Gabriel Lester

Gabriel Lester, The Last Smoking Flight, 2008. Photograph by Adatabase

Gabriel Lester, The Last Smoking Flight, 2008. Photograph by Adatabase

For MADE UP,  Gabriel Lester's (b. 1972, Amsterdam) The Last Smoking Flight (2008) reflected one man’s longing to transcend his earthbound existence and reach an alternate plane. Lester’s film transported us to a place where time was momentarily suspended as we floated through an unending succession of clouds. In a slow introductory tracking shot, the camera gradually moved back through an idyllic vista of blue sky filled with plump white clouds to reveal the interior of an airplane peppered with wispy clouds of tobacco smoke, the passengers caught in a mysterious state of reverie. Lester’s film playfully situated clouds of tobacco amidst the rain clouds to explore humanity’s stubborn denial of fate. 

Smoking as much as flying has long been seen as a means of transport, not to physical destinations, but to mystical planes. The ancient sibyls relied on drug filled fumes to glimpse into the future, just as the genie of fairytale always appears in a puff of smoke. The Last Smoking Flight conjured a utopia, both literally, as a place which can no longer exist as a result of government legislation; and symbolically, in uniting two activities deeply suggestive (for many at least) of pleasure and escape.

Gabriel Lester has long been fascinated with the mechanisms of illusion. Working in film, installation and sculpture, his work exploits as much as it explores the sleights of hand and stratagems that cause us to suspend our disbelief. Several of his works pare drama or narrative back to simple illusory effects. His first installation, How to Act (2000), for example, conveyed all the tension and drama of a Hollywood movie without a single actor. In a recessed alcove reminiscent of a stage, a choreographed sequence of fifty lights with accompanying musical clips transported the viewer through a succession of cinematic moments, in what the artist has described as a ‘film in mime’.

Lester has often cited watching his father appear in a comedy mime act as one of his motivations for becoming an artist, and much of his work references conjuring techniques from an age before elaborate technologies were the norm – a world of silent films and slapstick comedy, of stage sets and mime. The Last Smoking Flight (2008) was characterised by an element of nostalgia, not least in its extensive quotations from cinematographic history.

The power of smoke to distract and deceive remains enshrined in phrases such as 'smokescreen' and 'smoke and mirrors'. But Lester draws on smoke to unmask not the illusions achieved by the magician, mime artist or cinematographer; but the in-built mechanisms of self-deception that form part of the hum psyche. The Last Smoking Flight reflected on those moments when we blissfully forget our fate, and believe ourselves to be immortal. With the persuasive force of a dream, Lester conveyed the fragile moment of suspension, before we come back down to earth.

Gabriel Lester at Liverpool Biennial 2008

The Last Smoking Flight,
Video 23’ 44” – RED to HDV
Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2008 and Galeri Fons Welters
Exhibited at The Heritage Suite, The Vines, Lime Street

Supported by

Northwest Regional Development Agency
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation