Urban authenticity: Susan Hefuna

Susan Hefuna- still from 150 minute film, London Crossroads, courtesy of Pi Artworks Istanbul/London and the artist

Susan Hefuna – Pi Artworks until 14th May.

As I emerge from the restyled Tottenham Court Road underground station the out-sized pop-art squares on the escalator atrium walls strike me as a desperate bid to be cool and contemporary. They might be a crude, overblown tribute to the subtly designed Paolozzi mosaics in the tunnels below. Mondrian or Matisse might also be referenced? Heritage design rather than cutting edge.

I join the pedestrian throng and realise that my bearings are completely lost. The Crossrail redevelopment has changed the psychogeography so I have to return to the booking hall below to get an exit onto familiar Oxford Street where I head towards the gallery in Eastcastle Street. As usual I pick up the exhibition notes from the reception desk but a recent experience of the strangulated style they are often written in means I only give them a cursory glance. However I do learn that the film London Crossroads I have come to see is 150 minutes long.

When an artist’s film lasts for two and half hours I would not rule out watching all of it. But when a gallery screens it in a space with no seating you are getting mixed messages. Either:

“This work is totally engaging and you will be so transfixed for the duration you won’t notice your aching legs.”

-or –

“This work does not require a full viewing – stay for as long or short a time as you wish.”

The tension between the two possibilities makes this visit to Pi Artworks a little disconcerting. A large screen fills the far wall with the image of an intersection somewhere in the West End on a miserable grey day filmed from a second floor office window. Pedestrians dribble by. Traffic consisting  mainly of delivery vans career into the intersection from only one direction on a one way system unimpeded by traffic lights. They must exit at 90 degrees out of the bottom of the screen as all other roads are no entry.  I am viewing a corner bend of a racetrack that the pedestrians must navigate. Once this intriguing traffic conundrum has been decoded I settle down to appreciate the “art”. After five minutes of people watching I begin to think how much longer should I stay to give the artwork its due. Another thought occurs to me. This is the kind of experience that makes people ask: “Is modern art bankrupt?” The artist sets up the camera, disappears for two and half hours and then returns to collect their finished work.

I am about to leave when the closing credits come up which include a list of dancers from a contemporary dance school. Checking the curator’s notes (I should have known!) I read that the main artistic input to this film is the choreography of these actors in pedestrian moves that are almost indistinguishable from the real ones.  This gives me an incentive to keep viewing. It becomes a question of  trying to spot the interlopers and the significance of their behaviour.

The bright colours of hats, umbrellas and suitcases suggest an artistic intervention as do the people who exchange bags as they pass each other. The bearded guy blowing bubbles must be a set up. Only once do I spot a static balletic pose held for a few seconds. I am tempted to wait longer in case something really dramatic is imminent. I guess the main thrust of the work  is the pro-social behaviour of the actors as a critique of urban alienation. Eventually I leave and find that fifty metres from the gallery I enter the crossroads that is the precise location of the filming. I have a strange feeling that I am under surveillance.

Anyone familiar with manic states of mind will recognise a common symptom: a heightened sense of the significance of events sometimes expressed as a conviction that the afflicted person themselves and those around them are not authentic autonomous beings but actors playing out roles. Mania may also be manifested as a fear that hidden cameras are recording the person’s every move, a combination of grandstanding and paranoia that is both exhilarating and unsettling. In the early stages of a manic episode it may be possible to dismiss these thoughts and feelings as delusional but lurking quietly in the shadows is the question: who are the real people around me and who are the actors?  A simulation of this mental confusion is what this film offers to the viewer.

As conceptual art this work was an undoubted success. I have reflected on its significance for weeks: the low level ubiquitous CCTV paranoia, our need for human contact in crowds and the tendency for public role-playing on the urban stage. An initial visually impoverished and intensely irritating experience eventually paid dividends. Perhaps the more pared back the image the  harder we have to think to invest meaning in the work.