The passenger

David McDowell: Photo and video works
Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Gorman House
26 March - 1 May 2004

In Michelangelo Antonioni 's film The Passenger, Jack Nicholson plays a disillusioned journalist in North Africa who escapes the weariness of his own existence by assuming the identity of a dead man. Following the dead man's planned itinerary, he eventually meets the fate destined for his alter ego when he is murdered in a shabby desert hotel room. The film explores a profound existential indifference, an indifference to whom you are or where you go that ends in the ultimate indifference of accepting a meaningless and untimely death.

The passenger is an ambiguous traveller: passive as well as active, one who chooses a destination but is not in control of the vehicle. David McDowell's moody and atmospheric installation explores the anxiety of the passenger, the cocooned indifference of one who travels through a landscape, registering and recording its passage, but who is never essentially there, always en route to somewhere else.

McDowell divides the large T-shaped space at Gorman House into two distinct zones, curtained off at the entrance to create a dimly lit space that is simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic. The stem of the T forms a tunnel featuring two video works, one displayed on a monitor and the shows a loop of slow motion video footage, grainy and speckled with digital noise, of a plane taking off across Osaka Bay. The projected video is shot through the windscreen of a car travelling through the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland, slow motion footage of oncoming headlights moving across screen space. Somaya Langley's soundtrack of low engine rumblings contributes to the tunnel-like atmosphere.

In contrast with this claustrophobia, the photographs on each side of the tunnel are panoramas of the Swiss Alps viewed from mountain peaks, recalling Caspar David Friedrich and German Romanticism, the sublime transcendence of the solitary wanderer who magisterially surveys the world from above.

McDowell's method of presenting these photographs is important. Each black and white negative was printed in sections on large sheets of orthographic film, using exposures of up to forty minutes. Each of the developed images was then subjected to a series of toning techniques, severe and unpredictable chemical processes that produce a range of subtle colourations, from blues and greens through to sepia and orange, giving the images an aged, darkened, blotched and weather-beaten appearance. It is as if, like the passenger, the images bear the scars of the accidents and misadventures of their history. The original imagethe Romantic vista-is then recomposed by fastening the separate sections together with pins and hanging them in a grid formation with bulldog clips from metal frames suspended from the ceiling. Each of the screens thus formed was lit from behind, giving an effect something like a makeshift hanging billboard, a composite reconstruction patched together in the studio from fragments that do not add up to a whole that can be photographed 'all at once' in the ordinary way.

In the larger space Langley's soundtrack modulated to a submarine environment of low rolling waves and pulses shot through with high pitched electronic chatter, giving, for me at least, the sense of cavernous empty buildings at night, a kind of air conditioned existentialism. The large empty space was flanked by seven of McDowell's composite photographic screens.

Four across the back wall featured a passenger jet on an airport tarmac and shots over the wing of a patchwork of snow-covered fields below. At either end were shots of sleeping passengers slumped in an airport lounge and a forest indistinctly visible through the windscreen of a car, each suggestive of the untocussed, dreamlike anxiety of a David Lynch film. The seventh image, a mountain landscape, provided the screen for the projected video, effectively both illuminating and obscuring the image. If the tunnel zone carried a sense of being carried forward into an uncertain future, here the atmosphere was a more static kind of impatience, an uneasy expectation of something about to happen.

McDowell's catalogue text is one of the finest I have read, a meditative travelogue in the manner of W.G. Sebald that draws out resonances with a kind of oblique purposefulness that replicates the traveller/passenger's ambivalent desire for, and dissatisfaction with, destinations. McDowell reflects on colonial adventurer Sir John Franklin, whose statue stands in Hobart, but whose bones lie in the Canadian arctic, reminisces about lggy Pop's The Passenger' and Berlin in the 1970s, and meditates on Antonioni's existential cinema, where at the end of The Passenger the camera turns away, from the murder about to happen, to survey the vast indifferent desert.