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THE DYING OF THE LIGHT Film as Medium and Metaphor


With the advance of digital technologies and the steady disappearance of photochemical formats over the last 10 years, 16mm and 35mm films are becoming a thing of the past. Yet, while the motion picture film industry has transitioned almost completely to the digital world, there are a growing number of artists who choose to work with light-sensitive film for its distinctive grain, texture, and luminosity—as well as its potent potential for metaphor. A love letter to celluloid, The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor features the work of six artists—Rosa Barba, Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham, Lisa Oppenheim, and Simon Starling—who engage film’s rich material and poetic qualities. In a mix of atmospheric, sculptural, and documentary works, the exhibition includes a selection of rather pared-down, but powerful images—fire, smoke, the setting sun, a spinning chandelier, a racetrack, figures in motion, and the transit of Venus—all nods to the most essential elements of film itself— light, movement, and time. References to death, disappearances, and endings of other kinds take on added meaning in the face of the threats to the future of analog film.

Simon Starling, Black Drop/Transit Footage (Internal Contact), 2012. 1 frame per second, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, 5th June 2012, 35mm film. 50.8 x 60.8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York. Photo: Jean Vong

Rosa Barba, Stating the Real Sublime, 2009. 16mm film and modified projector, 2 minutes 30 seconds, looped. Courtesy the artist; Gió Marconi, Milan; and Meyer Riegger, Berlin. © Rosa Barba, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn /ARS New York

The title of the exhibition references Dylan Thomas’ well-known poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, in which the poet implores his dying father to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Likewise, the exhibition is a similar plea to fight the imminent obsolescence of film—to resist an end, unlike some, that is not certain. The looping of the films themselves illustrate the potential for a continuum rather than a break. Tacita Dean—one of the best known artists working with analog film today and an active champion for the preservation of film and the labs that print it—speaks of digitalization not as the next evolution of film, but an entire new branch. Writing in The Guardian in 2011, she explained: “Many of us are exhausted from grieving over the dismantling of analogue technologies. Digital is not better than analogue, but different. What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.” She described how the film image is different from the digital image: “it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics but something deeper—something to do with poetry.”

That poetry is visible in the works in the exhibition, which makes links between the moving image and memory, vision, technology, painting, writing, the past, the future, and the sublime. While many of these installations are indebted to Structural or Materialist films—which draw attention to the physical and filmic devices of their medium—they do not attempt to demystify film in the same way; rather, laying bare the mechanics of film, they express the lingering magic of the medium and its relationship to both science and faith. With artists at the forefront of a movement to preserve photochemical film, museums and galleries are becoming a critical part of efforts to support and maintain a technology and discipline that is beginning to fade into memory. Given the challenges of projecting film in a museum setting, where films are looped nearly continuously instead of screened at specific times, and where equipment will inevitably break or malfunction, the exhibition is an opportunity to share with the public a behind-the-scenes look at the care of these mediums. Just as the artists leave the projectors in full view—a central component of their installations—the museum will also share with viewers the rituals of delicate maintenance and repair that are required to keep the projections running—a body of knowledge that is being lost along with the medium. Susan Cross Curator

Please note that some of the film installations have automatic sensors which activate the projector when viewers are present; Tacita Dean’s film is controlled manually by a start button that visitors must press themselves.

ROSA BARBA b. 1972 Agrigento, Sicily • Lives and works in Berlin

The Long Road, 2010. 35mm color film, optical sound, 6 minutes 14 seconds, looped. Courtesy the artist; Gió Marconi, Milan; and Meyer Riegger, Berlin. © Rosa Barba, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn /ARS New York

Rosa Barba’s approach to film is as sculptural as it is filmic. She often utilizes the mechanisms of the medium’s display—projectors, light, celluloid film itself—as sculptural material, creating work that transcends narrative and the traditional space of the screen. The fleeting, immaterial image is confronted by the apparatus which creates it, making the viewer acutely aware of the set of relations surrounding the moving image. The magic of cinema, however, is not lost in the dramatic physical form of Stating the Real Sublime (2009) for which Barba turns the relationship between film and projector on its head. In this delicate balancing act, the film, usually supported and activated by the projector, instead supports the machine as it precariously hangs from the ceiling. What appears to be blank film throws a white light on the wall, an image which functions not as an absence, but as a powerful presence animated by the dust and scratches that inevitably accumulate on the film.

