Sight and Sound - June 2002

'Welcome to the Metropolis'
Gareth Evans assesses two recent artworld visualisations of the city and its discontents

Cinema and the city enter the gallery: no surprises there. However, two recent exhibitions put intriguing spins on both the theme and its means of portrayal that suggest the idea is far from exhausted. Indeed, if the transformations evident in these works are anything to go by, then the next wave of urban representations could well rely more on absence and aura than on any attempt to approximate the scale or substance of the metropolis, real or imagined. Cities as seen here are surprisingly porous and prone to dissolution: they are creatively unstable.

At Tate Britain, acclaimed film and video artist Dryden Goodwin continues his investigations into the interstices between private and public, whether in architectural terms or in the dynamics of observation. For Goodwin, the eyes have it every time. A distinctively aesthetic voyeurism underpins all his work in this field, explicitly in his earlier trilogy of video installations About, Within and Wait, which take watching as a motif to be revisited in different surroundings: the transit zones of airports, underground systems and hospitals. These spaces, however brutal their dimensions, become the site of significant intimacies caught by Goodwin's camera as it calmly investigates the surrounding topography.

In his latest piece Closer, he simultaneously approaches and holds off from his subjects, in this case office workers alone in the urban night. They could be survivors or prisoners, existing within a marginal realm that renders them both vulnerable and aloof, some how protected. With the darkness as licence for transgression, Goodwin delivers a multi-screen surveillance of their isolation made luminous by its literal framing against the night.

Remaining physically distant, he then proceeds to use light actively. Employing a laser pen like a ghost hand extended to touch those he watches, he traces their profiles and skin in an ambiguous gesture that speaks of solidarity with the stranger, the fellow nighthawk, but also posits power relations that parallel those experienced by the workers with regard to the corporate authorities that manipulate their lives from a distance (albeit with much more consequence than Goodwin). It's this Moebius strip of implications that gives Goodwin's work its conceptual and emotional edge, acknowledging that we all occupy numerous positions at once in a space so dense with signal and interaction it could hardly be any other way. The last image, of a woman who turns directly to the camera, looking back at both Goodwin and the viewer provides an assertive finale, challenging the unseen with a presence that demands acknowledgement and account.

If the voyeur is perpetually dreaming of new relationships but is mindful that they remain unconsummated, then it's safe to assume that Sam Levack and Jennifer Lewandowski's Transformation #I at the Foundry, Hoxton, London, is not for them. The opener in a series of installations, it's fuelled by a desire to remake cinema through an encounter with the essence of a work and the removal of that core to a new space and form. The couple say they want to "free the cinema from the medium of film."

They chose Blade Runner for their first testing of this strategy. Risky stuff, both because the film presents one of cinema's most effective, sensory and immersive cityscapes (in the sense that it's already an installation) and because it's a work that attracts a cultish gabble which can induce serious hostility to the movie itself. Levack and Lewandowski are clearly fans, but don't try to match the sweeping celluloid experience. Instead they run with the film's inherent physicality, absenting the movie (and especially any narrative) altogether.

Here the film's potent atmospherics are distilled into a single environment, occupying the basement vault of the Hoxton bar (the building used to be a bank). It's all steel bars and weighty mass, as the would be viewers, one by one, are pushed face down on a low metal trolley, wheeled into the room and locked in. Surrounding them is the shimmering lanterns, kitsch ephemera, umbrellas (but no rain at all multiplied by the mirrored floor (the focus of our initial gaze) and floating as if in a still, deep pool. A dissonant vocal and ambient track, coupled with the faint smoke, blur the boundaries made so sharp in the glass. This is a space for all the senses, but the conventional audience eye is represented on a video monitor set into the floor, where it gazes, unblinking, like its cousin in Un Chien andalou awaiting the knife, or more likely numbness.

The only unmediated reference to the film seems to be a neon sign of the opening title 'Los Angeles 2019', suggesting a time and place still out of reach. On closer consideration, it's not so clear. Perhaps rather than extracting the essence of a filmic metropolis, Levack and Lewandowski have concentrated the qualities of the imminent city around them. Perhaps that future's already here, in all its gaudy collapse, but it needs the vault to hold it in, like some investment awaiting full maturity. Art and commerce, markets and movies. Culture and society dancing an endless tango, each leading the other on. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.