Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elegy in the Turbine Hall

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
Sylvie Lin, The Disappearance of Film-An Interview with Philippe-Alain Michaud (Art Taipei Forum)
Adrian Searle, The Guardian
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
And the last word, perhaps, to the curator :
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


  1. I keeping wanting to ask the following question without making it sound like I don't appreciate the feeling of loss that will be felt surrounding the death of a method of expression. I think I do appreciate that, but I still want to ask...

    Is there anything that analogue film can actually do that digital film can't?

  2. That's an interesting way to pose the question, because of course the people who are mourning would shout Yes, very loudly; and the digital triumphalists would yell No.

    The reason I find Tacita Dean a more interesting "anachronist" than most is that she's saying something little bit different, that film is her *medium*. And a medium is a qualitative and well as a quantitative thing. Of course the DV camera can be turned onto all of the same scenes and worlds that film made pictures of, and more cheaply, which is why there will be a total takeover of DV in our lifetimes.

    But when you frame the question around mediums the point of view shifts a bit, and it isn't about what you are picturing so much as *how*. Film projection, for example, makes ropey, silky, quite sinuous lines of light; digital projectors are based in pixels are more hard-edged, they don't have a tremor, and there is usually a bit of purplely-ghosting around the frame. Absolute difference? No. But is there an intuitive, qualitative difference of aesthetics? Very much so, I think.

  3. You mention above that digital and film have subtle differences. Film produces "ropey, silky, quite sinuous" images whereas digital pixels are more "hard-edged". I'm not sure that is completely accurate though. Modern image manipulation software is pretty fancy, e.g. this image is a digital photograph. I imagine that a high enough resolution digital camera could easily pass a sort of film Turing Test. That is, digital recordings could be manipulated sufficiently well that, when presented with a manipulated digital recording and a true film recording, nobody would be able to tell the difference without themselves using imaging software. Even the "intuitive, qualitative difference of aesthetics" present in film, can be suitably mimicked by digital recordings.

    From that perspective, one thing I've always struggled with is understanding why anyone would want to use a medium that can only do a subset of the things that another medium can do. This was what motivated my initial question above in October as well as my comments on this comment thread, relating to the adoption of new technology in art. I simply couldn't understand why an artist would *ever* not adopt new technology.

    However, I realised something when reading an email you sent to James and me a while ago. You wrote, "Beyond that, all good art starts with a workable constraint and a lot of openness."
    I was struck by the claim that all good art starts with "a workable constraint". It had never occurred to me that a restriction on what you can express would help you express something.

    But, after the reflection your email caused, I think I'm starting to see now. A significant part of art is the limit of what you are capable of expressing and how you push that limit and examine it. In that sense, the boundaries of one's chosen medium actually become a part of the artwork itself. Having more options can actually end up restricting the artwork because the limits of the medium are less interesting. So, in the context of the film vs digital debate, the point isn't that digital can mimic film, it is that film cannot mimic digital. The "ropey, silky, quite sinuous lines of light" are unavoidable and become a part of the art.

    But! I have to admit that I still don't really see how a digital artist who self-restricts themselves to making digital art that mimics film is going to produce art that is any different to a film artist. That is, of course, only if it is accepted that digital can pass the film vs digital Turing Test.

    Though, this still in now way diminishes the sadness at the death, or at least terminal illness, of a medium of expression.

    Actually finally sitting down to write these comments was motivated by the following article I just read in the guardian...



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