Closer (2002)
3 screen video installation with soundtrack

Video documentation of Closer (3 screen video installation with soundtrack) exhibited at Tate Britain as part of Art Now, 9th February to 5th May 2002

Unedited text from review in the Times of Closer at Tate Britain
Wednesday April 17th 2002
Closer Tate Britain ****
'Set the Laser to Stun'
Visual Art at Tate Britain

Reproduced with the kind permission of Richard Cork

Apart from a quick, nervous intake of breath on the soundtrack, nothing provokes our disquiet when Closer begins. The three screens, set at an angle and suspended from the ceiling in a deeply shadowed room, are so dark that they seem blank. Then, without warning, a solitary hand appears on the left screen. A beam of intense red light irradiates the open palm, so bright that it threatens to pierce the flesh. But the hand vanishes just as swiftly, leaving the entire triptych of screens to present distant images of a city at night.

Dryden Goodwin, the promising young artist who displays this ambitious new video at Tate Britain, soon moves in much nearer. Fascinated by urban life, he ensures that the preliminary spectacle of lights, sprinkled across an inky immensity of ground and sky, gives way to close-up shots of looming architecture. At the same time, an ominous high note is heard along with low, rustling sounds. They evoke the strangeness of a nocturnal office-block, where nothing can be heard save the wind surging aimlessly around the building's deserted base.

Then, after a moment of silence, we are invaded by the noise of trains. All three screens are filled with blurred images of lights, railway tracks and grim walls scarcely visible in the over all rush. Occasionally the beam of light reappears, reminding us that someone - a lone voyeur - is intent on exploring the gloom with a long-distance laser pen, But the screens soon go empty again. Goodwin always brings sequences to an end long before they tire us. He aims at catching us off-balance ambushing our eyes and ears with unexpected encounters.

Suddenly, as if someone has snapped on a light, the screens' blackness is alleviated by luminous office windows, high on the right. Somebody must still be working there, long after everyone else has gone home. Because so little is visible within, we become aware of the windows as minimal units of brilliantly lit form, defined by the surrounding dark. They quicken our desire to see inside, and Goodwin arouses hope by showing glimpses of human movement behind a window on the left. After a quick fade, another window on the central screen promises greater access to its interior. But curtains are pulled over the glass so that the scene is veiled, mysterious and utterly tantalising.

As Goodwin proceeds to bombard us with further windows, activating the screens at different times, we grow more conscious of his unseen role as the observer. There in the night he must be lurking, with his hand-held video camera ready to zoom in on other people's lives. We see a man on one side of a room, and a flickering computer screen some distance away, unattended. The gap between figure and machine sharpens our own awareness of the distance separating Goodwin from the figures he scrutinizes. He must like it that way, gazing in from the murky street at occupants wholly oblivious of his presence. Like the city-dwellers seen through windows in Edward Hopper's melancholy paintings, they continue to be absorbed in their activities. But Goodwin is determined to invade, disregarding their privacy with the aid of a lens approaching ever-nearer to his goals. Sometimes, the branches of foreground trees seem to hide him. On other occasions, he is content simply to use the night as a ready-made shroud. And we sense that, if someone detected him, Goodwin would leave the location and hurry on to an even more furtive vantage.

Perhaps that is why, after a flurry of different windows hits the screens, they all fade from view. The deep, ominous murmur on the soundtrack, so redolent of a loiterer voicing low satisfaction to himself, also vanishes. In its place, Goodwin assails us with a barrage of flashing lights, voices in a hubbub and hints of tube-trains on the move. All the screens are charged, now, with syncopated motion and incessantly dissolving forms. They come to resemble interconnected abstract paintings, drenched in sensuous colours. Maybe Goodwin indulged in a similar appetite for rich, saturated hues when he studied at the Slade School of Arts in the mid 1990s. Here, however, they all arise from his increasingly feverish involvement with the reality of urban existence.

Just how avidly he stares at his chosen locales only becomes clear in the later stages of Closer. For the freewheeling, ecstatic sequence of high-keyed colours gives way to a void. A high note, tense and apprehensive, enters the soundtrack. With startling speed, a tall restaurant window flashes onto the left screen, where a young man seems to be drinking through a straw. His head moves up and down with oddly mechanical regularity, like a robot. Another, equally isolated figure appears at a window on the right, followed by a deserted office interior highlighted on the central screen.

