THE NARRATIVE LANDSCAPE, OR, THE FATE OF CINEMA IN THE ERA OF ITS REPRODUCTION: A few remarks based on the work of six young British artists.
Jean-Christophe Royoux, from catalog to ‘Perfect Speed’. 1995
“Thinking of landscape in terms of movie (I’m forced then to treat landscape as dream, myth, history as culture).” Vico Acconi, “10-Point Plan for Video.” 1
One of the features of contemporary art is its trans-national framework. There are, however, singular artistic developments which are the product of a more defined or circumscribed cultural context. Thus the points of convergence between the artists presented in Perfect Speed might be better understood by considering how they fit into an ongoing current of artistic concerns and practices in Britain and in Ireland over the last thirty years. The intention here, however, is neither to propose a history of recent British art, nor to seek the origin of renewed interest in narrative that can be observed in art today – as if the critic’s aim were simply to provide historical references to explain new artistic output. Instead, I am proposing to employ a genealogical approach as a tool to measure – and thereby interpret – the shift engendered by the use of pre-existing (mainly cinematic) narratives as privileged vehicles for new narrative devices in the postminimalist history of the transformation of narrative forms in art.2
To undertake such a measurement, and so to evaluate the shift, it is necessary to begin by establishing some commonalities, by constructing a genealogy. This genealogy will simultaneously trace two paths. The first, which is more general, will give a broad view of the process that authorizes, if not actually legitimates, the use of the word “narrative” to indicate the developments of an entire category of recent art. The second, which is tightly interwoven into the first, will address the specific direction taken by certain British and Irish artists. And this way, even if the frame of reference under consideration here seems inseparable from international artistic debates (dominated by an American influence in the 1960s, and more specifically European today), we can perhaps see how a number of singular artistic, cultural themes fit into the very core of the international art movement of the last decades, and perhaps how the same themes endure, through the narrative forms that concern us in this exhibition.
The appearance of artistic practices which distinguish the neo-avant-garde that emerged after 1945, such as the different ways of temporalizing representation, seems to me just as characteristic of the emergence of new modalities of narrative in the visual arts as the an on all literary references described by Benjamin Bucholoch3. New modalities, that is, if we consider their step beyond the literary narrative, even though the end of this period coincides with what could appear to be a restoration of literary paradigms, in certain narrative art works from around 1973. ++++ What can be said of this reinstatement of narrative, by contrast to everything the word “narrative” suggests in the domain of Literature? Or more specifically: what is the interest of using David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia, or an interpretation of one of the best known operas of the turn of the century, or Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, as matrices for a second narrative which seems to both efface and underscore the effect of the original narrative? What can be said about a practice that “recycles” narrative forms belonging to what could be called the common language of mass culture?
“Movement-in-tine is narrative,” Jean Fisher wrote in connection to James Coleman. 4 Indeed, the inscription of temporality in the work is the essential condition for the emergence of issues of narrativity in contemporary art. It is an indirect consequence of the “primary structures” of minimalist sculpture. In the late sixties, Minimalism remained virtually unknown in Britain except to a group at the Coventry College of Art – a few individuals who soon formed the core of Art & Language5. Only in April of 1969 did a special issue of the journal Studio International bring wider familiarity with the movement. Anthony Caro, however, whose influence was felt at Saint Martin’s – the art school from which emerged many members of a new generation of British artists in the 1960s – provided a kind of introduction to what became the new temporal paradigm for the relationship between the spectator and the work of art. An introduction more than an initiation, for as Hilary Gresty remarked, the effect of Caro’s work ran counter to the reversal produced by minimalist sculpture. “Through the abolition of the pedestal and the adoption of the horizontal rather than vertical form, (Caro) shared their recognition of the body and its relationship to the work” wrote Gresty. “however for Caro, this relationship was the narration of experience rather than discovery of the elements that go to make up the narration; the difference between the syntax of a sentence and the semantics.”6 This difference – between a pre-constructed narrative where our experience of the work is simply a retracing of the story, and a “fragmented” narrative where the success of the work is entirely contingent on the spectator’s ability to construct the narrative – is much more pertinent than the difference located in the opposition between the suspension of time caused by a reflexive closure of the art object, and the insistence on the time it takes to “read” a work, which in fact becomes one of the major contributions of Minimalism to the art of the 1960s. Lucy Lippard recalled that paradoxically the “Primary Structures in general were static…these things were strictly confrontational…they were whole and single…This was also called a way of getting around the flux of the modern world, of stopping time,” while at the same symposium Carl Andre insisted that he was interested in the “now”, “the materiality, the presence of the work of sculpture in the world.” Lucy Lippard was therefore quite right to say that the temporal dimension of sculpture was only an extension.7 This was connected to the way the sculpture formed a relationship with the spectator; narrative in art of the 1960s implied, above all, a dialectical relationship between the immobility of the spectator. Jean Tinguely said in the 1950s that “time is movement and cannot be checked.”8 The experience of time thus appeared as an essential characteristic of the position of the spectator confronted with an object whose stasis aspires, conversely, to timelessness.
This combination of mobility and immobility became typical of the early cinematic work of Andy Warhol, itself not unrelated to the experimental “monomorphic structures” created some time earlier by the Fluxus artist Jackson Mac Low. 9 Stephen Koch, for example considered Sleep (1963) “a meditation on immobility.” 10 “Throughout the film, time remains uniform and passes through an hour-glass with the regularity of a pendulum, according to the rhythm of breathing and heartbeat” of the sleeper causing the art of movement (film) to revert to immobility. Very few spectators could stand to watch the entire film; they wandered in and out of the auditorium, as if it were not made to be seen in its entirety. Sleep completely change the nature of the activity of watching a film; its temporality is disassociated from that of its audience. So while we believe that the literalness of passing time is an absolute fact, the slowing down of a projected image actually contradicts the effect of “real time,” as well as the illusion of a shared temporality which is characteristic of classic cinema, and which Hitchcock’s Psycho exemplifies, according to film critic Serge Daney. 11 Warhol’s cinema therefore prevents the narrative strategies of participation from functioning, by creating reversible transitions in and out of the film’s temporality.
Moreover, the gaze of the spectator is forced to assume the position of the static eye of the camera and to re-enact the camera’s indifference to its subject; complete attention and total distance. The film then offers what Koch called “the meditative pleasure of disassociation.”12 A disassociation between the camera and its subject, reinforced by the disassociation between the detached and self-centred time experienced by the subject in his slumber and our time, as spectators watching an Andy Warhol film. A disassociation between the (false) impression of the literalness of the filmed time and the reality of the time of the projection. Sleep is a six-hour long film shot from five or six angles and projected at a speed of 16 images per second (“mute time” according to Koch) emphasizing the grain and flatness of the image. 13 despite its simplicity, the object of Warhol’s film is not what it appears. As Koch has observed, the immobility ends up dissolving the single image of the body on the screen and transforming it into a kind of impersonal landscape, much like the landscape into which the sleeper plunges. 14 In depriving the spectator of the actual experience of what is filmed (a deep sleep), the film finally brings about in the mind of each spectator, wide awake as he is, a kinetic image which is his alone: a sort of psychic landscape.
In the context of the Saint Martin’s School in 1970/71, the “discovering of the elements that go to make-up the narration,” as Gresty puts it, is solidified notably in the work of John Hilliard – in the form of a transition from sculpture to photography. 15 But it is Douglas Huebler, the American whose soon-to-be-abandoned sculptural work was presented in the exhibition Primary Structures, who undoubtedly developed these implications furthest. Like Robert Morris and Art & Language, 16 his work gives particular significance to the tension first identified by Cubism between the object’s autonomy and its explosion into multiple parts of viewpoints whose coherence then becomes problematic. Huebler elected to develop Minimalism’s rediscovery of this tension by inventing proceses of representing time by the way of photographic sequences. And so Duration, a book of “61 photographs made according to eight different systems in time,” published in 1970 by Galerie Sperone in Turin, presents different forms of objectification of time through the synthesis of physical and conceptual events. The experience of time diffracts into an infinity of particular temporal experiences which imply an activity of recreation based on unaccustomed representation of duration. “I’m interested in denying the sequential, normally accepted role of time,” he wrote, “so there’s no priority of the linear.” 17
Once again, the conjunction of mobility and immobility dictates the orientation of this research, through the binary pair, “Location/Duration.” This direction was further reinforced and revised through the opposition between elements called “constants” and others called “variables” which would thereafter regulate the artist’s production. Just as Andre declared, “time is related to space in an inseparable way.” Huebler’s interest is “time in space.” 18. “A lot of recent art,” he continued, “has dealt with the idea of location; the entrance of the viewer or the percipient into the space of the object or the object entering into his space has begun to be questioned. The object’s time enters the time of the percipient rather than being in some kind of past time. In the works of Robbe-Grillet, where the normal linear experience of moving along in time is constantly being reoriented or jammed back on you, it’s your time that’s being put into question. I think the same kind of thing has occurred in some other forms.”19 Space could be described as an experience in the present in which the spectator and work confront each other on equal terms. The tension is indisassociable from a temporal experience. The element of time thus introduces a mobility – “a variable” – in relation to the “constant” that is space. Because, as Huebler remarks, “if photographs are used, two or more, taken of the same subject are naturally sequential. If presented in that way, they give to the sign which they produce ‘literature’ and that in turn, is easily appropriated by myth.” 20 The linear representation of time tends to produce a text displaying affinities with fiction. “Therefore, in order to prevent the image from becoming mythicized,” he writes, “I scramble the order in which I finally present the photographs. Time is objectified, phenomenological facts become wholly present, in history, rather than about history. Within each work a ‘statement’ functions to describe the continuum within which a balance of ‘constants’ and ‘variables’ give to it its specific form’ conceptually reconstituted by its percipient that information joins with whatever is represented as ‘visual’: the image, which is the work, is produced by the percipient as an event in his, or her time. 21
His ‘existentialist’ inspiration distinguishes Huebler’s position at the core of a small group of early conceptual artists.22 This position is all the more interesting for us because it is situated at the juncture of what would later be called Narrative or Story Art. Huebler was and would remain very close to its founding members, John Baldessari and Peter Hutchinson. ++++ As with Warhol’s films, however, the rejection of “fiction” is the condition which allows the spectator to personally involve himself in the temporality of the work (Koch calls this the Duchampian paradigm). Here the “objectification” of time – the deconstruction of chronology – is the condition which defines the subjective position of the spectator. This is underscored, through other means, in James Coleman’s earliest works, such as Flash Piece (1970), which also explores the disjunction between “time as measured and time as experienced” 23with installations that produced a continuous cycle whose duration – potentially endless – considers with “the duration of our investment in it.” 24 In England, John Latham would be one of the first to become interested in the representation of time. Quantum of Mark (1959) was his first Time Base Film, suggesting, according to an expression he would use for a later work, “a logic that places extension in time as the key dimension of ‘real’ phenomena.” 25 This preoccupation reappears in 1970 when an exhibition by Keith Arnatt consisted simply of the recording of every second in the exhibition’s duration. 26The use of the process of recording time as a constituent element in the work itself would become a characteristic feature associated with film – or other equivalent forms – in the “sculpture” that was emerging. 27 Land Art in particular was one of the first artistic forms to make use of it. This process emphasized the syntactical dimension “of works which exist only during the time of their reproduction,” according to Richard Long. Long believed that in many ways, “ the film itself (done on his work in collaboration with Gerry Schum for the Fernsehgalerie in Dusseldorf) is the work.” 28This implied an attempt “to bridge the gap between event and medium, so that a new art form could evolve…making visible a process by means of a time factor and sequential images.” 29With his Cycling Sculpture of 1967 – a work of 16 identical elements placed on a 2401 square mile area – Long created a work which could never be viewed in its entirety. Gerry Schum, sums up Long’s position at the time by declaring “the photographs in hand (the book) do not have the function of a documentation; is the ‘Sculpture’…30 ++++ It is not by chance that temporality was a determining factor in the earliest Land Art works. The relationship to nature and to natural rhythms is another way to conceive of the tension between mobility and immobility. In the remarks quoted above, Lippard continues her discussion of the relationship between the Minimalist’s primary structures and the process of representing time in sculpture by suggesting an analogy with the cycles of nature. The “ecological changes” she mentions would, in effect, provide one of the major paradigms for using time in art at the end of the 1960s. In 1967 Long took part in an event at the Loehr Gallery in Frankfurt, on September 7, from 7.45-9.55 PM.31 The evening consisted of different events based on water, air and sand, and, once concluded, left no tangible traces behind. Interest, it would seem, had shifted towards process and natural phenomena32. The landmark Berne exhibition, When attitudes become form, a sort of potpourri of new trends, granted a privileged position to work adopting this kind of interest. 33 “Form was sought,” wrote Gresty, “in the properties of the materials themselves, natural cycles, devised systems of ordering such a logic and mathematics, real space, natural and imposed time, the evolving relationship between spectator and the object, and perception, behavior and though processes per se.” 34 In the same year, an exhibition of artists working in the United States at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” suggested a similar idea. 35 According to Jack Burnham, the notion of space/time that was self-regulated like a system was a current model proposed by information and cybernetic theory that exerted an influence on artistic thinking at the time.36 The reference to nature as a “global system” provided a new approach to the idea of time in art. By transforming the spectator’s mode of reception of the work of art, the representation of time assumed a deeply ambiguous symbolic content where, as Peter Hutchinson described it, the prehistoric encountered science-fiction, and a search for the representation of origin, of a new beginning, met the allegory of a world in ruins. The modification of the sense of time was essential to other kinds of consciousness-altering experiences of the era, such as “tripping” through the use of one of the most popular drugs of the sixties, lysergic acid.
The work of Long belongs to the first tendency, which in reality, was but one possible incarnation of process art. To paraphrase choreographer Merce Cunningham, “narration began with walking,” for Long. Long sought “the definition of space and time through the traversing of distance,” by hiking and traveling. 37 Meanwhile Lynne Cooke wrote that Long’s work embodies an “ahistorical, universal temporality (through the elimination of all traces of human or animal habitation and activity in his photographs)…eliciting a symbolic order from chaos and formlessness (through the imposition of pure geometric forms into the landscape).”38 The sign has an essential role in Long’s work, unlike that of his compatriot Hamish Fulton whose excursions from 1971 onward are recounted in the condensed form of a single photograph, thus excluding any narrative content or traces of any particular individual incident.39 The generic space/time of conceptualism is confronted with a series of states which lend it the embryonic form of a story.
The second tendency of this “return to nature” in art underscored the anti-modernist connotation of the representations of time by proposing the notion of entropy – a typical term in cyebernetic theory. 40Robert Smithson thus proposed, for example, that “oxidization, hydration and carbonatization, and solution (the major processes of rock and mineral disintegration)” be considered “four methods that could be turned toward the making of art.”41 Homes for America,42 Dan Graham’s 1966 photo-essay – a narrative work whose seminal character was recognized by Smithson 43 - suggests a more political vision of the reversal of the modernist conception of time, by depicting clusters of suburban houses that were proliferating along the edges of cities like entropic landscapes – like anti-landscapes. Jeff Wall’s early work, Landscape Manual (1969), and Cine Text (1971)44, a slightly later work, issued from a similar inspiration.
The artists grouped around the John Daniels Gallery in New York around 1965 including Peter Hutchinson, Robert Smithson, Sol Lewitt and Graham, who was the gallery’s director at the time, played a role in the growing interest in narrative. Smithson, like Hutchinson, was also influenced by science-fiction, “a mannerism of science,” which lent a fantastical side to his narratives about the exploration of landscape. In an interview, Hutchinson insisted that “we were all interested in having as many people write as possible…The only writers I’m interested in are people mainly like Bob Smithson, because it’s not just a polemic and it’s not just a description.” The interviewer then suggests, “It has seemed to me as if the fantasy which is excluded from the art object, which is so very explicitly controlled, is realised in terms of “language’ to which Hutchinson responded “That’s very good.” 45 Science-fiction presents interest both as a model of the entropy of formalism – fantasy in opposition to the literalness of minimal forms (resembling perhaps the “eccentricity” of the artists whose work Lucy Lippard labelled “Eccentric Abstraction” 46 in her 1966 exhibition at the Fishbach Gallery) – and a form of entropy of science. These are two incarnations of a particular modernist vision of time. The point here was to counteract a conception of historical evolution constructed by the critic alone and presented as inevitable, by considering works which propose their own representation of history. “For too long the artist has been estranged from his own ‘time”, Smithson wrote “Critics, by focusing on the ‘art object’, deprive the artist of any existence…the mental process of the artist…is disowned…The existence of the artist in time is worth as much as the finished product.” 47 At stake is the necessity to become the agent of a representation of present time on the basis of a new construction of the past and of the future. In one of his first texts “The Fictionalization of the Past,” Hutchinson wrote, “history is a fiction designed to give people power over the past much as science fiction gives them power over the future.” 48 His central argument eventually leads to an absolute historical relativism, so that any historical reconstitution becomes a fiction, an arbitrary construction or fantasy engaging only the person who proposes it or believes in its reality. As Louis Martin has demonstrated, the play of space produced, the play of space produced by the exit from historical time is inherent in the utopic dimension of narrative. 49 Here we encounter something already seen in Sleep; as Koch emphasizes, sleep is a sort of hypostasis of another time, of dream time when seconds melt into hours. This notion of an extremely subjective time would become one of the essential aspects of Narrative Art.
While Hutchinson’s British roots informed his interest in landscape, his career was made in the United States. Foraging (1971), a photographic account of a six-day hike in the Colorado mountains, both textural and filmic, constitutes a transition in his work from Earth Story to Story Art – the movement he founded with Baldessari. 50 So-called “Narrative Art” was first recognized with a museum exhibition in 1974 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. 51 Like other movements that emerged in the early 1970s, such as Body Art, there was an emphasis on granting a renewed status to subjectivity, which had disappeared from artistic discourse in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Particular emphasis was given to a proliferation of autobiographical references. The critics found it difficult to lend these tendencies a coherent definition; terms like “eccentric illusions” and “word play” described the recurrent themes found in this new manner of producing “the fiction of facts.”
The transit in Hutchinson’s work from “Earth Art to Story Art” consequently entails a transformation of the idea of reality “as a complex of incompatible possibilities” or, as Ann Wilson Lloyd suggests, “the mundane crossed with this absurd.” 52 Such a transformation is visible in the work of other artists, such as Willard Wegman who began his career as a minimalist sculptor. “His sculpture deals with series, relationships between objects, references to an ideal total object which was non existent….Furthering these concerns, Wegman abandoned the object and turned to photography, a medium that allowed quick reading of sequences and a variety of techniques for disturbing them and affecting the predictability of the series. 53
While the essential syntactical features of Modern art since Duchamp and Magritte have included the distortion of reality, ambivalence and paradox, or a pluralisation of these interpretations, the return to narrativity in the work of many young British artists, on the contrary, seems to respect the linearity of the narrative forms which they appropriate. Yet at the same time, these narratives appear to be distorted from within – without having been manipulated other than through reproduction. Whether it is an exhaustive transcription of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, in Fiona Banner’s The desert, the drawing out of Hitchcock’s famous film over a twenty-four hour period by Douglas Gordon, the graphic transcription of the eroticism offered in a porn film (a kind of CAT scan of the film itself) in This is Heaven Don’t You Think by Graham Gussin, the reception and juxtaposition of identical scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 also by Gussin, a video playback of a familiar opera in Sam Taylor-Wood’s Killing Time, or whether it is a sampling of the cliché sounds found in commercial cinema or the non-verbal utterances of Hitchcock’s Rebecca used, respectively, by Jacqueline Donachie and Stephanie Smith, what unites the various strategies operating in the works presented in Perfect Speed, is the use of a pre-existing narrative framework or the remixing of non-narrative elements inherent in the “realism” of cinematic stories.
Such appropriation of archetypes from mass culture is, of course, related to Pop Art (although it is precisely not the case with the earliest Warhol films). But beginning in 1965, with the use of the Western (Lonesome Cowboys), or porn films (Nude Restaurant, Blue Movie), Warhol’s films forged one of the first links between “high” and “low” culture – between “underground” and commercial movies. While appropriation frequently goes hand in hand with deconstruction and evokes a social, or psycho-social critique, the nearly universal cultural indicators, which appear in the type of narratives I am discussing here – for instance, representations of fear, pleasure or heroism – seem rather to function as reference points for the construction of subjectivity.
Thus I think is possible to connect them to a notion Victor Burgin recently articulated when he wrote, “to live, we have to inscribe ourselves within a story, and act our part in that story in order for our lives to have meaning…Today, the stories we need to know in order to live (what Lyotard calls the meta-narratives of legitimation) are inscribed not simply in chapels and museums, but in the newspapers, in advertising, in the cinema, etc” 54 James Coleman’s work of the 1980s is an example of the emphasis placed on the analysis of the codes and convention that fabricate image-types. In this sense, Coleman followed the critical sensibility of Conceptual Art’s “socialist” fringe. Appropriationist strategies were therefore synonymous with a critical reflection about representation’s socio-cultural determining factors.
Buchlock suggests that the re-inscription of history in Coleman’s work began as early as 1977 with Box which he believes reconstitutes “a historically specific body to the universalist abstraction of phenomenology.” 55 The aspect of Coleman’s work that is more strictly narrative becomes apparent the moment when the representation of the body, inscribed in the conditions of real experience, distinguishes itself from the neutral and trans-historical body of phenomenology. One could say that the reverse is true of the work of these young British artists; they aim for the possibility of a phenomenological experience of certain forms of representation which, when brought together, constitute a historically and sociologically specific cultural paradigm. Particularly emblematic of this idea is Douglas Gordon’s Something between my Mouth and year Ear (1994). The work is a replay of all the pop chart hits that his mother supposedly heard during her pregnancy with him. What such a reformulation of the relationship between phenomenology and history seems to question is the effect of encrypting inherent in allegorical montage, as if found in Coleman’s older work. The deconstructive analysis of historical and social forms of representation is thus replaced, it would seem, with an emphasis on “cultural” space constituted by subjective experience. Consequently, if, as Michael Newman has suggested, Coleman’s work depends on certain texts central to Western culture, then for these young British artists, it is this centrality itself that is questioned. 56 They do not have a specific history – a film – with a representative value. Rather “cinema,” in the way we might say “television,” is a collective cultural referrrent. A monolithic “discourse” filled with landmark references, it has created an emotional memory, void of specific symbolic meaning, which simply highlights the historical/cultural references of a certain generation. As is illustrated by at least two propositions in Perfect Speed, such appropriation of cinema is not limited to image. On the contrary, in Stephanie Smith’s Untitled (Rebecca) and Jacqueline Donachie’s Part Edit, it is the familiarity of certain sound effects which draw the spectator into that particular atmosphere which is specific to cinema.
According to the art historian Charles Harrison, a friend and ally of Art & Language, the loss of the emancipatory potential still borne by the avant-gardes of the 1960s created room for a “ghostly bohemia, a psychological bohemia of neurotic activities.” 57 Harrison thus opposes the interest in social transformation of the 1960s – for which he sees a distant model in Walter Benjamin’s The Author as Producer - and what he sees as introversion, or retreat into the private sphere by the artist haunted by his own obsessions and fantasies. On one side there is the exposure of the “repressive nature of the administrative apparatus”, and on the other, “affirmation of the individual’s autonomy.” However, we might wonder if the “failure” of the new avant-garde should note be examined in terms of an inability to articulate these two dimensions, one atop the other. As Victor Burgin puts it in the same catalogue, psychological analysis is not so much about the private experience of the autonomous individual as the “internalization” of various relationships which make of a social life during the formation of an individual.58 Burgin’s work fits into the genealogy I have been attempting to draw by his use of increasingly explicit narrative forms. Here we find a transition, as with Hutchinson, from minimal sculpture, to its dissolution in space (the “path” of Photopath, 1968-69, is not dissimilar to certain Land Art works) and to an interest in new narrative forms. Performative/ Narrative of 1971 would be one of the first works during these years to refer explicitly to the idea of narration. 59 Burgin’s innovation, however, lies in his understanding that the new desire for subjectivity, which revealed an interest in narrative, required a deeper psychological dimension. Burgin subsequently began, in 1970, to seek what he called a “psychical realism.” “Psychoanalysis,” he said, “teaches us that our self-image and the images we have of others, are always to some degree fictional. The word ‘fiction’ here may bring with it such notions as ‘narrative’ and ‘staging’, a vocabulary of representation which is entirely appropriate to the field of human action.” 60
Recurrent terms used to describe the new generation contain notions of climate and psychic activity with allusions to surrealist, psychedelic atmospheres. 61 Here again, the disconnection between image and sound, or between sound and the discursive, accentuates this atmospheric dimension of landscape in the works presented in the exhibition. The idea of a “psychic landscape” is sometimes associated with that of “character,” with the idea of donning a new identity – a model made available by cinema, and which can be “reactivated.” ++++ References to psychology have been essential in Gordon’s work since an early group exhibition in Glasgow, called “Self-Conscious State” at the Third Eye Center in 1990. And it has been more fully articulated since his use of cinema in 24 Hour Psycho, or in Hysterical, a 1994 installation which employs extracts from the Film Archives of Psychological Disorders. But here again, psychology does not indicate an analysis or a determination of an individual’s genuine self. More appropriate would be the meaning which Burgin ascribes to “psychical realism.” From this point of view an earlier work, List of Names, is revelatory. In this work, the “I” can only be conceived of as “self” in connection to the “field” created by a collection of the names of people he can remember. The names of “the others” thus form a map or an image by means of which the subject can enter the representation, reminding us of the interdependence of the individual and society.
And so, if the forms of reproduction which we can identify in the works of Perfect Speed distance themselves from the narrative structures the replicate – rather than simply deviating from them – this exhibition would consist of various modes of dissolving the appropriated narratives. The use of pre-verbal utterances from Hitchcock’s Rebecca in Smith’s work or the distillation of cinema as certain cliché sounds in Donachie’s installations are, in this sense, particularly enlightening. It seems, then, that in this double development the “narrative” eventually stabilizes in an atmosphere, a new kind of entropic landscape that tends to include the spectator – either by its sheer scale, as with Banner’s The desert, or by instigating a complicity with the spectator – for example, an erotic complicity, as with Smith’s Untitled (Rebecca). At the same time, though, this tendency seems neutralized by the specific characteristic of each work in the exhibition – expansion, description, reciting, condensing, editing, or non-signifying transcription as in Graham Gussin’s “sound drawings” such as This is Heaven Don’t You Think? which has the chill of medical statement and evokes a kind of desert landscape that is abstract and unpopulated.
