Exhibition | Review: Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ (Tate Modern)

Douglas Brennan reviews Tacita Dean's Film, a showcase of 35mm film-making at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

Exhibition, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, December 11, 2011 10:08 - 0 Comments

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On Febuary 22nd, the Guardian published an article by filmmaker Tacita Dean in which she decried a decision taken by her local lab: to terminate its development of 16mm film. That article forms the backdrop to her latest installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, FILM: a self-publicising work of film art.

Dean’s standpoint can be reduced as follows: Film – i.e cellulose nitrate that can be touched, bent or burned – is a medium independent from its (now much bigger) digital brother. It is precisely film’s tactility that separates it from digital moving images, as the latter lacks the material interaction the former depends on. For Dean and others like her, the direct engagement with the images they’ve captured – working from finger to frame, from frame to finger – is as fundamental and integral part of the creative act as the shooting of the images themselves.

Yet this physical process has recently become near impossible to practice in Britain, despite a filmmaking scene that has been resurging over the last few years – more than people realise. Dean’s lab technician had 171 regular customers using 16mm film that will now have to look elsewhere to get their films developed (mainland Europe, most probably) now that the particular service is no longer provided. Only a third of all films entered at her local Berlin Film Festival were digital, she reminds us, intent on stressing the enduring actuality of her chosen medium.

She feels as though her art is not only being threatened, but victimised. Hollywood is purposefully extinguishing the 16mm projector’s light in order to standardize exhibition and distribution mores thereby maximising profit. 16mm is already too marginalised a medium to be considered financially viable on a global scale and as such, need not exist.

‘Co-existence’ is the word Dean uses to describe what it is she is looking for: a state in which both media are enjoyed irrespective of the state of the other. Specifically, she stresses that this is not a Film versus Digital argument. Although her preference for the former is unfaltering, at no stage does she claim superiority over the other. She hopes that both media may be enjoyed by their respective adherents, but fears this may no longer be possible.

Without the appropriate network of organisations and institutions devoted purposefully to the preservation, production and development of actual film stock, Dean laments, the defining artistic medium of the 20th Century will be lost in its original form. In little over a hundred years, film – once revolutionary – is now almost extinct.

We can now turn to the current Turbine Hall installation, for Tacita Dean’s latest artwork and concern for film’s future are inextricably intertwined. With the Tate’s invitation Dean has placed film on a pedestal, in the limelight and asked for it to be seen in all its glory.

In a way FILM is straightforward, as the projector, its screen and the light in between are the only additive features of the exhibition. A handmade, 35mm film is projected from the galley onto a 13 metre high, one metre thick, plaster tablet – or monolith – placed in the final third of the vast hall. The film is silent and loops every eleven minutes from open till close. Only the doors and the far entrance and balcony above break the monopoly of light the projector has. Otherwise, the hall is in darkness.

Conventional film exhibition standards are turned not on their head so much as by 90 degrees, as the dimensions of the film mirror those of the space in which we find it. Instead of the short and wide projections with which we are familiar, Dean’s tall and thin tablet places her film in harmony with its surroundings.

In its presence people stand diligently, rest against walls or sit on the floor; some see the film loop repeatedly, others don’t make it all the way through. Mostly, it is conceived of as a static experience – like in the cinema. Yet the projection of Dean’s film onto an object that can be circumvented contradicts conventional engagement with the moving image, thereby asking us to treat her film differently. That you are able to get as close as you like to a projection of such scale calls for the viewer to contemplate, consider and inspect what it is they are presented with.

Sillhouettes can be seen moving around the hall. Some visitors find FILM on them as they intervene between the projector’s light and intended target. Mostly, people are too polite to venture too close to the monolith, not wishing to obscure the view of others. Every once in a while, visitors walk up to the tower and see the film up-close: stand at its base and touch it. In such close proximity to the screen film’s organic facet – the mottle and imperfections that separate it from digital – become visible.

Rarely do visitors venture behind the tablet onto which Dean’s film is projected. This space is filled with a darkness that is emphasised only by the slither of light that overshoots the monolith and is cast against the back wall, creating a huge gateway that acts as an intermediary between the scale of the monolith and the Turbine Hall’s back wall.

Thus Dean’s exhibition reveals itself as spatially engaging. We are invited to consider the process of film as well as its result. We see the light of the projector in its entirety, to inspect its points of contact and the way in which people react to it. We’re not just witnessing a film, but film itself. By allowing people to walk around the tablet, the filmic realm finds room in the vast space of the Turbine Hall. In doing so we can see beyond film as a flat, two-dimensional entity and experience it as a spatial and three dimensional construct.

