Sweet Surrender + Meaning Machines (excerpt)

Jan Allen

take me, I’m yours

Just try it. The title of Laurel Woodcock’s exhibition puts forward a pretence of availability that opens into a labyrinth of conflicting signals. It’s a tease.

Laurel Woodcock uses the visual vernacular of popular culture to produce works that harbour layered metaphors beneath a surface of visual seduction and low-key humour. Working in the context of the (nearly) century-long tradition of visual art’s quotation/appropriation of material from mass media, Woodcock participates in the mainstream of current artistic practices. Filmic and televisual conventions and content have become the facture of contemporary life, the melding ground of high art and pulp fiction.

Pairing and repetitive looping are used to produce an unstable yet peculiarly insistent sense of meaning in the three works in the show. Advisory Warning juxtaposes jerky video footage of an approaching tornado, presented on a tiny LCD device, with horoscope “business” cards. operetta pairs a video projection of the spiralling spastic final moments in the life of a fly, jewel-like on a pristine white ground, with alpha computer HAL’S regressive incantation of a love song during his last moments in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The three-part Lured series is a complex machine of signification, each part with its own short-duration video or DVD loop. The proximate pair of Lured I and Lured II sets up internal and external oscillations of meaning, while the third part, Lured III, is seen on arrival and on departure from the gallery.

Woodcock’s experiential and modestly interactive installations use DVD or VHS video, and audio CD, time-based media that support narrative complexity. Her investigations over the past decade have ranged over themes such as the structure of language, the occult, and the relation-ship between technology and nature. Always the work deploys a deadpan confusion of categories and sense of the absurd as Woodcock combines bracing precision of execution with languorous attentiveness to the tragicomic minutiae of ordinary existence. A surfeit of indetermi-nacy is triggered, set in motion. The means/tools of communication –- tiny footage of a tornado, or a wall-sized projection of a dying fly, for example –- constitute content and form. Such blatant symbolizations, in tandem with the seductive propensities of technological media (inducing what Florian Brody calls “narrative rapture”) invite, even seem to insist upon, facile decoding.1 But Woodcock ensures subversion of easy reading through subtleties of timing and execution that open up hilarious and unexpected possibilities that texture, that almost — but not quite — defeat, interpretation.

The artist’s use of direct and indirect quotations raises many questions. As Olivier Asseline points out in his recent essay, “Portrait of the Artist as Ape-Savant: Mimetism as Archeology of Knowledge” :

… imitation can be more or less exact. When imperfect or even rough, it bears signs of imitation in the form of material, syntactical, lexical or semantic incongruities, which both flag it as imitation and create an ironic, playful or satirical distance in relation to its model.2

There is a heady grace in the intelligent transposition of existing cultural matter, and pleasure in the referential largesse that accrues to such uses. Woodcock displays confidence in the viewer’s curiosity and capacity to deploy cultural codes.

A descriptive analysis of Woodcock’s Lured explores the artist’s current strategy of twinning faux seduction with affective chill such that humour and apparent accessibility thinly mask systematic evasion. Lured is an installation in three parts that takes its title from an obscure 1943 film by Douglas Sirk, a director noted for his use of richly layered melodrama. The piece stages a woman (the artist), in Lured I, and a child, in Lured II and III, to bring forward issues of spectatorship and viewer manipulation. Despite the title’s easy aural confusion with the word “lurid,” sexuality is subsumed here within a deeper manipulation of promise and refusal, of intimacy denied. Woodcock deploys mass-media tropes and iconic film techniques to proffer an assertive but ambiguous feminine presence. The work enacts a refusal of access that affirms the agency of the subject.