The dissolution of narrative can be interpreted in sociological terms. Consider, for example how it might represent the distance lodged between a typical form of representation (such as opera’s melodrama, in the case of Sam Taylor-Wood’s Killing Time, or heroism of the action-adventure film, in the case of Fiona Banner’s The desert) and the modes of reception which are available to us today. The representation of the difference between the original form and the way it is transmitted and “integrated” into the reality of our daily experience is the first instance of distancing that has a tendency to dissolve the internal coherence of narratives. In the work of Taylor-Wood, for example, the real “structure” of the installation Killing Time is not so much the opera’s musical score as the televised reproduction of a typical form of classic spectacle. The issue that would seem to be raised here is: what is left of a work of art that sought to be “total” – like opera – after mass broadcasting on television? By means of the lip-synched opera, we thus witness a reproduction of a reproduction which works like a collage of the spectator on top of the representation of the spectacle. The four characters who are “killing time” waiting to mouth the words of the opera could finally be anybody who “kills time” in front of his TV, deprived of the possibility of really accessing the nature of the drama represented. It is the mise-en-scene of the distance in relation to “high culture’ which seems to be at the heart of Taylor-Wood’s installation. How is one of the monumental forms of leisure, an aristocratic pleasure, received in the context of a society of free time? A time which, without mediation, without culture, is consumed in sheer loss, sent on a permanent vacation of empty freedom?
Jean Fisher, in reference to James Coleman’s 1980 video installation, So Different….And Yet discusses a similar operation. This work is, in effect, “a storytelling performance,”; it is a televised reproduction of traditional narrative from which here (unlike oral narration which seeks to create the intimacy of an intersubjective relation of exchange) erases the communal effect inherent in oral narration, and disrupts the usual flow of narrative in television broadcasting. 62 In other respects, the distance created by the reproduction of narrative can be understood as way of underscoring the experience which is articulated by the following question: what remains of these narratives, of these stories in the memory of those who have experienced them, once the projection is over? The effect of cultural degradation which the first form of distancing enacts is redoubled by this second form of dissolution which is the specific to individual memory – which in effect forgets as much as it retains. This second distance thus signals the way in which representations which assume the role of cultural archetypes are integrated into the spectator’s selective memory – at times lazy, at times obsessional. A recent work by Burgin suggested that by deconstructing the original, other films possibly inscribed within the first might be discovered: “What I could do while watching South Pacific on my computer screen, rather than at the cinema,” he wrote, “is to de-articulate the film, taking off from the idea that the film has a content and a visible surface but that there is always, in this permanent image, its evanescence, the feeling that a latent content – another film – is inscribed in the visible one.” 63 Burgin also said, “I am more interested in the film we remember than the one which has passed on the screen.” These effects of distance, these representations at once remove open a second scene: the constitution of the spectator’s imagination. The dissolution of original narratives enacted by the various forms of their translation constitutes a milieu by which, or in which, atmospheres, impressions and particular emotions are created. We could say that the entropy of narrative is therefore the condition of its transformation into mental landscape. For Romanticism, and especially Baudelaire, landscape was the first form of representation to be fulfilled by he who sees it. He wrote for example in the Salon of 1859, “if such an assemblage of trees, mountains, water and houses which we call a landscape is beautiful, it is not due to it, but to me, to my own grace, to the idea or the feeling that I assign to it.”64
This landscape dimension seems characteristic of the new narrative modalities which are found in the works of Perfect Speed. The landscape, or better yet, “wordscape,” by Fiona Banner could be likened to the desert-like features typical of Land Art. 65 That which attracts us to the pre-historic aspect is transformed into a post-historic reference. The desert is a conversion of the temporal dimension of a film into an instantaneous spatial apprehension, by expanding the text to the horizontal field of the picture plane. The same effect of an expanded field is a determinant feature in many works by Gordon. In 24 Hour Psycho the sense of anxiety is extended, or distended, to a cosmic scale – that of a complete revolution of the earth. Here again, there is a connection to one of Richard Long’s first works, Sculpture 1st-3rd (December 1967). Not only because in both cases the work is enlarged to such a scale that it surpasses itself – the map of the world on the one hand, and the earth’s rotation on the other – but because they both offer but one moment (a map), one point of access, in a chain whose totality must be reconstituted, or in any case, presupposed mentally.