And what of FILM‘s film itself? Best described as an “homage to film”, it celebrates film’s potential to bring phenomena to our attention together in ways that do not naturally occur. It revels in film’s ability to manipulate the real world through editing. In other words, it champion’s the creative potential of film.

In documentary fashion, Dean has filtered her surroundings through a static lens for us to inspect. Subsequently she joins scenes together on the editing table to create new meanings from their combination. For Dean, the choice and arrangement of material was only made possible through her lengthy, solitary and tactile engagement with the frames she shot.

FILM mostly takes the natural world as its source. We’re treated to lingering shots of organic phenomena: undulating waves, leaves in the wind, a snail crawling. The silence, stasis and endurance of each shot allow the viewer to contemplate its visual minutiae. Blown up and divorced from their natural contexts as they are, Dean gives pride of place to the gentle rhythm of organic phenomena that tend to pass us by.

Dean also foregrounds the constructive nature of film in other ways. By adding sprocket holes to the rotated frame, images of the filmmaker holding up and inspecting the rushes in her studio are evoked. Otherwise, more overt editing techniques are embraced: objects are superimposed, frames are hand-tinted, scenes run in reverse.

Rarely does the film demand attention. Objects are presented and the viewer is left to decide what s/he sees in them. Depending on how you look at them – and where you’re looking at them from – these images can either be rich sources of nature’s delicacies captured – or disengaging. Tacita Dean’s film just is, take it or leave it.

By representing film as she does, Dean reminds us of the medium’s fundamental quality: disparate visual phenomena can be cobbled together in ways nature will not allow, in the hope that together they become greater than the sum of their parts.

FILM begs the question: what is Tacita Dean hoping to achieve as a result of it? Dean sees her film as an exemplary manifestation of tactile engagement with film as a physical entity.  But why foreground it so? If it is simply the final exhibition of a bygone medium, then it is faultless. Yet bearing in mind the filmmaker’s passion for the medium such a defeated outlook does not seem probable. More likely is that FILM is an act of activism. It is an intervention in the name of film, an attempt to stimulate interest in a dying medium. To make us see it differently.

Somehow though, the medium and the message seem at odds with one another.  I fear many leave the Turbine Hall underwhelmed. In a sense FILM shocks, as its particularity can scarcely be expected. If it is an act of activism, experiencing it is like listening to someone whisper through a megaphone. If it is a poem, it is written in a marginalised language. Despite its grandeur, FILM doesn’t seem vocal enough to change the way the medium is understood.

There is an unavoidable element of regression in Dean’s installation, as the contemporary subject has fallen out of synch with the modern medium as it was originally conceived. Not only is art & culture’s reliance on a tactile engagement becoming less common, but FILM’s lack of sound contrasts what we have come to expect of the moving image.

One cannot ignore that technology informs not only artistic practice but its reception, with the purely visual language Dean uses coming across as subtle but outmoded. Sound frames sight, specifying or enhancing the visual atmosphere.  Without it her images are open to wider interpretation and risk losing the strength of their message. As such, it feels as though some of what Dean has to say through her installation gets drowned out by the noise of the 21st Century.

I admire Tacita Dean, for her latest work makes a stand on behalf of the artistic medium she loves. FILM is an excellent construction of space that displays attentiveness to the dimensions of the Turbine Hall; not just the geographical site but also to the Tate as an art institution. It is a truly unique way to exhibit film. That you can survey the scene from all angles – that the projector’s light cuts ever so slightly around the monolith, creating a beautiful thin line of white light projected onto the Tate’s back wall: these features display a sensitive and subtle remodelling of space that asserts film’s physical properties.

Film is the medium she has worked with for decades, the material that defines her as an artist. She has every right to defend it by any means. Yet one cannot help but see the mountain of adversity with which she is faced in her task. Artistic merit alone will struggle against the tide of technological advance and economic necessity.

On the other hand there is a part of me that feels there will always be those who will continue to engage with the moving image in this tactile way. So long as institutions such as the BFI exist, devoted as it is to preservation and archiving, film will be there to be experienced; and if it is there to be experienced, then it will always have the power to inspire. Provided this remains the case, film will never die. For filmmaking as a tactile practice to be reinvigorated as a result of FILM, however, does not seem likely.

Dean may be trying to save film through FILM, but I suspect her campaign will not end when the installation does. Despite testament in favour of the medium from Steven Spielberg to Prince accompanying the exhibition, discussion surrounding the work has remained quiet. The jury is out as to what impact Tacita Dean’s installation will have on engagement with the moving image in the future. FILM has yet to save film. Yet.

Tacita Dean‘s FILM runs until the 11th of March, 2012. The Tate Modern closes at 18:00 Sunday – Thursday and 22:00 on Friday & Saturdays.

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Douglas Brennan is a writer and critic based in the UK.

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