The DLR despatched a minion to Tate Modern tonight to see Tacita Dean’s new, massive film installation for the Turbine Hall space.
Last year Dean came into the public eye with an impassioned letter she wrote, subsequently published as an opinion piece by The Guardian, defending 16mm film when the last 16mm processing centre closed in Britain. I’ll have to go to Europe!, she cried, meaning continental Europe, not slightly reluctant island Europe.
The Tate commission is, following on this line, an ode to cinema – “pure cinema”, as Tate curator Nicholas Cullinan, who worked on the project, told us. It’s a large-scale projection of a film made on 35mm stock using old-fashioned film techniques — special effects that are made via analogue, or non-digital, means, of the very type that Georges Méliès and other film pioneers used. Dean made layers of different films, putting them together by filming them in positive and negative into one film. The work trips through a history of filmmaking in general and Turbine Hall installations in particular: Olafur Eliasson’s famous 2003 sun, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (courtesy, very cleverly, of shots of the escalators running through the Bankside building), among others. It’s a gorgeous, literate, beautifully made film, and many of Dean’s running motifs, such as seascapes and landscapes, are visible here.
There were parts of the film’s self-reflexivity that did not ring completely true. The sprockets running down the side of the projected image are not real sprockets that hold the film stock in place but instead representations of sprockets to signal the analogue nature of the film under view. (This may seem like a minor quibble but if the project is to show that film can do things digital never can — that the medium of production is profoundly apparent in the final product — such discrepancies are problematic.) And projected at such a large scale, the film felt less like something belonging to the viewing space of a cinema than a large-scale physical installation — something associated since the 1970s with video more than with works made on 35mm or 16mm. The work’s sense of spectacle does, of course, reach back to early film, or the “cinema of attractions”, when people went to the cinema specifically to be awed — as a public art piece, Dean is probably aiming to re-charge this early facet of cinema, but the DLR felt at times the work to be too much a representation of film than simply a film itself. Perhaps the DLR is just reacting to the charge to mourn 16mm or even 35mm so intensely; it loves a typewriter, but does not want to be a Luddite (which is a fear Dean clearly does not share).
However, the wall text that introduces it, written by Dean in the first person about her experience making films, seems as important as the images running through the space. This is, pace Cullinan, not “pure cinema” but a real cri de coeur. The work is less about film than an intensely personal statement on a life spent working with, and loving, those magical strips of celluloid.