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The Image in Movies

Published in Neue Bildende Kunst, (April/May), 1996, pp. 52-53.

Roger M. Buergel (translation from German: M. Beck, A. Geyer)

No one truly wants to realize that the screen of a monitor not only shows something, but simultaneously hides it as well. An image on a screen is a threshold which cannot be crossed. But this insight does not take one too far. Within film the desire to identify with a certain character or with the plot, or with the author who created all of that, will be stronger than this insight anyway. The same thing can be said about artistic interventions which attempt to demystify image technologies and open up the apparatus in front of the audience. The drive to identify as well as deconstruct are being fed by energy which emits from the illusion: the possibly that the surface of the screen can be crossed. At first this illusion does not seem to be a problem: there is also no alternative. To refuse identification or to acknowledge the power of the apparatus would only reduce us to the inconsolable position of just being what we are.

But at some time there must be an awakening from the illusion. It can happen like it does when leaving a movie–theater after a movie. Or it can be the frustrating realization that even the most subtle critique of an image produces new images — the critique might be able to displace the threshold but the threshold keeps its status as an uncrossable border. It is in the field of tension between this experience of illusion and disillusionment that the American artist David Reed positions his work “Two Bedrooms in San Francisco”(1992). This artwork challenges us to maintain a criticality towards our own production of illusion and also becomes a specific model to demonstrate how we perceive images. David Reed’s work focuses on the constraints and fixations which accompany the processes of identification (used by the observer to overcome the threshold between reality and illusion), results from the attempt to defer or even repress the moment of disillusionment.

This is the reason that David Reed scans two of his paintings into stills and video tapes from Hitchcock's thriller “Vertigo.” This operation succeeds because of the compatibility between the surface of his paintings and the film–surface. The paintings have to be transferred into film without any significant loss of information. This requirement is met by Reed’s specific painting technique. The forms in the paintings, for example the gestural brushstrokes or constructivist planes (the key–vocabulary of modernism), are organized in layers within the material body of the painting as well as on the surface. This surface “film” on the paintings is made out of oil and painting medium. If the painting medium is very liquid the forms sink into it as if into a bath; if there is less painting medium the forms stay up, standing on the surface. The amazing spatial effect of the paintings coincides with the classic description of a film surface as located somewhere between two and three dimensions.

But “Vertigo” is not just any film. Its plot literally demands a reflection on the status of the image as a threshold which cannot be crossed. Scottie (James Stewart) desires a woman whose identity becomes a problem for him. This is no surprise because her mission (Kim Novak as Judy) is to deceive Scottie by impersonating someone else (Judy as Madeleine). In brief, Scottie really does chase an image. Their love can not develop even when she reveals her true identity to Scottie because he still keeps insisting on his image. It is not the real person he desires, it is his image of her. The tragic dimension of this plot is not just a result of Hitchcock’s diabolic construction. It is already laid out in the compulsory cultural linkage between woman and image. Ingenious strategies of representation are necessary to withdraw oneself from the constraints and misreadings which go along with this linkage.

“Vertigo” — and in its footsteps Reed — describes the conflict not from a possible female perspective, but from the identity problematic of the protagonist. Scottie disposes of the irritatingly simultaneous presence of the woman as image and as real person by means of a murder (actually the film executes this for him). The complicity between Scottie and the film is independent of the actual narrative. It is based on a structural fact, the mechanical use of the image in film. In the same way that film produces the illusion of a seamless movement (and therefore the narrative suction typical of Hollywood) on the basis of single repeated photographic images, the seamless identity of the hero, Scottie, can be preserved only by the humiliation of the desired woman who has been perceived as an image.

Reed’s insertion of his paintings into “Vertigo,” is a play with this illusion of movement and freezes the plot. The bedroom, which Reed says is the place “where our most intimate stories are fabricated,” is therefore not only a central location of Scottie's misreadings between real woman and image, the bedroom is also a model of the cinema. It is the place where illusions are created. Because the painting has been inserted in this cinema/bedroom model, Reed has made the painting the director. The painting gets rid of all the narratives which before had used the image as the foundation of their own representation. Now the image/painting shows, on its surface, its own “film.” The problem of “film” has been given to the audience to take over as their own responsibility. “I am very interested in the sense that one event in the painting leads to another, that it is a process that happens in time, as it does in film. I want to put time back into abstract painting so that you have to go through a decoding process to understand what the painting is about.”

This process of decoding is endless because painting, unlike Hollywood movies, lacks an obligatory narrative structure. Here understanding is based on a never–ending reflection on the process of perceiving an image. This is a real place for the critique of our illusions.