10th January 2007 — 11th March 2007
man's arm dangles permanently through a hole in the ceiling. The
various faces in a group photograph are gradually replaced by identical
images of a single visage. A solitary gunshot rings out across an empty
desert landscape. The inventor of the neutron bomb is discussing his
marriage. Some kids are screaming - maybe in delight, maybe in horror.
Against a backdrop of pornographic and political imagery, an American
voice intones: "It's all like a big game anyhow".
Such are some of the more striking moments and memorable juxtapositions within this ambitious exhibition, showing at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, with a handful of pieces at Swiss Cottage Library. Curated by Predrag Pajdic, there is work here by more than forty artists drawn from around the world, all of which is loosely themed - though at times the link is tenuous - around 'issues of distrust, suspicion, delusion, fear and terror'.
Though I can appreciate something of the logic behind the decision to install the exhibition throughout the Freud Museum (which fills the house where Freud spent the last year of his life in 1938-39), I'm not sure how well the theory has translated into practice. I had hoped and expected that the work would be displayed in a manner that might spark off dialogues and relationships with psychoanalytic themes and ideas, perhaps illuminating in unexpected ways the arcane totems and curios which fill Freud's old study, or that the surroundings would somehow infect and enrich the work and vice versa. But alas, many of the pieces in the exhibition seem to have just been plonked rather crudely atop the surfaces of the museum, leaving many of them looking rather incongruous, causing me to wonder if perhaps the choice of venue and the manner of the installation actually serves to distract from the fact that the selection of work here fails to cohere convincingly. I felt that this project wanted desperately to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts, but instead I think the real strengths of the exhibition are to be found in a number of the individual works themselves.
Some of the most arresting and compelling work on display is the photography, particularly the four large photographs from Juan delGado's series The Wounded Image. Meticulously staged, glossy, highly stylised images; each depicts an incapacitated human figure, prostrate in the aftermath of some event of unseen, perhaps self-inflicted violence. There is a kind of terrible clarity to these images, and yet they're chillingly enigmatic. And unlike so much contemporary art which purports to shock or disturb - and categorically fails to - these works actually begin to. Unsettlingly, it is not the nature of the subject matter per se that is disturbing, but the fact that these traumatic images are so darkly beautiful through delGado's exacting lens.
Martin Effert's photographs have a not dissimilar effect, and also explore sinister, murky territory. Literally in fact, as Effert goes into the countryside at night and takes photos of what we're told are former scenes of crimes. The nature of these crimes is not specified and we can only guess at what terrible atrocity or trivial misdemeanour took place in these suddenly ominous places. What's interesting - and a symptom of paranoia perhaps - is that we come to automatically expect the worst, and to project our own nebulous fears into these eerily lit spaces. This is the effect that Effert seems to be aiming for, and whilst each scene is imbued with a palpable feeling of absence, paradoxically there is a lingering, malevolent presence here too - an unspeakable history somehow invisibly inscribed upon the landscape. It is what we can't see that becomes most important in these images.
Perhaps the most accomplished work on display is Jean-Gabriel Periot's extraordinary film Dies Irae. Thousands of images from around the world fade into one another at the rate of several per second as we criss-cross the globe along a multitude of city roads, country lanes, pathways and highways, through tunnels and corridors, over cities, temples and slums, and finally along a railway that ends at a site which, perhaps like no other, embodies the horror and trauma of our age. But this isn't a film about loss and despair, but rather one that seeks to encapsulate into its fourteen minutes a sense of the collective experience that all of our journeys through life entail - of shared existence, wonder, memory, pain and responsibility. It's a bold achievement and has deservedly won awards around the world. However, I'm at a loss to explain what it has to do with paranoia.
There is lots of other excellent, original work here: Sagi Groner's video piece FAQ is a dense, engrossing, free-associative montage of appropriated footage, which reflexively manipulates images in order to interrogate this very act of manipulation; Mircea Cantor's meditative video Deeparture, in which a deer and a wolf coexist nervously in the confines of a white gallery-like space, is a poetic study of power dynamics, incarceration, alienation and cruelty, which as well as emphasising the stark beauty of the animals themselves, gives a nod to Joseph Beuys along the way.
Inevitably perhaps, there are a clutch of works here which are overtly political in nature, many of which fall rather flat by rehearsing familiar - if entirely valid - grievances against discrimination, injustice and intolerance in our disastrous post 9/11 world. Some of this just felt like half-baked documentary, or simple reportage. Work by the likes of Larissa Sansour, Norman Cowie and Rachel Wilberforce seemed to me to lack a much-needed sense of cogency and defiance.
Meanwhile, for his video The Big Secret, Tim Blake simply presents us with 20 minutes or so of conspiracy clown David Icke expounding his flawed theories of shape-shifting lizards that secretly rule the world. Having said this, we would be wise to bear in mind a quote from the exhibition catalogue: 'there is usually a kernel of reality in even the most far-fetched conspiracy theory'. This work was installed so badly that in order to watch it and listen to it through the headphones, I had to crane my neck up at an awkward angle for a prolonged period, giving me a pain there that lasted for days. This may put visitors off watching to the piece for more than a minute or two, which Icke would probably claim as part of the great conspiracy.
Paranoia has taken more than three years of work to come to fruition, and as well as the exhibition (which has already shown in Leeds and Southend) it encompasses a number of talks, a conference, and a lengthy catalogue. The latter is an impressive publication in its own right: the essays, interviews and images not only serve as an useful accompaniment to the works on display, but also succeed in adding unexpected dimensions of complexity and density to the already numerous strands of thought being explored here.
20 Maresfield Gardens
London NW3 5SX