Thursday 29 September 2011

The MacGuffin (catalogue essay)


The MacGuffin
Catalogue essay to accompany the exhibition The MacGuffin: Wendy Elia & Marguerite Horner, 1 - 17 July 2011, WW Gallery, London

Just what is it that draws us to a work of art? What makes up stop and look, rather than pass on by oblivious? Darian Leader[1] proposes it is not so much humans who are image-capturing devices, but rather images which are human-capturing devices: luring and deceiving are intrinsic to their nature[2]. As Francis Bacon said to David Sylvester, painting is about setting a trap. It is all rather Frankensteinian – the creation has taken power over the creator. We are, inevitably, seduced.

According to Baudrillard[3], seduction is not so much a demand as a challenge. The subject desires, and the object seduces. The object, however, which has traditionally been relegated to a lesser position, is seen merely as “a detour on the royal road to subjectivity.” But where is this road trying to lead us, and what does this interrupting challenge distract us from? The quest for truth and meaning? Is that what draws us in?

Marguerite Horner’s grisaille landscapes certainly beggar the question of what it is they represent and why she chose to render them thus. Suggestive of American filmscapes (unsurprising perhaps, given her experience as a set and backdrop painter for the BBC), their emptiness and chilling shadows turn the American dream into more of a nightmare. The splash of red present in many is garish and unsettling. To quote Walter Benjamin[4]: “the painting invites the spectator to contemplation, before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations.” What does he recognise? Why is it familiar? Are these places real? Where is the life? Is something awry? Freud’s early ideas about scopophilia, or the pleasure in looking, centre on this notion of an exclusion and the very fact that our visual curiosity is heightened by what we do not or cannot see.

Elia’s works are similarly related to the movie, many of them adaptations of film stills. Unlike Horner, whose compositions are, in fact, imagined, Elia bases her scenes on existing images. The viewer, however, can never be sure whether they are taken from a film, newsreel, or just the general subconscious. Their content is familiar, their origins less so. Once again, the tables are turned, and the spectator is challenged to ask questions of himself and about his own reality, and, in this obsessive search for truth, he runs the risk of losing this very reality, as the hyperreality of the images takes over.

Hitchcock famously defined the MacGuffin as, essentially, “nothing at all”[5]: the device or gimmick which catches the viewers’ attention and drives the plot, but, which, ultimately, has no significance of its own. In fact, to determine if something indeed is a MacGuffin, one should consider whether or not it is interchangeable. Zizek[6] equates the MacGuffin to Lacan’s concept of the object petit a[7], the cause of a subject’s desire, but, itself, a void, something which can never be obtained. This, in turn, corresponds to Baudrillard’s absence of truth. But if there is no truth, no deeper meaning to be found, has the viewer not been misguidedly seduced in his search?

According to Baudrillard, it is precisely the lure of seduction which leads one astray from ‘right behaviour’, ‘reality’, and ‘truth’. “To seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion”[8] – a precise summation of the process of capturing the image on canvas. He argues that seduction and interpretation – or the act of relating the known to the unknown – are opposing phenomena. The search for truth will inevitably only lead you further from it.

So what exactly is it that constitutes the MacGuffin in Horner’s and Elia’s works? Is it the uncanny element of the known-but-unknown which draws the viewer in? Is it the search for a deeper meaning and truth? Or is it simply the painting itself? The works appeal to us for whatever reason, and we stop to look more closely. We are taken in by their appearance, in search of a hidden meaning, but the MacGuffin lies in the realisation that there isn’t necessarily any such thing, or, perhaps, in the postmodern acceptance that a painting just means what the viewer – each individual viewer – wants it to. After all, surely that’s what art and imagery is all about? It appeals to the senses; it is visually and aesthetically seductive. Much modern art has become largely conceptually driven, politically engendered, and in need of curatorial interpretation. But the works we see here are devoid of this. Not so much because they speak for themselves, but rather because they remain silent. We either like them or dislike them, but we can’t always explain why, no matter how deeply we search. In the end, does it even matter? The MacGuffin, whatever this may be, has already done its job: we have been seduced.

[1] Leader, D (2002) Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing. Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, p25
[2] Gonzalez, L (2006) ‘Created to Lead Astray: Baudrillard’s Seduction in Contemporary Artefacts’, paper presented at the Engaging Baudrillard Conference, Swansea University, 4 – 6 September 2006, available at:
[3] Baudrillard, J (1999) Fatal Strategies. London: Pluto Press
[4] Benjamin, W (1973 [1935]) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Hannah Arendt (ed.) Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn. Glasgow: Fontana, p11
[5] Truffaut, F (1969) Hitchcock. London: Panther Books, p160
[6] Zizek, S (1991) Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
[7] Lacan, J (1986) Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: Peregrine Books
[8] Baudrillard, J (1991) Seduction. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, p69

See also: Online version of catalogue and WW Gallery

No comments:

Post a Comment