Like a post-modern drive-in movie, Tacita Dean’s, “Film” dominates the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. There is standing room only in the voluminous space the day I visit, which happens to be during the school midterm holiday in London. As the 42 ft, vertically positioned screen flickers an 11-minute montage of seemingly random images, children skip and play among the groups sitting casually on the floor. Their darkened figures move like silhouettes that could be part of the artwork before us. The adults too, are relaxed as they bear witness to this visually stunning piece, the 12th in the series of Unilever Projects at the Tate. The woman next to me comments on the colors of the film as her grandson simultaneously tutors her about checking messages on her mobile phone.
The eastern wall window of the Turbine Hall, a former power station, acts as the “under painting” of Dean’s surreal projection. It is the backdrop to which the filmmaker streams photographs and found archival footage, clips of nature, including a grasshopper and a close-up of a slow moving snail. Layers of images build and dissolve. The familiar mountain icon of Paramount Pictures is transformed with a variety of intense chroma treatments. An escalator moves upward, a stream of water rushes over rocks then reverses direction, a human finger appears briefly in the lower left hand section of the “canvas.” Fountains, oceans, bubbles and balloons evolve and fade. Mondrian squares of color pop and burst. Cut out circles reveal new textures before they float away. Throughout it all, the mammoth screen is framed by the familiar sprockets that remind us we are viewing cinema.
While watching the film, I feel like a viewer sharing the lens of someone else’s eyes. Eyes that blend seamlessly the exterior world with interior thoughts and impressions, along with memories of avant-garde film from the sixties and seventies. Cinema created by masters like Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton and Maya Deren that pioneered such revolutionary techniques as drawing directly on film and abstractions of rhythmic patterns. Dean uses only traditional filmmaking methods in her work. There is no postproduction in this movie. There is also no conventional narrative. In accompanying commentary, we are told that Dean’s message to us is to heed the threat of extinction of analogue films, given the current trend toward digital production. As production labs for 16mm film, her preferred medium and that of other artists, close down around the world, she sounds an alarm to awaken our concern for the consequences.
As I sit contemplating the possible meaning of this celluloid spectacle, I try to unravel the symbols within it. I consider the repeated themes of rushing water, color, time and light. Suddenly, I understand the connection to the title for this work called, “Film.”
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