In contrast to Stating the Real Sublime, Barba’s The Long Road (2010) functions metaphorically, likening the loop of an abandoned racetrack in the California desert to the endless loop of a film. Titled after Robert Creeley’s poem of the same name (which can be heard in the film’s soundtrack), the work traces the racetrack with the artist’s camera, which slowly circles above it. Shot from a helicopter, the road appears like a written mark from the aerial view, an inscription or drawing on the earth. Intermittently, the film cuts to scenes shot from the perspective of a car, the pavement disappearing beneath it. Like the camera, the car traces the track, describing its line in time. Reminiscent of monumental Land Art works, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the image emphasizes the role of time—on both human and geological scales—in both film and sculpture. It also draws attention to the gap between image and experience.

MATTHEW BUCKINGHAM b. 1963 Nevada, Iowa • Lives and works in New York City

False Future, 2007. 16mm color film, sound, 10 minutes, looped, cotton sheeting, chairs. Courtesy the artist and Murray Guy, New York

Matthew Buckingham often uses film to call attention to the subjectivity and selection process that determines history. He is drawn to the footnotes and excluded stories that can be as revealing of a subject as the dominant narrative. With False Future (2007) Buckingham expands what most of us know of the development of motion picture technology by sharing the story of a little-known French inventor. Louis Le Prince might have been recognized as the originator of cinema had he not mysteriously disappeared from a train between Dijon and Paris in 1890. Five years before the Lumière Brothers introduced their first films, Le Prince had developed a working motion picture system. False Future restages one of the four eight-second films Le Prince is known to have made. Buckingham presents a static shot of a busy street scene on the Leeds Bridge in England. A voice narrates an account of Le Prince’s life—in French—that is both factual

and speculative and describes in detail the comings and goings originally captured in Le Prince’s film. The title of Buckingham’s film refers to the future tense in French, which is often employed in historical texts, narrating past events as if they are about to happen. The term “false future” also hints at the false start for film as well as the future that could have been, had Le Prince not vanished. The look of the installation, with the white sheet serving as a screen, echoes descriptions of the inventor’s workroom.

TACITA DEAN b. 1965 Canterbury, England • Lives and works in Berlin

The Green Ray, 2001. 16mm color film, 2 minutes 30 seconds, looped. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris; and Frith Street Gallery, London

Trained as a painter, Tacita Dean has been making films for over two decades. Her works draw attention to the passage of time, unfolding slowly, with chance often leading the story. Attracted to relics and ruins, she has stated that obsolescence is embedded in almost all of her work. She frequently focuses her camera on subjects that are on the verge of disappearance: a lighthouse, the shell of a half-completed Modernist house, a Kodak film factory. Dean has also sought out the elusive or fleeting, searching for Robert Smithson’s submerged Spiral Jetty, the solar eclipse, and the phenomenon captured in her film, The Green Ray (2001). This momentary green flash can be witnessed as the last ray of the setting sun travels over the horizon, and its light is refracted into separate hues during the rare confluence of atmospheric and topographic conditions when the view to the horizon is clear of any land for hundreds of miles. For years, Dean has searched for it, and, on a trip to Madagascar in

2001, she was confident that she witnessed this marvel as she filmed the setting sun from a remote beach. “The evening I filmed the green ray,” Dean wrote, “I was not alone. On the beach beside me were two others with a video camera pointed at the sun, infected by my enthusiasm for this elusive phenomenon. They didn’t see it that night, and their video documentation was watched as evidence to prove that I hadn’t seen it either. But when my film fragment was later processed in England, there, unmistakably, defying solid representation on a single frame of celluloid, but existent in the fleeting movement of film frames, was the green ray, having proved itself too elusive for the pixellation of the digital world.” Not everyone who watches the film can see it. And it is visible only in the moving sequence of multiple frames of film, not in any one single image. For Dean, the green ray is about “the act of looking itself, about faith and belief in what you see.”

RODNEY GRAHAM b. 1949 Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada • Lives and works in Vancouver

Torqued Chandelier Release, 2005. 35mm color film (purpose-built projector), 5 minutes, looped. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London. ©Rodney Graham

Rodney Graham has been making inquiries into the meanings and mechanics of cinema as part of a diverse practice since the 1970s. He has utilized large, outdated 35mm movie theater projectors, their obvious obsolescence and loud clatter making them powerful visual and auditory actors within the gallery space. Graham’s attention to these apparatuses might be understood as a reference to a broader idea of the culture’s over-arching image machine. The artist has described Torqued Chandelier Release (2005) as an illustrated thought experiment. The work conflates a memory of a chandelier in a 1952 Hollywood adventure film, Scaramouche, set in pre-Revolution, 18th-century France and Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th-century bucket experiment demonstrating the properties of rotational motion. Graham’s film records the movement of a crystal chandelier which has been let loose from a tightly twisted rope. It spins first in one direction as the rope unwinds and then in the reverse,

ultimately coming to rest. Graham shot the event at twice the normal speed, with his 35mm camera set on its side to emphasize the verticality of his subject. The film is projected on a custom-built projector, also set at twice the normal speed to create a particularly clear, lush image which appears nearly sculptural. As a study of light and movement, Torqued Chandelier Release demonstrates film’s core elements. Referencing the reason and scientific method of the Enlightenment alongside the drama of the swashbuckling romance, the artist also grapples with film’s relationship to both science and illusion. Likewise, by bringing the usually invisible mechanics of the film presentation into view, the artist demystifies the seduction of cinema even as he recreates its spectacle with the hypnotic, larger-thanlife image.

LISA OPPENHEIM b. 1975 New York City • Lives and works in New York City

Yule Log, 2009. 16mm color film, 6 minutes, looped. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Juliette Jongma, Amsterdam; and The approach, London

Lisa Oppenheim’s Yule Log (2009) was inspired by the image of a blazing hearth which was broadcast on Christmas morning in New York City between 1966 and 1990. First aired on WPIX television station, the image was meant to provide a place for countless children to hang their stockings for Santa. The tradition spread across the country, but the program was pulled in 1990. After September 11th, however, the comforting image was brought back by popular demand. Oppenheim filmed the broadcast directly off of her television set onto 16mm film on Christmas morning 2008, and then had the film copied 28 times, one iteration for each year of broadcast. Through the process of copying, the image deteriorates with each generation, much like memory, transforming from a recognizable image of a fireplace to an abstract dance of color and light. Eventually, the film appears to have caught fire itself. In the artist’s two-channel video installation Smoke (2013), flickering images of smoke seem

to rise out of the floor. Billowing like clouds across two large screens, the images immerse the viewer. Oppenheim used internet sites such as Vimeo and YouTube to find video clips of smoke from a range of sources—fires, volcanoes, and industrial pollution among them. She then transferred these digital videos to 35mm film and printed each frame on photo paper, exposing and solarizing the images by firelight. The artist subsequently scanned the images and compiled them into a mesmerizing digital animation that is strangely reminiscent of early film. The final product marries digital media and analogue photography techniques, pushing the limits of her mediums’ capabilities and offering new possibilities for both.

SIMON STARLING b. 1967 Epsom, England • Lives and works in Copenhagen

Black Drop, 2012. 35mm black-and-white film transferred to HD, sound, 27 minutes 42 seconds, looped. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York

Simon Starling’s works reveal the hidden associations and forgotten histories behind the objects, events, and technologies that interest him. Black Drop (2012) looks at the connection between astronomy and the birth of the moving image, described through their relationships to the transit of Venus across the sun. Like most of Starling’s works, the film involved research and travel, sending the artist to remote sites related to observations of the 1874 and 1882 transits (they occur in pairs, eight years apart, a century between). Starling himself captured the astronomical event on film in June 2012 from the peak of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Black Drop is set in a 35mm editing suite and foregrounds the making of the film itself. An editor cuts and splices the film shot by the artist, along with historical material, as a narrator explains how accurate observations of the transit were hoped to help refine the measurement of the mean earth-sun distance. These efforts were impeded by the “black drop” effect in which

Venus appears to elongate as it makes contact with the edge of the sun. Starling’s work points out that despite these 19th-century failures, cinema evolved from photographic advances developed to better record the transit. Part of the film’s drama lies in the fact that this may be the last transit of Venus to be recorded on celluloid (the next will occur in 2117). Shot on 35mm and transferred to HD, Black Drop mimics in its own medium transfer what might be the final trajectory of film. A related work, Black Drop/Transit Footage (Internal Contact), features a section of the 35mm film print documenting the transit. The film strip reminds us of the material, even sculptural, character of film, while allowing us to see the photograph-like stills that make up the moving image. In addition, two silver gelatin prints depict telescope mirrors drilled with a series of holes marking the trajectory of the 2012 transit. The perforations evoke the sprocket holes of film.

Lisa Oppenheim Smoke, 2013 Two-channel digital video animation, looped Courtesy the artist; Galerie Juliette Jongma, Amsterdam; and The approach, London

The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor March 29, 2014–February 1, 2015 This exhibition is supported by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and an anonymous donor.

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The Dying of the Light