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The Lancet (1999) - The influence on art of the master of suspense




Wood reviews an exhibition of contemporary art entitled "Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art," on view at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford UK until Oct 3, 1999.


In the first chapter of The History of Sexuality, entitled "We Other Victorians", Michel Foucault wonders at the double-edged morality of a society in which, "officials are paid to listen to all and sundry impart the secrets of their sex!". "Why", he asks, "do we say with so much passion and so much resentment that we are repressed? ... what led us to show ostentatiously that sex is something we hide, to say that it is something that we silence?"

Whatever that compulsion is in 20th-century western society, Alfred Hitchcock understood it. Although he was born a Victorian (well, only just — in 1899) his films reveal an incisive understanding of what lurked beneath the ideals of that era, tapping into those fears and desires through an understanding of the workings of psychoanalysis. Devilishly, though, he played on the symptoms and offered no cure.

Notorious at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, UK, brings together the work of 14 well-respected contemporary artists in an a slightly dubious attempt to reveal something of the "influence" of the "master of suspense" on the art of today. What struck me about this grouping of photographic, video, installation, and film was that this influence cannot, as MOMA director Kerry Brougher suggests, be reduced to the result of Hitchcock's "self reflexivity" and modernist style. The impact is in the spookiness, not the look, of the films. In the most interesting work, I found exorcisms, not exercises, in art history.

Different attempts to master the trauma of watching Hitchcock's thrillers are played out. Perhaps the least successful are the Phoenix Tapes by Christoph Giradet and Matthias Muller, which were specially commissioned for the show. Staged on video screens throughout the exhibition, these works attempt to highlight Hitchcock's own obsessions, almost making fun of the typical moments of passion and danger that surface in every film. Bad mothers, mad lovers, kisses, and screams are looped like the short circuit of Hitchcock's own frustrated desires. But just as Scottie is unable to know or rationalise the workings of the mind of his obsession (Madeleine) in Vertigo, Hitchcock is knowingly implicated in his characters' dysfunctions from the start. We don't need this pointed out.

More successfully, Stan Douglas gets behind the otherworldly reality of Hitchcock's thrillers by making his own contemporary version of Marnie. Recorded on 16 mm black and white film, Douglas' shaky remake is projected onto the wall of a large, dark room. The white noise of the electrical equipment is the only sound. One's own shadow is flung into the film space, an office at night. Though it is disorienting at first, it is impossible to be drawn into this world of suspense. The revelation of cinematic means and the black space of my own shadow remind me that this illusion is simply physical light and darkness — nothing more sinister.

Likewise, Cindy Bernard creates a virtual redwood forest like the one in Vertigo. Her forest is made of computer-simulated trees projected onto paper screens like stage backdrops, reminding us — in a more cheerful way — that it was only a movie.

Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993) goes further than most of the other works with the raw material of Hitchcock's work. Slowed down to one frame per second, the artificiality of the "movie" is shown up and the suspense unbearably suspended. It is rather hit and miss as to which bit of the 24-hour film you will chance upon, but I arrived (and left, after 10 min) to see the heroine driving along, being followed by what turns out to be a police car. Stilled to near stasis, the car-chase is no longer a car-chase. The actress moves in slow, mechanical jolts alternately looking nervously in her wing mirror and then fixing her eyes on the road. Our desire for action is frustrated, and, at this pace, it becomes absurd that though she will never get away, neither will he catch her. Within this moment, and in every moment of Gordon's slowed-down film, the deaths that are, at this point in the narrative, still to come are prefigured in the revelation of the stillness of the images. This time, the movie is shown to be something more distressingly artificial: the reanimation of what Godard called "death 24 times per second".

Hitchcock himself borrowed widely from the history of art — Edward Hopper's House on a Hill for Psycho, John Everett Millais Ophelia for Kim Novak's drowning scene in Vertigo, Salvador Dali's dreamscapes in Spellbound — but what made his work so successful was that these borrowings were never pointed, they were simply part of the appeal to a sense of collective consciousness that allowed him to intimate such knowing chill.

In this sense, Cindy Sherman is his equal. Her untitled film stills and large-scale colour photographs acknowledge the extent to which we live in a world shaped by the conventions of cinema. In her theatre of ambiguous scenarios, glamour and honour play equal parts, but Sherman takes these fears and obsessions further, testing our desire against our level of tolerance. These works do not refer specifically to Hitchcock, and they are not subsidiary to his fame, but we recognise him in them. Sherman's photographs stand out as artwork in their own right. Much of the rest leaves me wondering: who is this about, him or them?