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Double Indemnity: An Exploration of Desire Inspired By The Classic Film Noir

Not everything is black and white at this Cornerhouse exhibition

Written by . Published on September 17th 2013.

Double Indemnity: An Exploration of Desire Inspired By The Classic Film Noir

CLASSY. Stylish and stylised. Visually seductive. The dark shadows of the soul and screen portrayed in film noirs such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity are timeless yet very much of their time. They leave an arresting cinematic memory, just like the smoke from the cigarette of a femme fatale hanging in the air like an unspoken threat.

But ultimately, the piece just looks like a politically aware Right Said Fred video with a pulsating techno soundtrack.

Whether the new Cornerhouse exhibition has a similar visual effect is, like the curling smoke from the aforementioned cigarette, very much up in the air.

The exhibition, curated by Michael Connor, who has enjoyed a long-standing creative partnership with Cornerhouse, is staged across all three galleries. It aims to explore questions posed by the film through new and recent work by a selection of high profile artists.

It is also organised as if the Walter Neff character in Double Indemnity were its audience, as if an everyman with a propensity for being led astray could walk into the exhibition and gain an insight into his own character and a sense of responsibility for his actions.

Divided into four parts, each section of the Double Indemnity exhibition is introduced by a still and a quote from the film. More could have been made of this as the stills are almost beautiful to look at but they are diminished by their transition from the big screen to something only a little bigger than a postcard.

Gallery 1 explores the role of the femme fatale. Titled Object of Desire, the artists take on this role, skewing traditional power relationships and, in the case of Laurel Nakadate’s Lessons 1-10, casting the audience in the uncomfortable position of seedy voyeur.

Amongst the iconic works on display here, the most effective is Sophie Calle’s The Shadow. Her glib and chatty recount of an ordinary day on which she had organised to have herself trailed by a private detective contrasts with the sparse case notes of the unwitting private eye and the collated photographic evidence of her movements – like stills from her own personal film noir. There is a moody, unsettling quality to the work, reminiscent of Paul Auster’s tales of inverted detection with whom Calle has worked.

CalleShadowed by a Shadow in 'The Shadow' 

There is a range of interesting works in the exhibition. In Gallery 3, Consuming Desire, the works explore the consumerism and emptiness of the world portrayed in Double Indemnity. Anicka Yi’s newly commissioned installation is a fascinating idea – a fragrance for Phyllis Dietrichson which aims to capture her very essence in a perfume. Apparently containing notes of ‘cold, icy desire, with metallic, menthol and floral notes and boozy traces’, all my untrained nasal passages could make out was a faint whiff of petrol and a slight chemical tang.

The most tenuous of the themes is in Gallery 2, Desiring Bureaucracy, where artists explore the erotic charge of bureaucratic rules and systems. Sharif Waked’s Chic Point is both clever and provocative – a homo-erotic fashion show of young men in midriff-revealing clothing followed by images of young men revealing their midriffs for inspection at security checkpoints. The titillating sexual aspects of this powerplay between the man in uniform and the civilian are an interesting and awkward idea, but ultimately, the piece just looks like a politically aware Right Said Fred video with a pulsating techno soundtrack.

Although Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity served as the inspiration for this exhibition, it also overshadows the artworks involved. None of them can compete with the film itself for sheer visual impact.

Michael Connor described the impetus behind his Double Indemnity exhibition: “I was sitting in a smoke-filled bar; I was wearing a three-piece suit. It was a speakeasy. I started with the title as a way to approach the work.”

Whilst the visual symbolism of film noir is an important influence, the exhibition itself feels like an intellectual construct. It is bursting with ideas. Commendable ideas. Laudable ideas, even. But no amount of ideas can make up for a gaping hole where beauty should be. Or awe. Or some other visceral, gut-wrenching emotion inspired by what you see. You can’t hang an idea in a gallery but you can be led to it by the craftsmanship and power of what you see before you.

If you want classic images, striking contrasts and beautiful evocations of an alluring but morally ambivalent world, go instead to Cornerhouse for their My Noir season of film. Double Indemnity is showing on Wednesday 18 September at 1:30pm. I also recommend Laura which is showing on Sunday 29 September at midday and Wednesday 2 October at 1:30pm and The Third Man which is showing on Sunday 3 October at midday, Wednesday 9 October at 1:30pm and Thursday 10 October at 6pm.

The Third ManRun quickly to catch the My Noir season of film at Cornerhouse

My Noir runs until Sunday 29 December and the Double Indemnity exhibition runs until Sunday 5 January at Cornerhouse, 70 Oxford Road, Manchester, M1 5NH

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