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Second in the draw for the High Street Project's LOTS, the new-venue series of two artist shows, Brian McMillin and Paul Sutherland present "MUTE" from May 19 to 31. ...a soundtrack and video sequence (ca. twenty minutes) played simultaneously on a big, brown, wood veneer TV set and a small, sepia, monochrome monitor, plus several dozen snapshot-sized colour closeups of a screen on which the video is being played. The TV sits on a small table; video and amp on top, big brown 70s styled speaker below. The monitor is mounted almost opposite it, above head height, on the partition wall. The photographs, as if trying to take up as much room as they can, are neatly tiled end to end in thin lines, at a conventional painting level, mostly on the walls of the next room.

The video starts and ends with shots of a video screen showing the dotted line and pixilated letters of a remote control prompted "mute" tag. So it's the title shot, and it's the one captured in various states of colour bleed and blur by the photographs. It's a really nice image; a pithy visual bite on box-watching emptiness, signal loss, medium's-the-message, all that stuff; luminously proving its own point as a found phrase from the all-but-wordless on-screen lexicon of a VCR. Given this much emphasis, though, it risks drawing circles and arrows around the show's Achilles' heel. In a risky and obvious way it claims intentional "meaninglessness" in the face of the inevitable frustration in communication/similar vague thesis (choose your own favoured description) as an alibi for not having come up with much for the show.

The rest of the video tape is a meandering collage of film and video footage quite attractively but predictably exploiting the built-in image decay of those media, with grainy and ultra close-up abstracted colour fields, grey brown slide sequences, scratched film, videoed video, and other noise-over-signal rendered prettiness. Through the murk is visible a cast of pop arty cultural icons of a curiously Cold War stripe. Various characters turn up, sway, nod, turn green, flicker, nod, switch back to colour: Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro, anonymous Asian women, Robert Muldoon, Chairman Mao, Phillip Sherry. Old news. By the time Wonder Woman and then the Moscow skyline show up, the way this evocative chaos makes its point seems certifiably overfamiliar to me. Aren't these exact same throwaway references the stock imagery of simplistic nothing-means-anything strains of '80s "postmodernism"?

The accompanying soundtrack in a similarly pleasant way mixes recognisable aural icons of yesteryear (scraps of T.S. Eliot reading his poetry, the Beatles' sitar, 60s jazz) with more abstract manipulations, tape rumble, stop/start clunks, hiss, ff & rw chatter, and other wheezing, roaring, machine age distortions. Accompanying these visuals, even the 'Nam 'copter stutter of a juddering reel-to-reel tape recorder sounds like an underscoring of the same terribly vague, nostalgic post-war ambience.

Out of all this, Eliot (as previously heard from Sutherland in collaborative work with L.Budd, by the way) entertained me best. His RP intoned metaphysical blah survives the cut ups to ring with distinct, solemn, modernist pessimism, describing for me in the gallery my own "...growing fear of nothing to think about...." Being no sissy, however, and with a reviewer's duty in mind, I defied the rather flat presentation and made my own fun; enjoyed the attractive bit of pink and green rolling horizontal lines, and skipped with amusement through the half hour or so of the episode of the costume drama "The Tide of Life" (complete with old ads) that follows on the tape.

Jonathan Bywater
26 May 1997