I was sad to realize while in London in September that I was narrowly missing two shows at Tate Modern: an impressive looking Gerhard Richter survey, and Tacita Dean's commission for the Turbine Hall. Dean's work opened last night to a chorus of reviews, with lots more undoubtedly to come. I'll keep an ongoing roster of interesting commentary at the end of this post.
The piece is called FILM. It's a striking installation of poetic cinema: a jewel-toned, silent, 11 minute film presented as a monumental projection onto a 13 meter screen nestled toward the back of the Turbine Hall. The projection system uses 35mm film and a cinemascope lens turned around at 90 degrees to achieve the very unusual vertical format. And it contains no digital post-production － all the visualizations, superimpositions, and image combinations are made with "analog" methods: during production, inside a 16mm camera, and with splices on a Steenbeck editing machine.
That would be because the piece is a strong polemic for the material of film, and a claim for the differences between celluloid and digital. Tacita Dean talks about celluloid film as her medium here and here, likening it to oil paint. She wrote an impassioned manifesto for it earlier this year, and in the exhibition's accompanying catalog surveys 80 cinematic artists about this question of filmic obsolescence. "Pitched against this," she writes － 'this' being the film industry's absolute turn to the digital in recent years － "art is voiceless and insignificant." You don't have to be sympathetic to this point of view to still hear in it a Shakespearean question －"How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?" In a sensitive documentary, produced by the Tate to contextualize the show, Dean describes the intensity of her commitment to this medium around a question of intimacy:
Film and digital are just different mediums. They're very intrinsically different: they're made differently, they're seen differently. Film is my medium, just as oil is the medium of painters. I need the time of film for my work, and the atmosphere of film.Anticipating the end of celluloid is like waiting for a tsunami to arrive. A lot will change when the wave finally hits, and there have been plenty of indicators of its encroaching already － practically for a generation. But we're probably near the crucial moment now, which adds a certain pathos to this work. The last lab in Britain that would process 16mm film closed during the production of Dean's FILM, and inexperience in the Dutch lab that was able to process it resulted in some major errors.
The material medium of celluloid film has remained essentially unchanged since cinema was invented in the nineteenth century. I think this is partly why its passing away is experienced so emotionally, as an enormous loss, by cinephilic aficionados. But the analog/digital debate can easily devolve into a retrograde fight, which is why I think it matters that Dean claims that her stance isn't absolutist but aimed at demanding ongoing choice between the two:
that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.I'd be curious to hear from people who are able to actually see the piece since my sense of it is, of course, digitally mediated.
Reviews, Tacita Dean, FILM, Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 11 October 2011–11 March 2012
(in chronological order, more or less):
e-flux, press release
Background interview at Phaidon Press
In the artist's voice, the making of: a lovely process documentary from the Tate
Adrian Searle, The GuardianAnd the last word, perhaps, to the curator Nicholas Cullinan:
Emily Eakin, New Yorker
Sarah Kent, The Arts Desk
Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman
GertiesGirl, Inscape (blog)
Jackie Wullschlager, The Financial Times
Charles Darwent, The Independent
Alison Roberts, This Is London
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Royal Academy of Arts Magazine
Cate Smierciak, Berlin Art Link
Sally O'Reilly, Art Review
In reading about Dean’s filmic works, which document edifices either derelict (Bubble House and Palast) or belonging to another era (Boots and Fernsehturm), or sitters captured towards the end of their life, a word that is all too often used to describe them is ‘nostalgia’. This characterisation of Dean’s films gives me pause. It strikes me as wrong, or at least reductive and misleading. Dean’s works have thus far tended to be written about in terms of ruins, remnants and obsolescence, and while those words may be applied to some of the subjects captured by her camera, the images within her films, and in FILM particularly, are not fragmented or entropic, but instead alive and vital. They are images which very much seem to be making a case for why they should, why they must, be preserved in order to go on existing. And this difference between my account of Dean’s work and those of others hinges upon a simple perception.
Where some see fossilisation in the subjects captured by her camera’s lens, I see revivification, every time the projector is switched on and these images are summoned back to life once more. If film is a medium that seemingly lacks a physical presence or substance, and is instead one which flickers and fades phantasmagorically before us and then persists largely in the memory, then this immateriality is echoed in Dean’s films, capturing that which is fugitive or fleeting – light changing, places or people before they vanish, time passing. Those who see only nostalgia in her films miss the point, because what I see in Dean’s work, and in FILM in particular, is wonderment at what can be salvaged by the camera’s lens.
Image credits: Ian Nicholson / PA; Sarah Lee for The Guardian; Ray Tang/Rex Features, all from The Guardian; video from the Visit London Blog