video premiere: pj harvey journeys to kosovo in ‘the wheel’

The prolific Polly Jean Harvey returns with the first visual from her forthcoming record, 'The Hope Six Demolition Project.' Shot by Seamus Murphy over multiple trips to Kosovo, 'The Wheel' is at once a colorful celebration of local culture and an...

by Emily Manning
Feb 1 2016, 11:55am

Photography © Maria Mochnacz

Last year, PJ Harvey spent five straight weeks inside an architectural installation deep in the bowels of London's Somerset House. The residency, entitled "Recording in Progress," saw Harvey, her band, longtime producers Flood and John Parish, and engineers working within a "purpose-built" recording studio on Harvey's ninth album, The Hope Six Demolition Project -- her first release since 2011's Let England Shake. The powerful performer opened up her process to the public, allowing visitors to observe the album's recording live behind a one-way glass. Though The Hope Six Demolition Project was recorded in Harvey's native England, the record draws directly from four years of her travels. Today, Harvey and photojournalist and filmmaker Seamus Murphy transport us to regions far beyond the British Isles in the premiere of "The Wheel."

"When I'm writing a song I visualize the entire scene. I can see the colors, I can tell the time of day, I can sense the mood, I can see the light changing, the shadows moving, everything in that picture," says Harvey in a statement. But for a record inspired by journeys spanning from Afghanistan to Washington, D.C. "gathering information from secondary sources felt too far removed for what I was trying to write about." "I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with," Harvey explains.

So she teamed back up with Murphy, having first approached him after encountering his 2008 exhibition A Darkness Visible, which documented his experiences in the Middle East. She then commissioned him to direct 12 short films for Let England Shake and incorporated his images in her first book of poetry, The Hollow of the Hand, released last year.

As Murphy explains in the following director's statement, "The Wheel's" bold bluesy riffs and hypnotizing hand claps are brought to life in Kosovo. The video employs documentary footage Murphy shot during the pair's first visit to the conflicted region in 2011, as well as on a recent voyage made last year. Murphy's compelling visuals capture the region's storied traditions -- the village of Brezne performing a water glass dance upon the occasion of a wedding -- but also depict its transitions in the wake of the global refugee crisis. He allows us to viscerally experience Harvey's central images: the rusty, paint chipped metal chairs and the squealing chains that keep them circling like sparrows twisting in the sky.

Read Murphy's thoughts on inspiration, the song and video, and the project as a whole below. Learn more about the project over at Noisey

"Polly and I wanted to initiate a project together working in places we thought interesting and relevant. We met through her seeing my photographs from Afghanistan, and I later showed her more work, including some from the war in Kosovo in the late 1990s. I had experience and contacts in both places and Polly had long held a fascination for Afghanistan and was caught up following the events in Kosovo when it was topical. Both had troubled histories and because of the news were familiar in name to everybody; the detail and nuance was maybe lacking or forgotten. I had returned to Kosovo in 2004 when the conflict erupted again, finding unresolved disputes and a deep frustration on every side with the pace and handling of events.

"An invitation came to both of us early in the summer of 2011. We were asked to attend a screening of the complete 12 Short Films I had made for the Let England Shake album, and to be part of a Q and A afterwards at the Dokufest in Prizren, southern Kosovo. Not something Polly would normally do, yet there was something inevitable about it all and it would get the project started. So we went.

"The song 'The Wheel' has the journey to Kosovo at its center. Who is to say what else has influenced and informed its creation? The sight of a revolving fairground wheel in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje near the capital Pristina is the concrete reference point for the title. I can tell you its date -- August 4, 2011 -- from the piece of footage I made as we walked up the street to our parked car near the train station. It was a passing observation of a commonplace image, one of many that day. While Polly took notes I might have been more interested in something else happening across the street and not bothered to shoot or even have seen it. That day we were gathering material in a blind, optimistic endeavor; characteristic of the way we tend to work together. We had no idea if any of it would ever be seen, heard or would make sense.

"Was that sight alone the inspiration for the song? Without being told the stories of people who had suffered during the war, without visiting villages abandoned through ethnic cleansing and cycles of vengeance, without experiencing the different perceptions of people with shared histories, could the song have been written?

"I made a return trip to Kosovo in December 2015, armed this time with the knowledge of how the project had developed. In addition to Kosovo, there had been journeys to Afghanistan and Washington D.C. A book, The Hollow of the Hand, had been published of Polly's poems and my photographs and a words/images/music launch on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall over two nights. A recording session turned art installation in Somerset House which I filmed. The album was mastered and on its way. Disparate elements finally coming together of a project that started with the premise of curiosity and interest.

"Making the film for 'The Wheel' involved a mix of footage from the first trip in 2011, rehearsals I shot of Polly in London and the most recent trip to Kosovo. The enormous refugee crisis in Europe had been news for months. I spent some time on the Greek and Macedonian borders, and in Serbia, before travelling into Kosovo. It was happening in and through territories associated with recent conflicts in Kosovo and the wider Balkans. The idea of cycles, wheels and repetition once again being all too apparent and necessary to make.

"We salute the life of Nesim Kryeziu (1938 - 2016) the wonderful man in the film performing a traditional dance with a glass of water on his head at a wedding in his village of Brezne in the Opoja region of Kosovo."


Text Emily Manning
Photography © Maria Mochnacz