Matthew Noel-Tod acknowledges that his 2003 video Atomic, the centerpiece of his current exhibit at Unit B Gallery, is not particularly aesthetically pleasing. A shot-by-shot re-creation of the 1980 Blondie video of the same name, it’s colorful and rhythmic but visually disjointed. What’s most fascinating about the video is the weird lifelessness of the performers (all recent graduates of an art school in Norwich, England, where Noel-Tod lives) and the odd disconnect between the rapid-fire imagery and the slower tempo of the accompanying music: instead of the Blondie song, the four-minute video repeats to a 90-minute score composed for F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire classic, Nosferatu, so the relationship of music to image keeps changing. “I think I solved the problem of showing looped videos in galleries,” Noel-Tod says. “The repetitions won’t seem quite as moronic.”
Born in 1978, Noel-Tod was, in his own words, “really into Lego” as a boy; at eight his replica of a Harrods shopping bag made from the colored blocks netted him third prize in an art competition sponsored by the London department store. At 14, he had a “really strange” art teacher, who “professed that he was into LSD and the Beatles” but whose lessons simply required students to copy things like a CD cover and a perspective grid. “I much preferred my later art teacher who gave me free rein,” he says, “but by that time I think all I was interested in was copying.”
In high school, inspired by American minimalists Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Dan Flavin, Noel-Tod began photographing architecture at angles that made it resemble minimalist sculpture. Around the same time he fell in love with French New Wave films like The 400 Blows and Breathless; he enrolled at the Norwich School of Art and Design in part because it was near an art cinema. “I figured that if I didn’t like the school I could spend all day in the cinema, and I pretty much did that the first semester.” But when he saw the Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief he was underwhelmed. “It seems that its reputation as a realist film comes from the fact that the people are poor,” he says, “but I thought the way it was structured was as manipulative as any mainstream film; it could have starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.” Partly as a critique, and partly to learn more about the grammar of film, he created a three-minute, two-screen video installation in which he reenacts images from the 1948 film on one screen while the original shots play on the other.
Noel-Tod had often heard that Blondie videos were considered classics of their genre. But when he finally saw them, he says, “I was quite shocked, because they were all fairly garish, more like kitsch. Atomic seemed like they were making a film for the first time; a lot of it looked like early cinema. The movements were quite gestural and theatrical, as in silent films, and the lighting was really wayward.” The performers, apparently living in a post-nuclear-holocaust era, looked like zombies to him, and “the way Debbie Harry dances with her arms out reminded me of Max Schreck walking up the staircase in Nosferatu.” After he noticed at a party that his friend Jules Devonshire looked a lot like Harry, he set out to make his own version, enlisting his fraternal twin brother to play Blondie guitarist Chris Stein and a friend who’s a fashion buyer for music videos to help duplicate the original outfits.
Current cinema, Noel-Tod says, is often a chain of references. “Tarantino references Scorsese who references Godard who references Minnelli, Griffith, and Hawks”–but when young filmmakers are influenced by Tarantino without knowing his sources, or those sources’ sources, the results are often disappointingly shallow. Noel-Tod says he’s “trying to deconstruct how these references and references to references can be used in making video art, trying to create what I hope is an intelligent dialogue between me creating a work and the works I’m referencing.”
He also sees Atomic as a comment on a larger cultural trend. “I quite like how my video seems dead, in the way that I think walking into Top Shop, a big clothes shop in England that’s like Old Navy, feels dead,” he says. “You can go in and see T-shirts that have an anarchy symbol printed to look as if someone had drawn it on. You can now buy ‘punk’ T-shirts that are pre-ripped. In contemporary culture, fashion, and music, things seem to instantly forget their own history, so that you have a generation of people who are brought up thinking that some new band was the first to wear an anarchy T-shirt. This is dangerous, because it can potentially generate a society that very quickly forgets its past.”
Noel-Tod’s Unit B exhibit, which also includes ink-jet prints made from the video and a large neon sculpture combining the words “Nosferatu” and “Atomic,” runs through December 6. He’ll be in attendance from noon to 6 at next Saturday’s closing reception, which will also include screenings of his earlier videos. The gallery’s at 1733 S. Des Plaines; hours are Saturday from noon to 5 and by appointment, and admission is free. Call 312-491-9384 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.