For a short time this autumn, British Modernist art at Tate St Ives makes way for art films and videos from the Tate Collection. Adam Roberts previews the exhibition.

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  • Gilbert & George Gordon's Makes Us Drunk 1972 Video installation

    Gilbert & George
    Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk 1972
    Video installation

    Tate. Purchased 1972
    © Gilbert & George

  • Steve McQueen Bear 1993 Video installation

    Steve McQueen
    Bear 1993
    Video installation

    Photograph
    © Tate
    Presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1996
    © Steve McQueen

We watch Gilbert & George as the artists sit in the front room of their Whitechapel house, sipping interminably on gin and tonic. A bay window as backdrop allows a glimpse of passing street life, while a gramophone plays achingly wistful English music. The artists become drunk.

It is difficult to tell whether the slow, stately rhythm in their drinking is marking out time or killing it. Either way, there is tension between time lost and time found in Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk 1972, Gilbert & George’s early work shown in Real Life, Tate St Ives’s survey of film and video art this winter.

St Ives, haven of British Modernism, may seem an unlikely choice of venue to show video art. After all, it is no easy task to black out the gallery’s windows and all that fine Cornish light. What may be more surprising, however, is that this is Tate’s first show devoted to a medium that muscled its way into the contemporary artist’s armoury – slowly, at first – from the 1960s, and with increasing force in the past decade.

Tate has been adding film and video pieces to its collection since the 1970s, acquiring work by both international and British artists; by artists who work primarily with the moving image as well as those who use it alongside painting, drawing, photography and the other means at their disposal. Tate St Ives director Susan Daniel-McElroy, curator of the new exhibition, has chosen examples by artists in both categories, most but not all of them works from the Tate collection.

Perhaps the best known British artist to work exclusively with the moving image – and the first to receive official recognition in the form of an OBE in this year’s Queen’s Jubilee birthday honours – is Steve McQueen, winner of the 1999 Turner Prize. He is represented in St Ives by Bear, his landmark film of 1993, shot in black and white on 16 mm and intended to be projected as large as possible. This work shows an emphatically physical confrontation between two naked men – you might call them wrestlers. The pool of light and generous flesh constitute a rolling reality that it is hard to turn away from.

The male nude also features in Sam Taylor-Wood’s Brontosaurus 1995, in which a naked man dances in oblivious solitude. Soundtrack can play a major part in video-based art; in Brontosaurus, the image of the dancer is slowed down and set to music in the form of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

The American artist Bill Viola began his career in the early 1970s collaborating with musicians in the production of audio-visual events and tapes, and has achieved a maturity and a catalogue that includes dozens of masterworks. He creates installations that evoke the frescoed interiors of European churches, their combination of dark and light or colour and shadow. He is inspired also by small-scale religious painting, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Mocking of Christ 1490–1500. Spirituality and artistic expression overlap in Viola’s The Reflecting Pool 1977–9, which depicts the artist diving into a pool, the water being symbolic of spiritual purification.

Mark Wallinger is another artist who alludes to the traditions of religious art among other means to provoke reflection on spiritual matters. In his piece Angel 1997, Wallinger carries a white stick, wears dark glasses and steps down an escalator at London’s Angel Underground station, reciting the opening of the Bible backwards: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was made flesh.’ On either side, travellers pass up and down, the three escalators evoking the triptych of Christian iconography.

Like Wallinger, Gillian Wearing uses technological means to keep her audience off balance: it is difficult to read her compelling video Sacha and Mum 1996, in which a mother and daughter are shown in worrying and perhaps violent play, because the tape is played in reverse.

The philosophical issues facing the curator of this type of work can be difficult – as those that still face any curator wishing to include a work by R. Mutt, the pseudonym famously used in 1917 by Marcel Duchamp to show his urinal entitled Fountain. Douglas Gordon’s ravishing 24-Hour Psycho 1993 is a widely praised work, but what of Alfred Hitchcock’s 109-minutePsycho 1960? And what of Antonioni’s Red Desert, or even Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Big Business?

Looking forward to the film and video art of the future, it is interesting to note that when Steve McQueen premiered his new piece Western Deep – shot on 8 mm film and transferred to DVD – at the Documenta 11 exhibition in Kassel this summer, it was screened to an audience who entered ready for the start, and were allowed to exit only at the end. Perhaps he is insisting on a beginning, a middle and an end. Wandering in or out at will may well become a thing of the past.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 2.