Despair 2009
Despair 2009

Stephen Sutcliffe: Internal Monologue

Looking ahead to this year's Edinburgh Art Festival, we speak to Stephen Sutcliffe, an artist for whom every episode of Magnum P.I is never knowingly unrecorded
Feature by Andrew Cattanach.
Published 03 August 2011

Can you remember watching late night television as a child? It’s likely you were watching something you shouldn’t have and now your memory of the footage is fairly hazy – a weird collage of disparate images and sounds that represent an unsettling adult world as seen through your then juvenile eyes.

Everyone has their own version of this mental videotape. It’s a fuzzy patchwork of adult content that has inexplicably stuck with you through to adulthood. And with every generation there’s a different recording and a different cast of actors – Helen Mirren, Judy Dench, Michael Gambon, to name but a few of the likely players.

Artist Stephen Sutcliffe needs no such reminiscence. For nearly 30 years he’s been taping footage off television and radio and now holds what sounds like a fairly staggering archive of ‘golden age’ material. “I’ve been taping things from TV ever since I first got a video and I never tape over anything,” he explains in his Yorkshire drawl. “I never really taped them with a mind to making artworks – especially the early ones – because I didn’t even consider being an artist at that point.”

Visiting Sutcliffe’s solo show, Runaway, Success, at Stills this month, viewers will be treated to a rare glance at his private archive. Despite being Glasgow-based, much of the work on show has never been seen in this country.

Using what he refers to as a ‘collage’ technique, he splices together two or more elements of his archive to often unsettling effect. “I always start with the soundtrack,” he explains. “And I listen to the soundtrack quite a few times and I get the visuals from what comes to me when I’m listening to it. But that doesn’t mean they have to complement each other. In fact, a lot of the time the soundtrack and the image disrupt each other more than they complement each other, which I think is the essence of collage. You know, putting things together that don’t go. I kind of like that idea.”

His film Despair, which was screened at Tate Modern in 2009, is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name. Knowing that the film had already been adapted by director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Sutcliffe went in search for the German filmmaker’s version. Unable to get his hands on a copy, Sutcliffe drew inspiration from the unseen work nonetheless. “I made my idea of what I would make from the book with an eye to what he [Fassbinder] might have done,” Sutcliffe explains.

As well as his better known video works, Sutcliffe will be showing photographs and a large-scale wall drawing. The drawing will be a collage of cartoons gleaned from The New Yorker magazine (another of his archives) and repainted on to the gallery wall. Often subtle, the reworked cartoons show little evidence of collage. Unfamiliar with the source material, they could easily pass for the original.

The photographs similarly use cartoons, this time removed from their original context and re-made to look like theatrical production stills. A regular theme in his work, theatricality and the role of the performer is central to the Stills show. The show’s title, Runaway, Success, is taken from the film director Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiography. “He was a confident guy and he kept talking about the runaway successes he had,” Sutcliffe explains. “It’s a very traditional, theatrical term to use.”

At one point accidently reading the phrase “runaway success” with a comma between the two words, Sutcliffe liked how this introduced a degree of self-doubt into the prose of this otherwise successful and confident artist, as though the comma represented the humble uncertainty in all of us – even the most self-assured of performers, such as Zeffirelli.

As part of a new programming initiative that invites exhibitors to show work by other artists, Sutcliffe has decided to screen films by the independent American filmmaker Gary Conklin in the back room. Working mainly in the documentary genre, and rarely seen in Europe, Stills will show a selection of Conklin’s works.

Sutcliffe first came across Conklin while researching the English-American author Christopher Isherwood, who famously wrote fictional accounts of his experiences in Germany during the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism. It soon turned out Sutcliffe had one of Conklin’s films in his archive the whole time, which is likely to be the case for most directors, considering the breadth of Sutcliffe’s collection. “It’s funny,” Sutcliffe says, “because three of the films of Gary’s I’ll be showing I haven’t seen. I think he’s a really interesting director.”

The most recent work on show, a video entitled Writer in Residence, is the first time in a while Sutcliffe has shot a film entirely himself without using archive footage. Another literary reference, the work came about through an interest in Colin Wilson’s study of existentialist literature, The Outsider. “In that one I have an actor playing Colin Wilson who is interviewed in the face-to-face style of the 50s, 60s and 80s, and he keeps getting interrupted by the interviewer – or his own internal monologue.”

Again, we return to the idea of collage and its ability to disrupt the scene. In most of his works, even when the footage seems barely at odds with the soundtrack, there is something jarring about their coming together. “I like to take things and put them into awkward situations,” he illuminates. “I think adding a soundtrack sometimes makes the footage more questionable to watch. You start to ask questions about the footage.”

It comes as little surprise that self-doubt is at the heart of Sutcliffe’s work. These disruptions, often interrupting monologues, are like our own internal voices – our vociferous moral censors that are as much a hindrance as they are a help. They represent our nagging moral conscience that taunts and belittles us. They are reliably critical of our every action – and likely came into being just around the time we started watching late night television when we really shouldn’t have.

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