The Searchers, also by Gordon, based on the John Ford western, is an attempt to match up the temporality of the action with that of the work of art, by projecting one second of the original film each day that the piece is one view. Graham Gussin’s installation Beyond the Infinite, which consists of two video loops viewed on two monitors and is based on the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey signals another way of producing a stagnation effect on the image. While each loop represents the same scene at two different rhythms – since one is shorter than the other – they highlight the non-coincidence of two “narratives”, although they are identical, this producing a sense of provocation as the spectator attempt to locate the point, the exact moment of synthesis where the scenes will be re-absorbed, folding into each other. This inaccessible point, constantly being deferred and changing form, is, in a sense, the “exterior” of the film – Kubrick’s missing image –
In some of Coleman’s recent work there is also an interest in creating a distended filmic temporality – as in La Tache Aveugle (1978-1990) or Untitled (1990) – which toys with the momentary freeze of an image. Lynne Cooke has noticed a preference in his work “for the shot at the expense of sequence,” a combination for the stasis and movement of the image which brings “motion film back to its origin in the static image, pointing its roots in black and white photograph.” 66 ++++ A parallel could also be drawn with an older work by Coleman of 1972-73, Slide Piece, which questions the perception of an image over time and its memorization; “a successive projection of a number of slides which are duplicated from an original slide. Each change of slide is accompanied by a new description which represents an expansion of the work.” 67 In the same way that slowing down in 24 Hour Psycho or, particularly, the linguistic translation of a film, as in Banner’s The desert implies a rupture effected by the gaze on an excerpt, a fragment or moment which connects the temporality of the original work to a time-depth whose duration is specific to the reading of the image which, here, is completely dissolved into its description. Conversely, it is the preliminary extraction of the aural, non-discursive occurrences in certain kinds of films – like close-ups over a sound-track that is usually imperceptible – which allow Smith and Donachie to open new psychic landscapes based on the original material of the film. All of these strategies propose a way to penetrate a hidden layer behind the works and images which we attempt to bring to the screen’s surface. A critic recently remarked in regard to Gordon’s piece, “abandoning convention (he) places the screen in the center of the space and projects the film from the rear. The viewer is able to walk up to and behind the screen – seeing what was once familiar as a mirror image. Besides the sculptural experimentation, this arrangement plays with the childish desire to go behind, beyond the cinema screen in the hope of finding a ‘new’ reality. 68 As for the critic James Roberts, he perceives in Gordon’s work a “quasi-religious quality” or an “essentially communicable reality.” 69 However, rather than an “expanded consciousness,” the enlarged field with which the works of Perfect Speed confront us seems to me to circumscribe a limited consciousness: lacking historical depth or density in a sense. On one hand, Lawrence of Arabia, for example speaks of a legendary heroism verging on caricature, where personal history and epic history are harmoniously conjoined. One the other, Banner’s transcription, a simultaneous apprehension of past and future, regardless of the present history before us, is tantamount to the destruction of the historic dimension: the viewer necessarily disassembles the work’s coherence, taking in fragments of the work-zapping, as it were. Similarly in 24 Hour Psycho any climax like that by which the original film resolves the tension in an “act” in suspension (the murder in the shower) is dissolved, and with it, the “position of the spectator,” evoked by Serge Daney precisely in relation to Hitchcock’s film: “you will be afraid, but you will see the scene of place which will be your place and this place will be constructed by the mise-en-scene, a vectorized space.” As soon as the mediation – the result of the filmmaker’s work – is effaced by slowing down the film, this position is rendered uncomfortable and unstable. The transformation from 96 minutes to 24 hours, has the effect of forcing the unfolding film’s narrative, and thus its temporality, which is one of the determining factors of its construction, into the space in which the work is exhibited, and which we share as spectators. As Donachie’s sound installation does literally, the film seems to expand into the space. No longer held to the narrative thread, we partake in the creation of a spectral atmosphere, especially with the play of our shadows cast as pass between the screen and the projector. Consequently the position of the spectator appears all the more inclusive, even as it is less clearly inscribed. By slowing down the film, the roles are reversed; not only is it impossible to follow the plot, but the spectator now has endless time to contemplate what he is seeing and to let this thoughts wonder – unlike when a film is normally projected. This sense of temporality is not unrelated to Taylor-Wood’s Killing Time, whose title implies an adversarial relationship with time; the spectator must confront the expanse of time given him in this installation and the boredom manifested by the four projected characters. The two feelings which comprise Gordon’s work – a vestige of psychosis (or at least that which the slowing down of the film can retain), and boredom, distended time which surrounds us – are consequently blended. Nothing is left but an atmosphere, the play of shadows and spectral images as we imagine the film playing through the night while we in turn delve into the realm of representation in our dreams. ++++ If narrative is at issue here, it is as a condition of the negation, or destruction, or an original narrative. In this way, such an effacement of the primary language – literally, as with Beyond the Infinite, The desert, 24 Hour Psycho, Part Edit or Untitled (Rebecca) since the film is rendered mute in these works – is, following a Derridian argument, actually writing (ecriture). The effect of this dissolution is but a representation of the mediation by which a representation becomes effective for the spectator who sees is or who hears it. What we experience with the works included in Perfect Speed is the transition, or transference, from the representation of a story to the representation of the story’s reception.