Darren Almond

The Approach / Chisenhale Gallery

LIVING IN NEW YORK, I almost never drive, but every so often I rent a car for an out-of-town trip. Then I seem to drive ceaselessly. Afterward I have intense dreams, not of driving exactly, but of driving's incessant forward motion—of being propelled ever deeper into a world of things that come at me and stream past on either side.

Darren Almond has filmed this dream. Geisterbahn (Ghost train), 1999, at The Approach, is nine minutes of continuous movement, slow but inexorable, filled with unpredictable twists and turns. And it must be a dream because nothing in it looks real, though of course it's all real—real illusionism.

Maybe I'd better explain. Geisterbahn was shot on an old haunted-house train ride in Vienna. The camera was placed on the front of the train, and the film simply shows what one would have seen on the ride: all the not-very-scary ghosts, ghouls, and miscellaneous startle-effects that Freud's metropolis, the capital of the unconscious, could think of to treat its children to a few thrilling shivers. In that sense Geisterbahn is almost a documentary, a straightforward record of what's there. And yet Almond's delicate, shadowy black-and-white version of all this, set to Stefan Betke's insinuating, seductive “techno-dub” sound track, somehow makes the images look as if they were drawn in soft, richly textured charcoal—not photographed but animated. So what Almond shows is real, in the sense that he neither invented it nor, as far as one can tell, manipulated what he found, and his stance can be called realistic in the specific sense that he reveals the fakery beneath the ride's naive illusion. But the result is magical, a reverse illusionism, not the kind in which a fiction is taken for real, but one in which reality appears as a phantasm of the imagination.

Propelled by a quicksilver lyricism, Geisterbahn earns the obvious adjective: haunting. Strangely, so does another video projection, Traction, 1999, at Chisenhale Gallery, though the two works are otherwise so different one would hardly imagine them to be by the same artist. On one screen, in color, we see a man's face in close-up: Almond's father. Prompted by his son's offscreen questioning, he points out all the scars on his body and tells the stories behind them—a litany of industrial accidents and sports injuries that, for all its specificity, somehow seems to map the wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise, of English working-class masculinity. On another screen appears the artist's mother, as she listens to the interview from a separate room. She remains silent, but her ever-changing expressions of grief and anxiety eloquently counterpoint her husband's offhandedness. By the end of the video, she is in tears.

What is masterful here is the artist's restraint. The portrait of his parents is unsparing and unsentimental: We are not asked to join in the weeping, only to recognize its appropriateness. Less convincing is the third portion of the work. Between the images of the two parents is a black-and-white projection showing a mechanical earth mover at work on a construction site—too broad a metaphor for the unearthing of stories and emotions going on in Traction.

Barry Schwabsky