… nothing to fear
|Contemporary Visual Arts|
Contemporary Visual Arts, Issue 25, 1999
Nothing here, nothing to fear – the work of Graham Gussin & Mark Dean
… It is the conflict between our desire to discover greater meaning and our realisation of the mechanical way in which much of our experience is constructed that underpins the work of Mark Dean. Dean also works by culling information from previously existing cultural material- from films, popular music and literature. Again, the interrelation, translation and mutation of sound and image is used to induce particular psychological moods. Rather than continually frustrating the climactic moment as Gussin often does, however, Dean’s work takes these very moments – which frequently reference fear, powerlessness and revulsion – and distends them, at once defeating their effect and multiplying it. The artist, who abandoned making art in favour of electronic music for a considerable period after completing his education, uses his specific knowledge of the mechanics of sound manipulation to structure his work at its most fundamental level. This is indicated in the often lengthy, quasi-mathematical titles of his pieces.
In Goin’ Back (The Birds/The Byrds x 32+1), 1997, Dean combines the moment when Tippi Hedren wakes up to relive the horror of being attacked by the birds in Hitchcock’s classic film with two lines from the song Goin’ Back by legendary sixties American group The Byrds: ‘1 think I’m goin’ back, to the things I knew so well in my youth. I think I’m returning to those days when I was young enough to know the truth’. The momentary film clip is slowed down to last the same amount of time as the sample of music, and then both are played backwards and forwards – one bar forward, one bar back, two bars forward, two bars back – until they have progressed through the full thirty-two bars of music. The work casts a strange, new, hypnotic calm over Hedren’s moment of horror through its languid, repetitive structure but simultaneously exaggerates and extends each moment of her enactment of fear, the song lyrics working to stress that it is something that resides deep within us on an almost primal level.
By contrast, Dean’s earlier work Nothing to Fear (The American Friend +- 12), 1995, leaves unchanged the image of Dennis Hopper repeating to himself the phrase ‘there’s nothing to fear but fear itself’, but the sound oscillates up and then down the octave scale by twelve tones. The musical progression propels the work to near farcical limits as Hopper’s voice increases to a cartoonish pitch then descends to a guttural depth, but somehow this only increases the work’s peculiar, heightened tension. The opposing moods in these works are not so much designed as by-products of the formulas from which they were made. Dean’s techniques are in many ways more mechanistic than Gussin’s, yet this seems to be in directly inverse proportion to how explicitly his work attempts to scrutinise our desire to discover some deeper meaning.
In Horrible (Peeping Tom), 1998, Dean almost seems to be creating a metaphor for our desire to locate this search for meaning within art. A man and young woman swim in and out of blackness, constantly changing places as a mutated, twisted approximation of language warps over them. The thick, visceral noise eventually begins to take on a more recognisable shape until the phrase ‘It’s horrible … but it’s just a film, isn’t it?’ becomes clearly discernible. Then we are plunged steadily back into the distended, twisted sound. The work seems to question its own existence as anything other than a mechanical creation but, even in the process of categorising itself, it refers us back to the ability of both film and art to persuade us to suspend our disbelief before them. In his most recent work, however, Dean has purged his art of film imagery, creating a group of pieces that dwell on representations of sound. Perhaps this is in an attempt to strip away any possible content that might distract the viewer – such as the familiarity of a well-known film. His scrutiny of our desire to cling to the belief that there is something more thus becomes even more fundamental. The material for the works is still culled from familiar cultural sources such as the film The Sound of Music or even Paranoid, Black Sabbath’s heavy metal anthem from 1970, but the visual elements of the video-works are now composed purely of white text against a featureless black void generated by computer.
This minimal, digital mode seems particularly fitting in Universal (Turing Machine), 1999. When researching the life of Professor Alan Turing, the eccentric Cambridge mathematics genius who proposed the first theory for the digital computer (his eponymously titled ‘Universal Turing Machine’), Dean was fascinated by the fact that early computer scientists believed there would be no difference between digital computing and human thought, and therefore consciousness. For Universal, Dean has taken Turing’s belief in the conscious machine and superimposed onto it his fascination with another conscious machine – Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein. Dean programmed the monster’s soliloquy – ‘What does this mean? What am I? Who am I? Whence did I come? What is my destination? These questions continually recur, but I am unable to solve them’ into basic computer speech. Recording and displaying these questions as binary code that is projected onto the ceiling like a field of stars, Dean’s machine achieves consciousness simply for its disembodied voice to ask an image of itself the very questions human philosophers have been scrutinising on our behalf for centuries. What is most important here is perhaps not the answer to the question of whether there is some greater meaning to life beyond the mere mechanisms of existence. What seems to be crucial is the inevitability of the question itself.
In his work Ascension (nothing/Something Good), 1999, Dean lays this bare at its most fundamental level. Juxtaposing the most unlikely sources, Dean has taken the single word ‘nothing’ from the ancient Roman poet Lucretius’s statement that ‘nothing can come from nothing’ and counterpointed it with the words ‘something good’, as sung by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (her song also uses Lucretius’s phrase in its lyrics). Working with only this bare information, Dean presents viewers with a seductive but perpetual conflict. A projection of radial lines of the word ‘nothing’ constantly cascades down on viewers as they sit on a circular bench staring at the ceiling above, but simultaneously they are wrapped in the continually ascending vocal refrain of ‘something good’. Then they are simply left to choose which way to go.