Neuer Berliner Kunstverein - Phoenix Tapes #4

 November 2013:

Thomas Elsaesser presents Christoph Girardet / Matthias Müller, Phoenix Tapes (#4 "Why Don't You Love Me"?)

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 Phoenix Tapes (#4 Why Don't You Love Me?), 1999

One of the popular blockbusters of the 2010 / 2011 international art-scene was Christian Marclay's The Clock, a 24-hour time-piece made up of thousands of fragments from Hollywood feature films, each sliver of film containing its own precise minute-by-minute index, while the on-screen time is perfectly synchronized with the spectator's own lived time. Marclay's tour de force could be called the apogee – the culmination, but also the conclusion – of several decades of artists extracting or surgically removing from (often well-known) feature films a single scene, an exchange of looks, a moment of dialogue or a setting, and crafting from these "found objects" an elaborate montage or "mashup" (as the web version of such aggregation is called) as well as grafting the parts onto a new body that is uncannily human and yet undeniably mechanical as well.

An early pioneer of these compilation skills is Matthias Müller, who experimented with found footage (various film formats, home movies, as well as off-air TV recordings) in the late 1980s and since the early 1990s has collaborated with Christoph Girardet. Home Stories (1990), for instance, is a compilation of women in 1950s melodramas tossing restlessly in their beds, slipping on dressing gowns, waiting anxiously at dusk or dawn, listening at closed doors or peering through windows with oppressively heavy drapes before running, panicked, along corridors or exiting, finally, into the open. Home Stories brilliantly condenses the hysteria of the genre into a ballet of bodies and gestures trapped in domestic spaces and yet magnificently breaking free of their cages, while sub-Bernard Herrmann strings and percussion on the soundtrack (by Dirk Schäfer) remind us that melodrama – considered as a body-genre – lives somewhere between the musical and the thriller, possessing the restless motion of the former and generating the heart-stopping suspense of the latter.

Despite having many imitators, Müller / Girardet's work is still fresh today, and especially so in their 'riffs' on Hitchcock, one of contemporary artists' most rewarding targets, considering all those who have taken the 'master of suspense' and the Sphinx of 'pure cinema' as their pretext: Judith Barry (1980), Victor Burgin (1984), Cindy Sherman (1986), Stan Douglas (1989), Christian Marclay (1990), Douglas Gordon (1993), David Reed (1994), Pierre Huyghe (1995), Tony Oursler (1996), Cindy Bernard (1997). In fact, Müller / Girardet's Phoenix Tapes were commissioned by Kerry Brougher and his co-curators for Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art in 1999, where most of the artists just mentioned had works on show, as well as the director Atom Egoyan, who repurposed scenes from one of his feature films to bring out the Hitchcockian allusions and overtones.

The Phoenix Tapes (1999 / 2000) – eventually becoming a six part opus taking apart forty of Hitchcock films – is an even more ambitious effort than Home Stories and if anything, provides an extra shot of adrenaline, by presenting the viewer with a veritable catalogue of compulsive fixations. The Guardian art critic captures the relentless pace of the Phoenix Tapes at the Oxford venue: "Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller have collected Hitchcock clips of pockets, wallets, handbags, corners and crossroads and trains, the light under doors, objects falling and breaking, bad mothers and mad lovers, stranglings, guns and violent disrobings, in their run-together snippets of clips from the movies, shown on monitors throughout the exhibition. These compilations are especially telling, in that they record the film-maker's abiding obsessions, his tics, his filmic repetitions. They give an inkling of just how rich Hitchcock is as a film-maker, how circular his obsessions." (Adrian Searle, "Hitch and Run Tactics", The Guardian, 20 July 1999)

One might call The Phoenix Tapes a "catalogue raisonné de la déraison", a reasoned catalogue of unreason and madness, with more than a touch of surrealism. Yet Searle makes the compilation sound a touch too much like a Hitchcock graduate seminar, illustrating the personal tics and consistent 'themes' of the cinematic auteur. I have chosen #4. Why Don't You Love Me? because it confirms some of these typically Hitchcockian motifs, while suggesting other possibilities as well. The question in the title, for instance, is both ironic and ambiguous, because it is not, as one might expect, addressed by a woman to her fickle husband or reluctant lover, but is left hanging in the air: since almost all the scenes feature mother-and-son encounters, it could be the mother silently directing the question to the son, or vice versa, the son talking to the mother (in which case, the question would be: "why do you love me too much"?): it is in fact a line lifted from Marnie. In short, the clips combine some of most monstrous mothers ever seen on screen, whose overbearing possessiveness (in Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on A Train, Psycho) turns their sons (and in the case of Marnie, daughter) into criminals, serial killers and psychopaths.

As an object lesson in Oedipal tangles and unresolved maternal fixations, The Phoenix Tapes are as much an homage to Sigmund Freud as they are interpretations of Hitchcock, and most aptly, they were on show at the Freud Museum in Vienna's Berggasse in late 2007. But precisely because they fit so well a certain idea of psychoanalysis (and several of the clips feature professional or amateur analysts), they leave one wondering whose unconscious is being revealed by these compulsive repetitions of identical gestures, identical turns of phrase and facial expressions. In the first instance, the fictional characters' secret desires and urges, of course, but with so many protagonists behaving in such similar fashion, a more general pattern imposes itself, which the skillful editing of near-identical scenes from vastly different films makes impressively evident. Such patterns we tend to attribute to the creator, that is: the director. And given a persona as flamboyantly self-created as Hitchcock's, and a person as darkly conflicted as his numerous biographers claim his life to have been, it is easy to leave it at that.

But why not treat Müller / Girardet's endless hours of viewing and selecting also as a 'thought experiment'? One proving that the cinema itself, and especially Hollywood genre cinema, has an unconscious: perhaps richer (and more troubled) than even its most brilliant practitioners? While Home Stories is pure choreography and flow, and thus creates an effect of synthesis (in contrast, say, to Martin Arnold's analytical-deconstructive exercises such as Piece Touché, Passage a l'acte, and Alone. Life Wastes Any Hardy) the individual installments of The Phoenix Tapes are more based on contrast and juxtaposition, at the same time as they bring out (just as Arnold does) the latent aggression and violence inherent in cinematic representation (or enunciation) itself: the violence on the screen is often merely the visual conduit for the violence of the screen. These montages, in other words, not only reveal the rough and hidden underside of Hollywood's smooth continuity system, but also why this underside is necessary, in order for us to be captured, hooked, drawn in, often against our will. It explains why not only Hitchcock's villains are more fascinating than his heroes: they have a richer and more conflicted "cinematic unconscious", and while their drives and compulsions are essential to propel the action, their actions are ultimately taken on our behalf. In this respect, #4 Why Don't You Love Me? is a question Hollywood (through Müller / Girardet's Hitchcock) addresses to us, in the form of a tease: "don't you just love me, in spite of yourself?"

Thomas Elsaesser, November 2013

[in German]

Thomas Elsaesser • Reguliersgracht 20 • 1017 LR Amsterdam, The Netherlands • Email: elsaesser@uva.nl
Copyright © 2013, Thomas Elsaesser