Once more, the sinister intake of breath can be heard, but not for long. Goodvvin's soundtrack is multi-layered, and strange jittery chords soon take over as all three screens are filled, resplendently, with contrasted close-ups of architecture. He revels in the variety of buildings caught by his camera. One richly embellished expanse of stonework, so heavy that it seems oppressive, curves round a woman silhouetted within and threatens to crush her with its bulk. The red beam is detectable once again, transmitted as before from the laser pen. It darts agitatedly around the base of the windows, suggesting that Goodwin's reaction to them impels him to reach out and touch their surface with light.

But his eager response to people is even more driven by tactile urges. Three profiles of a young man appear on the screens, in close-ups of uncomfortable intimacy. The camera wanders over his dark skin with the presumption of a lover, and yet Closer could not be described as a homoerotic work. Although elegiac music accompanies an image of another man, whose hairline is greedily traced by the red beam, he is soon replaced by a young woman half-masked by a brightly Iit vertical window-bar. Goodwin lingers over the visible part of her face, taking his wanton beam on a playful yet presumptuous journey around her ear. The glowing point of light appears to be caressing her, but then it takes on a more menacing air by settling on a man's neck.

He looks like the unknowing focus of a marksman, whose bullet will enter the precise place where the beam appears to bore through his skin. But after switching so bewilderingly from the erotic to the menacing, Goodwin indulges in wry humour. After wriggling his light on another man's head, viewed this time from behind, the anonymous figure raises his hand to scratch the selfsame spot.

So should the laser pen be seen as a gun or a harmless toy? The question remains open, as Goodwin reserves the right to leap from lethal associations to a more light-hearted manoeuvres. At one stage, the beam threatens to burn; the next, it merely tickles. The recipients of its attentions change from murder victims to people distracted merely by a passing itch. What remains constant, in this confusing array of possibilities, is Goodwin's silent pleasure. He clearly relishes these acts of dalliance, and the fact that nobody notices the illicit beam only adds to his mischievous satisfaction. This lightness of touch prevents Closer from becoming portentous. But there is no denying the unease we feel when the red laser enters a woman's mouth, strokes a slender neck or curves possessively round the ring on another woman's finger. The strain of disconcerting relish in all these intrusive episodes is impossible to ignore.

By the time we reach a young man with dreadlocks, who rests his head on cupped hands while the beam darts around him like an agitated insect, we wonder how far Goodwin is prepared to push this sinister game. But his mood now undergoes a further transformation. A sudden flurry of close-ups, centring on a nose, an ear and a mass of hair, is the cue for a violent bout of juddering try the camera. All the faces grow blurred, as if seen on a carriage rushing through Tube tunnels at full tilt. For an instant, I was reminded of mark Wallinger's video of never-ending, Dante-esque trip round the Circle line. Goodwin's previous work shares the older artist's willingness to explore settings as forbidding as the London Underground or an airport terminal. But Closer has none of the religious associations conjured by Wallinger's Threshold to the Kingdom. Goodwin is a more secular artist, stimulated by an unholy appetite for unforeseen, risky encounters on his sleepless wanderings through the city.

While his camera continues to shake, we find ourselves brought unnervingly near to these anonymous passengers. It made me aware of the paradox informing everyday urban journeys, where impersonality goes hand in hand with unwanted intimacy as we find ourselves pressed against each other in crammed, claustrophobic spaces. Here, Goodwin seems to push his lens right into, the faces next to him. Shot at such close range, their features are on the verge of visual disintegration. Then the screens go blank, as though reacting to the camera's now - unbearable degree of physical proximity to the commuters.

But only for a moment. When their heads come back, on all the screens, they slowly begin to turn towards the lens. They appear puzzled, and uncertain where to look. The three people who replace them, however, swivel round more quickly. They know something is wrong, and sense an unknown presence. Suspicion gives way to outright hostility. Aggression suddenly becomes probable, as people realise that they are being filmed without permission of any kind.

At this crisis-point, with an insistent soundtrack as troubled as the images themselves, Closer terminates. But the emotions that Goodwin has explored with such unsettling assurance will not go away so easily. They are, after all, experienced by everyone in our increasingly fearful, surveillance-ridden society, where city-dwellers have no hope of knowing how often they are targeted by an invisible yet fascinated stranger.

Richard Cork

Closer (3 screen video installation) was commissioned and first shown for Art Now at Tate Britain, London from February 8th to May 6th 2002. The exhibition was curated by Lizzie-Carrie Thomas

Stills and installation shots from Closer (3 screen video installation) (2002)

Stills and installation shots from Closer (3 screen video installation) (2002)