Art Monthly - March 2000

Profile - People Watching
Catherine Elwes on Dryden Goodwin

If you talk to Dryden Goodwin about his work, he will emphasise his apprenticeship in the plumbline accuracy of the life rooms at the Slade School of Art. The representation of a human figure defined by precise measurement puts the model at a distance in spite of the proximity and intimacy of that figure's physical presence. The life room itself creates an unbridgeable gap between the viewer and the viewed even though the model is naked and apparently acquiesces to our gaze. Models are frozen in stillness, they do not speak and the act of undressing is performed behind a screen. This intimate anonymity is recreated in Goodwin's films and video tapes as sequences of carefully orchestrated views of individuals going about their business in their natural habitat of the metropolis.

The longing and ultimate denial that mark both the life room and the representational moving image are evoked in the rapid-fire juxtaposition of faces in Hold, 1996, and the parade of anxious individuals in both Heathrow, 1994, and Ospedale, 1997. Goodwin withholds what much television documentary so liberally and so superficially provides. His compulsive observations might recall the emphasis on structure and procedure that was characteristic of systems art in the early 80s. We could also cite structural materialist film with its attention to the medium and its deconstructive assault on the conventions of mainstream narrative. We might even remember the arguments of Laura Mulvey who exposed the power relations embedded in the gaze and asked who is looking at whom. Goodwin's work undoubtedly owes a debt to many of these early movements, but his particular sensibility is his own.

The structural, almost scientific, precision of Hold, and its fugitive abstractions would seem to argue an anti-narrative position. We are denied biography ancl even sufficient time to guess at an individual's life from his or her clothes, gait or expression. But the withholding of biographical information can activate levels of meaning and resonances that the structuralists knew about, but rarely admitted to pursuing. Hold could be replaying the loss of unity and alienation that entry into language entails. We split off the P of our subjectivity into verbal and visual languages that signally fail to represent our subjectivity. His work might also reference separation from the mother that has so often been characterised as the driving force behind the urge to image, to capture another human being, in this case on film. He could even be making reference to more contemporary theories that reduce the individuai to a battleground of conflicting cultural forces. The people in Goodwin's cityscapes, their essential social and psychic isolation speak eloquently through the pulsating glimpses of their lives. And yet a sense of loss is not the overwhelming experience of the work. The fragmented structure that Goodwin adopts may well conjure up desire and then deny it, but it also provides a pleasure that is not unlike that lost symbiosis between mother and child in infancy.

Goodwin refers to this quality as immersive. The shift to abstraction imposes a loss of boundaries between ourselves and the illusive images, between individual frames, between our perceptual system and the apparatus projecting light patterns that tease us with the illusion of presence. Nothing is still, all is in a state of flux and we need to relinquish the familiar boundaries of our social selves to fall under the spell of this celluloid undifferentiation. But we would resist that febrile procession of humanity if Goodwin did not have the necessary formal skills to cast his spell. Hold and Ospedale are beautifully crafted works. The timing is immaculate, the shifting perceptions linger just long enough to make their mark but do not persist beyond their useful expressive lives. The evocative soundtracks do not intrude or overly manipulate, they are an intrinsic part of the experience.

Goodwin acknowledges that the urge to gaze is what drives him and that the ethics of his methods, his stealing from unsuspecting passers-by, are not resolved; as he says, these are complicated issues. The honesty of his response and his awareness of the problem are reflected in the work itself. Hold is nothing if not an interrogation of the gaze and his installation Within, 1998, lingers on those moments when his subjects return the gaze, and challenge the 'cloak of invisibility' on which our voyeurism depends.

In Wait, his forthcoming installation at the Liverpool Tate, he will be deploying images of individual Londoners caught in moments of anticipation of significant events: a reveller experiences the moment when the last millennium crosses into the present one, a football fan waits for his team to score and an expectant relative watches at an airport arrival gate. The electronic processing of the images, their sense of anticipation and the slow build to the pivotal moments will mirror the artist's parallel journey in his attempts to capture these scenes. The emphasis is on the gaze itself - we watch the artist watching a person watching the clock and like the other protagonists we also wait.

The scopophilic pleasures of looking would seem to be fundamental to our human natures and undoubtedly connected to learning and ultimately to survival. Although voyeurism can be used to uphold inequality across gender and race, and there is no inalienable right to image another person with or without consent, it is possible for an artist to look from a position of empathy and even love. In Wait and Ospedale Goodwin might appear to be casting a cold and analytical eye on the human dramas that parade before his lens. But the faces that wait for the moments of change, the hand that falls limp over a hospital bed and the infant blinking into the cold light of the world are all framed with great compassion. Goodwin's silence on their individual stories allows and betrays the common humanity that links him, and us, to his subjects. In this post-everything era of bad boys and girls shocking the world with their contempt for humanity, it is heartening to see the work of a young artist who takes an unfashionably humanist view of life, who appears to like his fellow human beings, and whose love of his medium is matched only by his compulsion both to look and to tell us what he sees.

Catherine Elwes is a videomaker, lecturer at Camberwell College of Arts and Director of the UK/Canadian Video Exchange. Her new book, Video Loupe, was published in February by KT Press.