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The Guardian (20/Jul/1999) - Hitch and run tactics




Hitch and run tactics

Alfred Hitchcock inspires artists like no other film-maker. Adrian Searle dodges the bad mothers and mad lovers at the latest show to celebrate the master of suspense

Everyone wants to be in the movies. In Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art, at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, Victor Burgin gets John Everett Millais's pre-Raphaelite Ophelia to body-double for Tippi Hedren in her near-drowning scene in Vertigo and American painter David Reed hangs one of his own suave, 90s abstract paintings above Scottie's bed in the same movie. Elsewhere, Reed has fabricated a corner of the movie set, hanging his painting above a bed just like the one in the film, complete with rumpled sheets and dressing gown.

Cindy Bernard, on the other hand, has rebuilt the forest set from Vertigo, turning it into a strange slide projection of lurid paper redwoods on screens hung in a darkened room.

Vertigo is the most potent of Hitchcock's movies for artists. It is a film about identity and desire, two of the most pungent buzzwords in contemporary art. Hitchcock's movies have everything, with their themes of sex and desire, repression and psychosis, voyeurism, the unconscious, the surreal and the fetishistic, along with humour, sadism, violence, stunning set pieces, gruesome plots, great acting and fab frocks.

The best of Hitchcock's films also make you aware of the camera's voyeuristic eye. These are films about film, as much as they are about their storylines, murders, love affairs and chases. Hitchcock was never a realist, except in the sense of psychic realism. In the same way, Bernard's patently artificial trees take one to the mental backwoods.

Hitchcock's movies are supremely modernist conceits, borne out of the music hall, silent-movie gags and German expressionist cinema, with a heavy dose of pulp fiction and Freud. His films have proved mutable to seemingly endless post-modern appropriations and reworkings. No wonder Derrida's children have set about Hitchcock with a vengeance: Hitchcock, the lugubrious monster, the all-seeing eye, omnipotent, complex, sadistic, sly and playful, produced a body of work so complex and ragged-edged, so fierce and flawed that it has enough meat on the bone for everyone.

Christophe Girardet and Matthias Müller have collected Hitchcock clips of pockets, wallets, handbags, corners and crossroads and trains, the light under doors, objects falling and breaking, bad mothers and mad lovers, stranglings, guns and violent disrobings, in their run-together snippets of clips from the movies, shown on monitors throughout the exhibition. These compilations are especially telling, in that they record the film-maker's abiding obsessions, his tics, his filmic repetitions. They give an inkling of just how rich Hitchcock is as a film-maker, how circular his obsessions.

In Victor Burgin's hands, Hitchcock is buried under the weighty rehetoric of conceptual art discourse. John Baldessari's recent Tetrad series of paintings collide cropped stills from North by Northwest, fragments of Goya's paintings and prints, snatches of text from the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, and images of everyday objects - a plate, a mousetrap, a shirt on a hanger. Baldessari doesn't so much make connections as engineer collisions. I don't know what he's saying - perhaps that nothing is arbitrary. You go home, you look at a Goya on the wall, stick a bit of cheese in the mousetrap and then go and murder a woman in the shower. Then settle down for an evening of light reading from the Portuguese classics.

If you can't get into Hitchcock via the time-slip of digital technology, or by re-routing the films into an art context, why not just re-make him? Vancouver artist Stan Douglas has re-shot the scene in Marnie where the eponymous heroine rifles the safe in the boss's office. Douglas has taken over an entire gallery at MoMa for this projected work. We hear the ambient white-noise slither of the film through the projector, as we watch a woman walk through an office. It looks like the 50s, but there are computer terminals on the desks. Where Marnie was shot in colour, Douglas's remake is in black and white. She stalks the corridor, and goes for the safe, then repeats her endless round, again and again. Rifling the boss's drawer for the key. We hear the drawer bang shut. This is significant in that in the Hitchcock movie, Marnie is surprised by the office cleaner, who turns out to be deaf. Perhaps what we are hearing, as we watch the remake, is the noise in the cleaner's head.

Pierre Huyghe, on the other hand, has re-done Rear Window on the cheap, with a cast of amateurs. This little homage, shown as stills alongside the original, and projected on a tiny screen, seems to me to do little, except as a Rear Window on Rear Window.

Instead of reworking Hitchcock, Atom Egoyan has cropped scenes from his latest commercial movie, Felicia's Journey, which comes out later this year, starring Bob Hoskins as a serial killer. We never see Hoskins in this little movie-within-a-movie and the camera focuses solely on the young prostitutes Hoskins has lured into his car. We watch, over and over, their careless conversation, and the dawning realisation that they've been kidnapped. Egoyan's nod to Hitchcock is that Hoskins is secretly recording the girls he is abducting, and what we are watching is the footage he is shooting for his private delectation.

Cindy Sherman wants to be in the movies too - any movie will do - and her portfolio of untitled, imaginary film stills shows her full range: lonesome naive hitch-hiking waif, knowing broad in a bar, woman waiting, rotting corpse, crazy girl. Sherman is nothing if not versatile, and available. In real life, Sherman has directed her own feature movie, and is currently dating Steve Martin. Movie world and art world collide. But get too close to Hitchcock's world, as any film buff will tell you, and bad things are likely to happen.

Douglas Gordon doesn't just slow down Hitchcock, or re-jig Hitchcock in his work. He recently bought enough American Hitchcock stamps to post his own body weight from New York back to Glasgow. This is slight work, but he's also represented here by 24 Hour Psycho. Douglas Gordon's unabated affair with Hitchcock has, I think, peaked, but the love affair between art and the movies has not. Where do the movies end and real life begin? It was just like a movie, we say, after some extraordinary experience, and in the wind-down to sleep we slip ourselves into the movies in our heads.

Dreaming Hitchcock, we know we're in for a nightmare. So analysed, deciphered, recontextualised, deconstructed, co-opted, copied, simulated and otherwise studied are Hitchcock's films, by film fans, other film-makers, campus theory-hounds and deconstructionists, that the original movies can no longer be seen as themselves, as pure entertainment. But then they never were pure entertainment. They were never pure, in any sense.

Notorious is incomplete if only because Hitchcock is such a compendious and potent source for all sorts of artists. MoMa, in fact, is too small for the show, and the sound leakage between works, as well as the onslaught of moving and still images, is too much to take in. Some years ago, the same gallery attempted a show, Scream and Scream Again, which had an even wider brief in its exploration of the relationship between art and film. The Hayward tried it too, with the dismal Spellbound show.

Art galleries aren't up to this momentous task. Maybe we have to take it movie by movie, artwork by artwork, re-make for re-make. But next month, on the centenary of Hitchcock's birth, you could do worse, apart from slipping Vertigo or The 39 Steps in the video machine, than to head for Oxford.

Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art is at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (01865 722733) till October 3.