Film, with a capital F

Film (Tacita Dean, 2011)

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

I decided not to read any reviews or reports from Tacita Dean’s installation prior to visiting it. Anyone who has read her defence of 16mm film, written for The Guardian in the wake of Soho Film Lab’s wrapping up of 16mm printing, will be unsurprised to find that Film is somewhat of a call-to-arms to stem the eradication of celluloid as an artists’ medium (hence my interest in it).* As such, it is hard to approach this political work in the same way one approaches other modern art installations. Film is not the first work to carry with it a manifesto of sorts, but more than ever this piece encompasses the adage ‘the medium is the message.’

Be warned: this is a spoilerama.

Film was shot on 35mm portrait anamorphic film. I have never come across this format before, though as far as I can make out it uses a normal anamorphic lens (the sort that squishes widescreen into academy-ratio film frames) but with the lens orientated vertically. The perforations have been printed onto the screening print, like a physical ‘film within a film’, which marks the point that my brain implodes. I’m wondering how the sprockets made it onto the screening print, because surely they should be stretched in projection along with the picture…?

Dean’s assertion that all the myriad tricks and effects occurred in camera or in the studio, save for some grading and tinting, is an interesting one. It is tempting to sit in the Turbine Hall all day, figuring out how each composition was achieved. It was only when I watched it through the second time that I really took in the subject matter itself.

Film reflects its surroundings in the Tate – the film’s grain aptly echoing the textures of brick and concrete. The effect is punctured by flights of fantasy: the sharp and rapidly changing colour panels, the surreal bouncing balls, occasional cuts to images of nature… The screen’s placement in the darkened Turbine Hall resembles a window into a marvellous multi-coloured alternate world.

Film is often characterised as ghostly and fragile. In Film, it is the art gallery that is plunged into monochrome darkness, and the audience can never enter the picture that is so bold and beautiful. Like with Miroslaw Barka’s How it is, the audience have to move around gingerly so as to not disrupt others’ experience of the artwork. However, I would advise against being too precious; the Tate is not a cinema, and it is worthwhile wondering right up to the screen and behind, to see the perspective change and the lit-up faces of the viewers. The light also highlights Doris Salcedo’s crack, tattooed permanently on the floor. Again like Barka’s work, the audience are a crucial part of the experience; Film is mute but never silent, as there is a constant hum of whispers, shuffles and whirrs from the projector.

The message that photochemical film is a medium distinct from digital, with its own inimitable quality, is important. It bears repeating: digital video is not a bad thing, but film is different. It’s a good idea to invest in the book that accompanies Film. That’s where the film strip pictured above came from, and the book includes essays from a variety of film-philes. Keep it in mind the next time you see film exhibited.

A few months ago, I went to see an exhibition of work from the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier. Alongside the photochemical still prints was a DVD screening of a low-resolution digital transfer from an 8mm amateur film shot by Maier in the 1970s. There I was, in an art gallery, essentially watching a Youtube clip playing on a widescreen television. No gallery would dare display 72dpi images printed on a home laser printer. The same respect should be afforded to moving images.

*Kine Artefacts is not usually concerned with modern moving images, but I make an exception for a work about celluloid. Also, I’ve been told in the past that the term ‘celluloid’ actually refers to a certain brand of film, like ‘sellotape’ or ‘blu-tac’. For the record, I use it because it is useful for distinguishing film-the-medium from film-the-moving-image.

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