London

Lucy Gunning

Matt's Gallery

The last decade or so has seen a tremendous flowering of video-and film-based work by English artists—one thinks of Tacita Dean, Tracey Emin, Isaac Julien, Steve McQueen, Georgina Starr, Gillian Wearing, and Jane and Louise Wilson, among others. Lucy Gunning is the equal of any of them, so it’s a mystery why her international profile has never been quite as high. Her new video installation Esc, 2004, is a triptych. On a monitor hanging from the ceiling one sees, first of all, the spectacle of a roomful of people shaking and twitching. They are not undergoing some kind of fit or seizure, as it might well have seemed in the case of a single individual, but are in fact practitioners of qi gong, a Chinese system for cultivating and stimulating the flow of energy through the body. Each had his or her own posture (arms raised up as if in jubilation or held tightly in front; closed eyes facing downward with inward concentration or up as if in some spiritual search), but vibrating together they seemed to form a sort of counter-society—modern-day Shakers, if you will.

Next, a flat LCD screen likewise suspended from the ceiling shows scenes of a wooded landscape. As the camera moves amid a dense growth of bare branches, one notices a sort of tree house made of scraps of various materials and roofed with a striped tarpaulin (a similar pattern of concentrically curved stripes is painted on the long wall behind the installation). The sound of twittering birds fills the gallery space. Gradually, one begins to make out other structures among the treetops, then the tiny figure of a man who emerges from one of them and starts to make his way through the forest canopy using branches and a rope that has been strung from one tree to another. This turns out to be part of a network of ropes that has been set up here—a sort of road system among the trees. What is this, some sort of alternative culture, an aerial version of a shantytown? A press release explains that it is a temporary settlement built by a group of protesters attempting to preserve the piece of woodland from development.

To see the third video you have to climb under a large cratelike structure built of heavy cardboard and suspended from the ceiling. Here the third hanging monitor displays scenes shot in Liverpool Street Station in the City of London, the English equivalent of Wall Street: businessmen waiting for their trains at the end of the day, ties loosened, eating out of Burger King takeout bags, three sheets to the wind.

It is easy enough to see the three parts of this trilogy as representing three different approaches to life, but the title asks one to see it more specifically as three dif- ferent ways of escape from and within contemporary life. Can one really equate activism with alcohol or either with the inward turn proposed by holistic teachings? Gunning’s examination of these more or less plausible responses to civilization and its discontents is founded in skeptical yet sympathetic curiosity, not judgment. Each segment maintains its own sense of space and time—almost its own inflection of Gunning’s cool, understated visual style—which is never merely imitative of its subject (no drunkenly lurching camera for the drunks, agitprop polemics for the protesters, or Viola-esque ecstasies for the New Agers). Nothing is rejected out of hand; everything is questioned.

Barry Schwabsky