the landscape: blocky-looking shrubbery, a nicely rendered waterfall (belying those ageing graphics I mentioned earlier) and glistening waves. In doing so, you become entirely present.

As How to Fly nears its end, the cormorant beats its wings as it heads sunward, ever closer to a destination only it can know. As it does so, we are told “cormorants are in the now,” and that “they can help us be in the now, too.” By this stage of the film, if you’re anything like me, you’ve become fully immersed in the environment and charmed by the bird’s steadfast, stoic manner. Across a few precious minutes, David Blandy’s film – which he tells me gave him “something to concentrate on in those weird early days of lockdown” – surpasses the many cynical self-care and mindfulness messages that we’re bombarded with. Instead, it achieves something remarkable, allowing us to remove ourselves from ever-grimmer quotidian reality for a few moments; to take flight, and just breathe.

Mike Pinnington

Image © David Blandy, How to Fly (still), 2020

Watch How to Fly online at John Hansard Gallery until 31 May

Posted on 26/05/2020 by thedoublenegative