A part from a quick nervous intake of breath on the soundtrack, nothing provokes disquiet when Closer begins. The three screens, suspended from the ceiling in a deeply shadowed room, are so dark that they seem blank. Then without warning a hand appears on the left screen. A beam of intense red light irradiates the open palm, so bright that it threatens to pierce flesh. But the hand vanishes just as swiftly, leaving the entire trip-tych of screens to present distant images of a city at night.
Dryden Goodwin, the young artist who displays this ambitious new video at Tate Britain, soon moves in much nearer.
Fascinated by urban life, he ensures that the preliminary spectacle of lights, sprinkled across an inky immensity of ground and sky, gives way to close-up shots of looming architecture. At the same time, an ominous high note is heard, along with low, rustling sounds. Then we are invaded by noise of trains. All the screens are filled with images of railway tracks and grim walls scarcely visible in the rush.
Occasionally, the beam of light reappears reminding us that someone is intent on exploring the gloom with a long distance laser pen screens soon go empty again. Goodwin always brings sequences to an end long before they tire us. He aims at catching us off-balance, ambushing our eyes and ears.
Suddenly, as if someone snapped on a light, the blackness is alleviated by luminous office windows. Somebody must still be working there long after everyone else has gone home. Because so little is visible within we become aware of windows as minimal units of brilliantly lit form, defined by the surrounding dark. They quicken our desire to see inside, and Goodwin arouses hope by showing glimpses of human movement behind a window. After a quick fade, another window promises greater access to its interior. But curtains are pulled over the glass, so that the scene is veiled, mysterious and utterly tantalising.
As Goodwin proceeds to bombard us with further windows, activating the screens at different times, we grow more conscious of his role as the observer. We see a man on one side of a room, and a flickering computer screen some distance away, unattended. The gap between figure and machine sharpens our own awareness of the distance separating Goodwin from the figures he scrutinises. He must like it that way, gazing at occupants wholly oblivious of his presence.
After a flurry of different windows hits the screens, they all fade from view. The deep, ominous murmur on the soundtrack also vanishes. In its place, Goodwin assails us with a barrage of flashing lights, voices in a hubbub and hints of Tube trains on the move. All the screens are charged, now, with syncopated motion and incessantly dissolving forms. They come to resemble interconnected abstract paintings, drenched in sensuous colours.
Just how avidly he stares at his chosen locales only becomes clear in the later stages of Closer. For the freewheeling, ecstatic sequence of high-keyed colours gives way to a void. A high note, tense and apprehensive enters the soundtrack. With startling speed, a tall restaurant window flashes on to the left screen, where a man seems to be drinking through a straw. His head moves up and down with oddly mechanical regularity, like a robot. Another, equally isolated figure appears at a window on the right, followed by a deserted office interior high-lighted on the central screen.
Once more, the sinister in-take of breath can be heard, but not for long. Goodwin's soundtrack is multi-layered and strange, jittery chords soon take over as all three screens are filled with contrasted close-ups of architecture. He revels in the variety of buildings caught by his camera. One richly embellished expanse of stonework, so heavy that it seems oppressive, curves round a woman silhouetted within and threatens to crush her with its bulk. The red beam is detectable once again, darting agitatedly around the base of the windows, suggesting that Goodwins reaction to them impels him to reach out and touch their surface with light.
But his eager response to people is even more driven by tactile urges. Three profiles of a young man appear on the screens, in close-ups of uncomfortable intimacy. The camera wanders over his dark skin with the presumption of a lover, and yet Closer could not be described as a homoerotic work. Although elegiac music accompanies an image of another man, whose hairline is greedily traced by the red beam, he is soon replaced by a young woman half-masked by a brightly lit vertical window-bar. Goodwin lingers over the visible part of her face, taking his wanton beam on a playful journey around her ear. The glowing point of light appears to be caressing her, but then it takes on a more menacing air by settling on a man's neck. He looks like the target of an assassin.
But, after switching so bewilderingly from the erotic to the menacing, Goodwin indulges in wry humour. After wriggling his light on another man's head, viewed this time from behind, the anonymous figure raises his hand to scratch the same spot.
So should the laser pen be seen as a gun or a toy? The question remains open, as Goodwin reserves the right to leap from light-hearted manoeuvres.
Now his mood undergoes a further transformation. A sudden flurry of close-ups, centring on a nose, an ear and a mass of hair, is the cue for a violent bout of juddering by the camera. All the faces grow blurred, as if through Tube tunnels at full tilt.
For an instant, I was reminded of Mark Wallinger's video of a never ending, Dante-esque trip round the Circle line. Goodwin's previous work shares the older artist's willingness to explore settings as forbidding as the London Underground and an airport terminal. But Closer has none of the religious associations conjured by Wallinger's Threshold to the Kingdom. Goodwin is a more secular artist, stimulated by an unholy appetite for unforeseen, risky encounters on his sleepless wanderings through the city.