Lured I consists of a DVD projection in cinematic format presented on a suspended screen. The loop, about 10 minutes in length, shows seven sequences of a woman in closeup striding down a city street then pausing and dropping a set of keys into a sewer grate.3 Each segment shifts the markers of intention: in one, the keys seem to slip the grasp; in another, they are fingered as if in consideration, then let go. The action reads variously as deliberate or accidental, clumsy or surreptitious: in all cases, it is out of order; an action that raises questions and suggests symbolic reading. The sequences invite scrutiny through elongated slow motion and the extreme close view that suggest no detail should be overlooked.

Woodcock’s use of the film noir technique of close cropping lends the piece an aura of suspense, of melodrama. The viewer is deprived of infor-mation that might support one interpretation or another: is the woman upset or elated, is she being pursued or hurrying to catch a bus?4 The proximity of camera to subject suggests intimacy while stifling the viewer’s ability to make sense of the sequence. There is a tension between the felt truth of the implied personal experience and the incom-prehensible continuity that produces an exaggerated sense of deflection. We are lured in, then brushed off.

There is more: Lured I makes use of twinned Hitchcockian motifs. The red straw purse fills the screen at the beginning and end of each sequence, an editing technique used in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope. Hitchcock filled the frame to cover camera-loading so the piece reads as a continuous shot. The use of this technique, in Lured I, to link a sequence of scenes that are near repetitions is slightly confusing. The effect is one of an incident being mentally replayed, recalled, and exam-ined: “was it like this or like that?” Lured I activates the pleasure centres of baroque hyper-consciousness, a fascination with details that become freighted with unarticulated significance. Each scene shift and attendant purse-zoom is emphasized by a startling smudge sound effect in the DVD’S hypnotically stretched techno-beat sound track. The comic effect of this flagrant re-wind forces recognition of our manipulation: we know we are being played, even as we fall under the spell of the narrative fragment.

Other elements of Lured I are quoted from Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie: the low camera angle and fetishistic attention to the purse, and the narrative content. Early in that film, lead actress Tippi Hedren’s character drops a key down a sewer grate. It is a deliberate act in a public place, meant to discreetly discard the key to a train-station locker in which she has stashed evidence of her recent identity, thereby covering her trail after stealing from her employer.

Marnie is enigmatic; she is tormented by a suppressed past, a compulsive thief unable to tolerate intimacy. The film turns on the mystery of Marnie’s character and the efforts of the male lead, Mark (played by Sean Connery), to discover the root of her psychic turmoil. She is not to be allowed her insularity. As Marnie says in frustration to the overbear-ingly kind Mark, “Oh men! You say no thanks to one of them and you’re a candidate for the funny farm.”

The key in Woodcock’s Lured I symbolizes the literal meaning of the word, that is, an object crucial in providing access, or the means of explanation and interpretation. The loss of the key may be read as casting off past identity. The protagonist in Lured I cuts off the past or eliminates an aspect of experience. The sewer is understood to be a space of the irretrievable, also representative of the unconscious, the murky, always suppressed lower realm. Whether accidental or deliberate — and the structure of the piece suggests that these distinctions lie on a continuum — the loss of the key is an abandonment of implicit responsi-bility, a form of self-protective refusal, or productive dysfunction. The rupture is reinforced by the Lured I sound track, which includes a faint but persistent clip of train station sounds from Marnie, the evocative distorted sonority announcing arrivals and departures.

(…)

Footnotes

  1. See “The Medium is the Memory,” The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, ed. Peter Lunenfeld (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999), P.135.
  1. Fiction and Other Accounts of Photography, eds. France Choiniere and Stephen Horne (Montreal: Dazibao, 2000), p. 79.
  1. The subject’s confident, loping gait is reminiscent of the protagonist’s in Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s Ever is over all (1997), an engaging visual essay on joyous female delinquency.
  1. For discussion of non-place and moral ambiguity in film nair, see Tom Conley, “Noir in the Red and the Nineties in the Black,” Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), pp. 193-210. Re. Alfred Hitchcock’s suppression of geographic setting in favour of a “cinema-specific reality,” see Stefan Sharff, Alfred Hitchcock’s High Vernacular: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 239.