Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, South Bridge, Edinburgh EH8 9YL

Stephen Sutcliffe: Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs

Talbot Rice Gallery

28 July - 30 September 2017

Review by Alex Hetherington

Stephen Sutcliffe’s exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery opens a moving image season showcasing recent work by three highly-regarded practitioners noted for the referential density of their work, through an ever-closing margin between documentary and fiction and manifested through exuberant styles. Sutcliffe’s work plays out alongside later appearances by the high-glamour over-saturated narrative composition ‘Spite Your Face’ by Rachel Maclean and the elusive and epic multi-channel documentary film ‘Vertigo Sea’ by John Akomfrah.

Akomfrah, a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective, active between 1982 and 1998, whose assemblage ‘slide-tape-text’ style videos are “allusive, poetic and personal, consisting of found and sourced film materials with interviews, staged and performed sequences” forms a logical bridge to Sutcliffe’s practice and its resistance of easy categorisation. As one moves from space to space in these elegant rooms, evident in Sutcliffe’s canon are traces of the works of late German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki and his explorations of the sources, politics and distribution of imagery, particularly ‘Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades’ (2006), ‘The Interview’ (1996) and ‘Expressions of the Hand’ (1997). But a less immediately obvious apparition makes an appearance. In their elaborate surreal pictorial theatre decoding and mocking the mannerisms of the English intellectual and bourgeoisie alongside representations of poisonous, affectatious masculinity, Sutcliffe’s work could easily find ancestry in the painting of the late Scottish artist Steven Campbell.

Sutcliffe is a ‘History Man’ excavating post-war British televisual, literary and cinema culture for documentation of its class structures; how British society’s ‘role play’ plays out, and in turn gives critique to its stultifying conditions. On show is a cascade of spliced archival footage, TV studio outtakes, video interruptions and complex obsessional literary comparisons. He scans material in the role of a ‘private eye’ of film, television and literature, collaging and overlaying snippets of this material like whizzing through a microfiche for hidden historical artefacts.

In this instance, Sutcliffe, in ‘Casting Through and Scenes from Radcliffe’ commissioned by Talbot Rice Gallery, is found metaphorically and surreptitiously ‘cruising’ the archive of British feature film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson held at the Film and TV department at Stirling University. Anderson’s best known works include ‘If…’ (1968), ‘O Lucky Man!’ (1973) and ‘Britannia Hospital’ (1982). Narration from Anderson’s diaries expressing his repressed homosexuality and yearning for the actor Richard Harris is unpacked alongside scenes from David Storey’s fictional account of unrequited homosexual desire across class divisions from his novel ‘Radcliffe’ published in 1960. Anderson described his working relationship with Harris as a combination of “splendour and misery”. (This trio of characters would originally have been brought together on Anderson’s set, casting Harris as the lead for his production of Storey’s screenplay from his novel ‘This Sporting Life’ from 1963.) But it is a pejorative and anonymously composed review of ‘Radcliffe’ and published by TIME magazine in 1964, pompous and homophobic by turns, that provides the project here with its intriguing and sibilant hissing title.

The scenography of Sutcliffe’s new video work is the artificiality of the black box television studio and the film set. Their mechanics, camera equipment, lighting, ‘redheads’ and ‘blondes’ and stages are uncovered. It melds theatre, rehearsed readings, character development, character study, the addition of strategic props and costume and adaptation from page-to-screen. The actors’ ‘method’ is brought into intimate inspection. While a shot, from a rotating camera creates, from scene to scene, passage to passage, a seamless single take, paying homage to its use as a narrative device like an unblinking eye in films like ‘Le Plaisir’, Max Ophüls (1952), ‘Soy Cuba’, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964) and ‘Weekend’, Jean Luc Gordard (1967).

Homosexuality is employed as a theme for a to-and-fro between internalised dramatic potential and externalised social injustice. The setting here is just prior to the repeal of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 that decriminalised, in England and Wales, sexual encounters between men in private. That social injustice is then used to form a ‘double-exposure’ to the public and intellectual depravity of the politics of austerity. Homosexuality, as it is purposefully referred to in the exhibition’s texts, not gay or Queer, is analysed for its contemporary social ‘role play’ and reception: forbidden, full of confession, desire, voyeurism, unrequited love turning to obsession, turning to torment, grief and pity. Toxic masculinity finds only solace in self-punishment, abusive behaviours and alcohol. The act itself is not represented, bar a few uncomfortable caresses, a reluctant kiss and the masquerade of a blow-job.

“Austerity, the stoic injunction”, writer and artist Wyndham Lewis stated, “is the path towards universal destruction … Pull in your belt is a slogan closely related to gird up your loins ...” It is an assiduous system of dismantling public resources, enables and justifies cuts to services, to arts and education budgets, and the adoption of the free-market sensibilities to all human interactions. It is pathological gentrification. David Cameron’s Big Society project is the offspring of Thatcherism’s Greed is Good mantra from the 1980s.

Sutcliffe annotates on the to-and-fro of the evolution of British politics as reported on by its cultural institutions, theatre makers and film directors and by its broadcasters, particularly the BBC. Sutcliffe’s style, therefore, which is to say, an amalgamation of all styles, and “aware of the nature of the present” is a kind of mash-up ‘Play for Today’, the ground-breaking anthology TV drama series broadcast from White City from 1970 until 1984, which featured single narrative productions from experimental and radical writers like Jim Allen, Mike Leigh and Dennis Potter, and which collectively described, in a raw mirroring, in a double-exposure, a picture of Britain’s disquieting, hypocritical and broken state of affairs.

Sutcliffe’s fractured, refracted screens suggest that television is no longer prepared or able to serve the functions of the radical; those services in part, due to the implementation of austerity, being in terminal decline. And that perhaps the radical acts that television once produced, as this programming of a configuration of bold moving image practitioners might draw attention to, can now, only take place inside the gallery.

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