Affairs of the art
Art and film have always been willing bedfellows, but how compatible are they? Adam Mars-Jones looks for answers in 'Spellbound', a show that exhibits the talents of Damien Hirst, film-maker, and Peter Greenaway, installation artist
Adam Matthews, Terry Townshend
Adam Matthews is Secretary-General of GLOBE International in London, and Terry Townshend is Head of Policy at GLOBE International in Beijing. GLOBE supports legislators through national chapters to develop and advance laws on sustainable development.
Tuesday 27 February 1996
Some of the exhibition's contributors have made actual films: with these, it doesn't seem unduly perverse to assess them on the basis of how they would be received by a cinema audience, if they were screened before the main feature. Shown on a Saturday night, say, before Seven, Boyd Webb's witty animation Love Story would receive raucous acclaim, Damien Hirst's Hanging Around, with its pretentious anecdote and rock-video production values, would provoke restlessness after five minutes (with 15 to go), and Steve McQueen's Stage - significant glances and evasions in black and white between black man and white woman - would be pelted with popcorn unless it was part of a festival called "Remembering the Avant-garde".
Other contributors haven't made films but installations that are highly referential. Ridley Scott's display is actually self- referential, being of scripts, storyboards and sketches from the making of Alien and Blade Runner. These would be of considerable archival interest if it wasn't for the arrogance of their presentation on four video screens so that it isn't possible to follow everything that is on offer. This exhibit is time-based in all the negative ways: it demands an indefinite investment of attention from the spectator, but without the obligingness of a fixed schedule. It's particularly ironic to have films of a slick futurism celebrated in a format that seems more like an inoperative CD-Rom - or a reference book that someone reads to you in relentless sequence - than anything properly cinematic.
Douglas Gordon's exhibit 24-Hour Psycho, meanwhile, consists of a screening of Psycho so slowed down that a full showing lasts almost a full day. The effect is to expose not the mechanisms of Hitchcock's film but a particular set of emotions felt by artists towards the cinema, a simultaneous urge to desecrate and to pay their respects.
Another of Gordon's projects, reproduced in the catalogue, would involve screening The Searchers at the rate of a frame every 16.159291 minutes, so as to "reconstitute" the "original, literal narrative" (five years!) of the film's story. What have Hitchcock and Ford done to deserve a homage so full of resentment? When will it be the turn of, say, Ron Howard or Leonard Nimoy, of Splash and Three Men and a Baby?
If Douglas Gordon etiolates Psycho, Fiona Banner chooses instead to condense her chosen genre of film, the Vietnam war movie. Where he drowns films in time, she strands them outside it. In her Apocalypse Now! the film of that name is paraphrased sequence by sequence in pencilled handwriting on a huge piece of paper that stands in for the cinema screen. Alongside is a waist-high orange column on which sits a thick softbacked book, entitled NAM in strident red on blue, made up of similarly paraphrased Vietnam war films - such as Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War - this time typed rather than handwritten.
If Banner accompanied the texts in her exhibits with, for instance, a model of a Vietnamese child burnt with napalm, she would be entering the realm of dismal political kitsch, but at least she would be taking a chance of some sort. She would be venturing outside the world she has chosen to address.
Equally well, if her wall exhibit was called Passport to Pimlico instead of Apocalypse Now! and the book on top of the column was entitled Ealing, her exhibit would be no different formally, but would forfeit its faint parasitic prestige - all it has.
With Paula Rego's exhibit the problem is the reverse (though it is a glorious problem), not of seeming swamped by cinema but of having her preoccupations left intact by the slight shift in imagery. The large, squarish format of the paintings concedes no homage to the cinema screen. Rego's artistic personality is so consistent and commanding that her debt to Disney in these paintings hardly registers.
In the painting of Geppetto washing Pinocchio, for instance, the history of religious painting looms larger than the intervention of Disney in the story: a wooden boy stands in for the dead Christ, as if in some unholy Deposition. The washing of a stiff small body, face down, held on the puppetmaker's knees, becomes both sacramental and abusive.
Disneyfying - the compulsion to render dark stories American sweet and normal - is no match for the set of procedures, by now almost as well established, which we might call Regofaction. Rego blurs certain linked categories (active/ passive, adult/ child), and obsessively heightens certain themes (complicity and revenge). Her adolescent protagonists remain indebted to Balthus, except for being emancipated from the spectator's gaze; sexual agents and voyeurs in their own right, not objects of adult projection.
With the suite of paintings based on the dancing ostriches from Fantasia, Paula Rego reverses the anthropomorphic principle of the original. Instead of animal caricatures aspiring to human grace, we see thick-set, swarthy dancers stubbornly flexing and stretching, struggling against the facts of gravity and cellulite. These are major paintings in their own right, but they stand proud of the exhibition to which they notionally contribute.
The core pleasures of "Spellbound" are to be found in the installations of Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Greenaway. Paolozzi offers a room full of props, some real and some fabricated, piled on trestle tables or hanging from rails and hooks. It's like a miniature version of Kane's rooms of dumped treasure in Xanadu, which were already reminiscent of a film studio's warehouses. Paolozzi seems to take seriously Orson Welles's comparison of film-making with playing with toy trains (indeed, locomotives feature in the installation). Only here in the whole exhibition is the childish side of cinema acknowledged.
Greenaway's installation also includes props, but they are laid out on tables and co-ordinated with the days of the exhibition. Every day, too, five live actors chosen on a stated basis (actors who have appeared in a Derek Jarman film, for instance, or whose surnames begin with the letter Z) sit in glass cases at one end of the room. The idea is do-it-yourself cinema, with a different cast and situation provided on a daily basis.
Temperamentally, though, Greenaway cannot so easily grant an audience collaborative status, and having given it freedom he takes it back, for instance by using music played at a deafening volume and by alternating bright light and darkness. Even in the listing of casts and scenarios Greenaway hugs to himself his status as the owner and disowner of meanings. Is it coincidence that Actors Who Have Appeared in a Spielberg Film (30 April) have been assigned the props for a bordello, or that Actors Who Have Played in a Jane Austen Family (24 April) have been assigned those for a sex shop?
This installation creeps much closer to the domain of fun than anything Greenaway has done in the past: his bombast, didacticism and pedantry are all reined in. It is still possible to feel, though, that audiences are admitted to Peter Greenaway's artistic productions more or less as food is admitted to a digestive system.
Of all the contributors, it may in the end be Terry Gilliam who engages most subtly with the dynamics peculiar to film- making: his installation was unready on Wednesday, the day of the press show, and still not finished on Sunday. Perhaps it's not an installation at all but a mocking tour de force of conceptual art, a quirky tribute to those many films that have gone hopelessly over budget or fallen impossibly behind schedule.
n 'Spellbound' is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 to 6 May (0171-960 4208)
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