FILM: a low-tech love letter to the magic of cinema
For the twelfth commission in the Tate Modern Unilever Series, and the first to be devoted to the moving image, Tacita Dean has created ‘FILM’ – an homage to analogue film-making and to what is unique in this dying art. With the Tate Modern’s monolithic Turbine Hall becoming a darkened cinema space, Dean’s new piece deploys the panoramic cinemascope format of Westerns, turned 90 degrees to portrait so that the projection bathes nearly the full-height of back wall in a churning sea of film grain.
Dean’s new work is born out of the language of analogue film, made entirely in-camera and without the aid of post-production – utilising the olde-time techniques of ‘masking’, double-exposure, glass matte painting, and hand-cut editing, so that a single negative may have gone through the camera as much as 10 times. Unlike in digital film, with the loss of ‘discipline’ and ‘vitality’ brought about by not having to ‘rely on the moment’, ‘there’s no looking, there’s no cheating’, Dean explained. Here, the sprockets are visible, the negatives hand-tinted, and the final product is as much a product of fortune as it is of the artist’s skill.
Dean is best known for her elegiac film portraits of figures such as the late Cy Twombly: in a similar vein, FILM is a portrait of film, a retrospective and celebration of both the avant-garde and the mainstream, with visual references to Rene Daumal and Mondrian alongside the iconic mountain of Paramount Pictures. But it is also, crucially, the case for keeping film alive, ‘to make people fall in love with film again’. The 21st century, Dean fears, is the century of the disappearance of film: in the artist’s estimation, we are within a year of the demise of 16mm film, being now in single figures for the labs that actually print the format.
That age-old question ‘What is film?’ is now almost obsolete: instead, the real question of the hour is ‘Where is film?’ – soon, it seems, the answer will be, in museums, as a dusty artefact rather than a living sport. The next generation will never know a negative – indeed, celluloid has already been forgotten.
FILM is a resolutely low-tech love letter to the magic of classic cinema, before the reign of post-production, and the industry big-brothers of Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. Dean’s work is an homage to what feels like a land before time – a defiant and tender Modernist poem for a merciless Postmodern age.
But Dean is no anti-digital Luddite: ‘digital is not better than analogue but different’, she explained; ‘What we are asking for is co-existence. … The ascendency of one does not have to mean the extinction of the other’. While Dean has a track record of her subjects dying (see Twombly and Merce Cunningham), film is not mortal – it does not necessarily have to die. With her Unilever commission – a series of works that have had an estimated 26 million viewers – this is as good a place as any for a last ditch attempt, for a glorious last stand against all odds.
Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst