Wednesday, 19 October 2011


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I love Tacita Dean’s films. Usually I’ve seen them in a smallish, darkened gallery, silent except for the purr of an out-of-date projector. I especially enjoyed her work on the lone yachtsman, Donald Crowhurst, whose abandoned boat -  but not his body - was found  600 miles west of the Azores when he was competing in a round-the-world-race in 1968. He left behind confusion, fake logs and a sad tale of improvident ambition. The case was brilliantly analysed in Glin Bennet’s book Beyond Endurance .

Again and again in her work Dean reflects on the frailty of human endeavour,  on entropy, and the poignancy of shifting values and aspirations washed out by time. Dean said she had imagined Crowhurst’s wrecked yacht in the writings of J.G. Ballard, who for her  ...summons up a time when our everyday will become out of context; when our descendents will read votive meaning into our sports stadiums & race courses; when nothing will be understood by the totems of today.’

In FILM, Dean confronts time head on.  FILM is about the death of film: ‘This beautiful medium, which we invented 125 years ago, is about to go,’ she laments. ‘How long have we got? I hope we've got a year left. It's that critical’.  She minds this very much at a personal level because ‘Film is my working material and I need the stuff of film like a painter needs the stuff of paint’. But also because ‘A vast and incalculable amount of our culture will no longer be properly available to us’, as digital formats take over, demand for film declines and technical knowhow and equipment vanishes. There’s no consolation in its transfer to a pixelated screen either, because so much is lost.

But I have a problem.  I walk into Tate Modern and see FILM projected onto the east end of the Turbine Hall, making the most of its giddy height. It looks like a strip of celluloid film flanked by giant sprocket holes lighting up the Hall with a stunningly beautiful spectacle. Now Sunday afternoons in the Turbine Hall are noisy and fidgety. Although FILM only lasts 11 minutes most people sit restlessly on the floor or come and go on the few benches at the back. Children and adults prance and dance close to the screen to see their own reflections washed over by a wave or a leafy bough. Interaction is not new at Tate Modern, of course. We’ve danced in front of Christian Marclay’s videos, trudged through WeiWei’s sunflower seeds (on the opening day) and laid on the floor to appreciate Eliasson’s Weather Project. But this work needs time, reflection, even meditation.

Becasue it is hard to see what is happening here. You see a work with no narrative, subtle,  full of potential, of wit – it’s alive.  It’s celebratory and playful too and I hope it will be very popular. But you only encounter the richness of the work when you’ve read about it in newspaper reviews or in the free leaflet available for the asking at the Information Desk or bought the catalogue. Otherwise you could be forgiven for not realising the artist’s passion – to show what we are losing, how film captures light, colour, movement and depth in a way digital cannot. Will Gompertz, BBC’s Arts Editor, puts it this way: ‘It would be a great loss if digital became the great squirrel of the arts’.

Ps As for obsolescence, it’s good to remember that the Turbine Hall was itself a disused power station before finding a new lease of life as a gallery. 

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