Visual Arts: Through the rear window

Sex, violence voyeurism... Hitchcock filmed it all. But did he leave anything for artists to interpret? By Tom Lubbock

There's a line in Hitchcock's Rear Window that's always taken my fancy. It is, so to speak, the Act I curtain: a pause, a moment of sudden trust and directness, the point when Grace Kelly/Lisa's doubt turns - when what had seemed to be James Stewart/Jeff's wild, wheel-chair-bound fantasy about the man in the flat opposite looks like it might just be horribly true. But for a critic, or any journalist, it's also the voice of the ideal reader. Lisa says, very calmly: "Tell me what you saw. And what you think it means."

Both jobs, this week, quite easily done. "Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art" is at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and it is what it says it is: an exhibition of contemporary art that takes off from the works of Hitchcock. And what it means, for one thing, is that we live in the age of the proactive curator, and curators love themes, and this is obviously an excellent theme, because so curiously specific - excellent, at least, if the theme can be made to work.

It can. It fills a gallery convincingly. The show has a dozen or so bodies of work, mostly video and photo; it includes such artists as Cindy Sherman, Douglas Gordon, Atom Egoyan and John Baldessari; and almost all the work is Hitchcock-inspired in perfectly explicit ways. So what it also means is that the Master, in his centenary year, holds a fairly strong place in today's artistic mindset.

This needn't be surprising. Hitchcock offers lots of things we like (or like to analyse): sex and violence, fetishism, voyeurism. But perhaps the real affinity, or aspirant affinity, is with Hitchcock's tone, an uncertain one, a shifty mix of passion and irony, sophistication and crudeness, which comes with his uncertain status as high/low artist, and which makes him, in fact, a peculiarly difficult object of inspiration - as many film "homages" prove, and several of the artistic "remakes" here do too. But one of them proves quite otherwise.

The six "Phoenix Tapes" are short videos made by Christoph Girardet and Matthias Muller. They steal and save the show. They're not a remake so much as a remix. The artists have taken the complete films of Hitchcock, made a descriptive catalogue of every shot, and then edited together sequences of recurring motifs, with linking themes.

The first of these videos you meet is devoted to hands in close-up. You have, say, half a dozen shots of door handles being very slowly turned, then ditto of keys being concealed, handbags rifled, notes written, things dropped, phones dialled, steering wheels turned, pistols fired. One obvious pleasure is source- spotting - there's the note from Rear Window, the bottle smashing in Notorious; then there's the aspect of criticism-before- your-very-eyes, the themes that return again and again; best of all is the sense of one distinctive Hitchcock mode - the intimate handling of objects - extracted neat and put on repeat for our savouring.

Other tapes are more ambitious. There's a mothers-and-sons reel, with magnificent montages of Hitchcock harridans and Hitchcock "queers". There's a romance/murder reel, which segues effortlessly from dream clinches to violent strangleholds. There's a panic reel, with one extremely exciting image-relay, moving in a rapid step-by-step jolt from close-up accusing face to bolting crowd. The Phoenix Tapes transform the laborious encyclopaedism of their making with a wit, cunning, rhythm and tone that are all true to source. The effect is to renew the oeuvre - to give back what you know almost too well in a revised and reviving form. It would be wonderful to have them out on commercial video, but copyright prevents.

So that is the big, good surprise of the show (it was specially commissioned). Other works have a more expected air. Some of them had to be included, of course, but I think Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (1978) are losing their shine, though they once seemed such a brilliant invention. These are black-and-white stills from imaginary but generically recognisable films, each starring (in various guises) the artist. There are some definite Hitchcocks among them, and No 56 is clever because it could be Hitchcock or it could be Bergman, which isn't a confusion you'd expect. But once you've had a good look through them all, they don't accrue.

But that's not an experience you're likely to have with another essential inclusion, Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho (1993). It runs (silently) at about two frames a second and, if you haven't seen it before, it's quite an interesting spectacle: very frustrating at first, of course; and then a focus for the desires that are being frustrated (i.e., it makes you think about stories, suspense, shock etc); and then you slow down and take it at its own dreamy speed; and then you get bored. But in fact I did hear of someone who had sat through it entire.

With the rest of the show: though, as I say, it's convincingly full of Hitchcock-oriented art, I suspect the curators didn't have such a wealth to select from that they could afford to be very choosy - rather, the theme needed to look justified, and almost everything plausible went in. At least, I find it hard to believe it was sheer admiration that made them include The Bridge (1984), a photo-text piece by the veteran British conceptualist Victor Burgin, which presents a Freudian-feminist critique of Vertigo and in effect transfers an essay from Screen magazine on to the gallery wall and nothing more.

Of course, there's some slightly livelier stuff too. But little of it seems fully necessary, in terms of saying something the films don't already say. It's a problem about cross-trading between high and low culture - a special problem here, because of the special position Hitchcock occupies. He is almost inappropriable. Now the typical situation is for the high artist to come across some vigorous popular form and to find in it unconscious, unexploited artistic possibilities - and to take it up, bring it out, do something with it. Think of Roy Lichtenstein and the strip-cartoon. Granted, the cartoon-artists he borrowed from were not the naive, anonymous craftsmen they've sometimes been taken for, they were conscious stylists, and you may say the original cartoons are nicer; but still, Lichtenstein saw potentials in their work that they didn't see, and made something of them.

But the case of Hitchcock is different, perhaps uniquely so. Not remotely naive, of course - quite the contrary: critics have long been saying he was a terrific highbrow, almost an experimental film-maker, producing a self-reflexive cinema about looking, about fantasy, about viewing and cinema itself, all that. Which is true enough. But if it were the whole truth, then practically nobody, including most of those critics, would be at all interested in Hitchcock's art, whose mysterious charm is in the way these highbrow elements are inextricably mixed with the values and dynamic of comedy-melodrama (though sometimes, as in Vertigo, the mixture tastes pretty funny).

So you can't do much with Hitchcock, artistically. You can't be knowing about the films, bringing out implicit but unconscious material, because they know it all already. And if you try to extract and separate out a "deep" Hitchcock from an "entertainment" Hitchcock, you actually end up with something much thinner and more straightforward than the originals. In terms of cultural trading, Hitchcock is ahead of the game, and playing it in the other way. He knew the avant-garde cinema of his time, and incorporated its tricks and interests into thrillers. It isn't a matter of packaging high with low (as, for instance, The Name of the Rose basically does); it's a fusion. We can't do that now. And I suppose the main thing Alfred Hitchcock must inspire in the contemporary artist, beyond homage or critique, is a pure and fully justified envy.

`Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art', Museum of Modern Art, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford; until 3 October

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system