It may be as epically-scaled as its title but the loop is a realistically modest 11 minutes. (The screen was 13m high in its original London incarnation; this looks shorter.)
Tacita Dean says of FILM: “The Turbine Hall is not known for concentration. You know, I’m not an artist that’s ever done anything spectacular, I mean I’m known for my longueur which is an euphemism for slight boredom in my films which I kind of court, but I knew with this project it had to be spectacular, it had to be easily understood in a way, and short.” (Front Row interview at 12:20)
The missing wall
The Turbine Hall she mentions is in London’s Tate Modern — five storeys high with a 3,400 sqm floor. FILM was shown there in late 2011-early 2012 as part of the celebrated Unilever series, which provides the amusing challenge of filling the vast space. Here’s how the previous Unilever installation looked, filled with Ai Wei Wei’s 100 million Sunflower Seeds:
Notice what the back wall looks like:
That detail is a crucial missing element in the ACCA installation. The Independent review of FILM noted: “from time to time in FILM‘s 11-minute loop, the screen on which it is projected seems to turn transparent, so that we are looking through it at the Turbine Hall’s east wall.”
When we see it at ACCA, that crucial illusion does not take place because we know that behind the screen is another flat white wall. That wall facade — on and behind the screen — is the visual armature of the film providing the grid for many passages, and it’s where the visuals return to as a familiar resting point. In ACCA we would need to be told about the Turbine Hall to get the recurring reference.
And I think it’s a grievious injury to the film’s conception, because that playing with the environment has to do with Dean’s need for the materiality of her medium, and the world in which we view it. It’s part of her fight to save analogue film from oblivion, from being “vanquished” by digital (*see below). It’s like taking an altarpiece out from its cathedral; the work of art remains but the aura is missing.
But how’s it look?
In his Fairfax review, Robert Nelson writes,
Many of the sequences recall moments in art history: an image intrudes upon a wedge, constructivism-style, or the film is divided into horizontal and vertical segments in De Stijl colours, or a volume is presented on a horizon of binary colour in the manner of Nicolas de Stael. Even the dots recall Baldessari.
Throughout these juxtapositions, the film bounces in infinitesimal shudderings on the wall. If you focus on the bottom near the floor, the fixed anchorage reveals the juddering quality of film, which never occurs with video.
Both paragraphs hint at part of FILM‘s interest, or opacity: it has esoteric layers — Art train-spotting, which is fine; it’s as valid as footy-talk. What Nelson doesn’t tell us is whether the film looks good. Well, I’ll use a word he doesn’t: it’s beautiful. And it’s spectacular. And the quality of the images evidently have the rich texture of film — a grainy filminess that obtains even in the sharpest images. BUT…
I asked my gallery companion for an opinion. Constant Gardener replied, “Clever, but instantly forgettable.” Which casual dismissal chimed with and solidified one of my responses. I totally admire Dean’s fight for the film medium*, and the “incomprehensible and anachronistic labour” involved in making FILM. (Dean writes lucidly in the catalogue of the analogue fight and the hard yakka. I was moved by her passion and craft and labour.)
But alas, the loss of its in situ Turbine wall context means that, apart from its scale, we must end up responding to or judging FILM on the way it looks and the connections it makes (a culture/nature matrix). It has lovely lyric passages and some nice art world hat-tipping. It is coherent and the “incomprehensible” labour seems to have imparted a gravitas to the feel of the collaging and its pacing.
But, but … it is not more astonishing or more wonderful than many videos (collage-style or otherwise) that have virally crossed my screen. (See the staff picks at Vimeo and Pitchfork for the usual apples v oranges comparison.) What it does have is the analogue beauty of film which large scale projections of video art like Bill Viola‘s does not — and that quality you have to see in the real for yourself.
You can check out the sequences in FILM (in a tiny youtube way).
I had hoped to be very impressed. But I was only impressed.
* Beyond FILM
However, thanks to Dean’s eloquence (hear how she defends film from being cast as dinosaur in Jon Faine’s Conversation Hour) I now know of the grave future of her medium — 16mm and 35mm photochemical film stock — filmmakers want it, but the industry does not: here and, interestingly, Kodak v2.0.
She tells us the the threat to the history of world cinema — with the ending of film stock production, and consequently, display platforms, we may no longer be able to view any of the millions of films that have not been deemed worthy of digitisation.
And much closer to home and heart, the threat to your own family photo albums — Dean reminds us forcefully that long-term digital storage has not been proven — indeed has only proven to have failed so far. As she puts it, “Ironically it is still recommended practice to store even works made digitally on negative.”
Two and a half cheers for Tacita Dean.