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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