Sutcliffe’s video work combines romanticism with the hard-edge of media manipulation.
There is something predatory about the use of the moving image in the work of Stephen Sutcliffe (born Harrogate, 1968, lives in Glasgow) – it is both determined and persistent. Gestures and movements, cultural legacies and histories are carefully observed, identified and cut-up. Severing with surgical precision, and splicing words and images together to present a mood or attitude, Sutcliffe reaches into the archive and pulls out his version of its heart.
Writer Jean Genet describes cinema as basically immodest, observing that “the cinema can open a fly and search out its secret” – a function evident in Sutcliffe's short film Come to the Edge (2003). This work was generated from his archive of found footage, and appears like a recording from the dawn of the 'home video' age. It opens with a video camera lazily panning across a crowded sixth form common room: a pool table, 1980s wedge haircuts and charcoal blazers. A young man, with an ill-fitting jacket and a spidery suggestion of a moustache, enters the room with an air of imagined sophistication. In all his awkward glory, this lanky figure is something to behold, and the camera takes in the mood of the room – a smirk, a faux kiss blown, a knowing wink. With the speed of schooling sharks the students attack him, pinning him down, yanking down his trousers and pulling his underwear up into the crack of his arse. This figure, reminiscent of Piggy in William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), has to pay for his difference, for breaking unwritten rules. Come to the Edge reveals Sutcliffe's worldview to be exacting, satiric, dark, morbid and peculiarly melancholic.
As part of Nought to Sixty, Sutcliffe will be presenting a special screening of his work, including his film We'll Let You Know (2008). The piece opens on a young Ian McKellen, sat centre stage and waxing lyrical on the correct approach to the presentation of Shakespeare. His mannered platitudes are skewered by a hectoring voice off-screen: “Begin as soon as you like, would you?” Oblivious, McKellen slides into yet another anecdote, while the off-screen voice jabs, “Be as quick as you can would you please?” Sutcliffe questions a culture of class aspiration and intellectual complacency, undermining the apparent self-confidence of the ambitious young actor.
Sutcliffe's films speak of a history of British satire – including Monty Python, Private Eye and figures such as Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Tony Hancock – which is based on a critical class-consciousness. Invariably short in length, and frequently employing borrowed texts, his films also share something of William Burroughs' and Brion Gysin's 'cut-up' approach, even though Sutcliffe's combinations of sound and vision are far from random, and instead purposefully re-articulate the world, revealing the insidious relations between the individual and society. For Sutcliffe – as with a former generations of British artists which included figures such as Art & Language and Sarah Lucas – the personal is political. He is a product of a certain time in Britain, a time when Morrissey had something to say, when the unions held sway and when working class meant more than 'chavs' and the condescending images of Little Britain. Sutcliffe provides a critical and witty dissection of a nation haunted by this lingering class hangover.