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“The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor” at MassMOCA

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As the commercial film industry completes its migration to digital technology, analog film, and the processes and projection technologies associated with it, face obsolescence. A number of artists continue working with celluloid film however, drawn to its unique material and metaphoric capacities. Some of them are at the forefront of a movement to preserve photochemical film, and museums and galleries are becoming a critical part of these efforts. "The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor" is an homage of sorts. Curator Susan Cross has gathered the work of six artists who use analog film, its technologies, materials and poetic qualities to express its "lingering magic … and its relationship to both science and faith." There’s a wide range of artistic practice represented in this show but all of the work uses various qualities of celluloid and photochemical material: its durational elements, inherent veracity, and its use in rendering narratives.

Black Drop (2012) by artist Simon Starling appears conventional enough, as a documentary film. In it, Starling chronicles the transit of Venus and its surprising relationship to the history of the moving image. The film is a straightforward but wry commentary that pulls cinematic history as far back as the camera obscura of the 1500s to a celestial, cosmic beginning when astronomy and astrology were closely linked. It’s a dense and heavily researched film that launches some complex ideas. In it, Starling cites two early photographic and cinematic works: a book, The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite by astronomer James Nasmith, which included photographs of plaster lunarscapes Nasmith made from his own observations of the moon, and the cinematic work of Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon, still considered a hallmark of cinematic narrative and special effects. The referenced imagery could not appear more different. One is the result of scientific inquiry, the other fanciful entertainment. Yet in terms of process and construction, the two are remarkably similar. The film is full of subtly inferred ironies and becomes something of a lodestone for the exhibit as a whole.

Installation views of Rodney Graham's Torqued Chandelier Release, 2005.  Rodney Graham (b. 1949 Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada) Torqued Chandelier Release, 2005  35mm silent colour film (5min), purpose built projector, screen Screen: 305 (h) x 183 (w) cm.   © the artist; Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London

Installation views of Rodney Graham's Torqued Chandelier Release, 2005.
Rodney Graham (b. 1949 Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada) Torqued Chandelier Release, 2005 35mm silent colour film (5min), purpose built projector, screen
Screen: 305 (h) x 183 (w) cm.
© the artist; Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London

Other works in Cross’s show highlight the whole apparatus of projection and include their custom made projectors. Canadian artist Rodney Graham’s Torqued Chandelier Release (2005) is a looped 35mm film of a spinning chandelier. The footage was shot with the camera on its side and the immense screen on which it is projected is vertically oriented. The work’s custom built projector sits at the back of the viewing space; its various loops and thimbles to control the celluloid tension and speed are reminiscent of a sewing machine and mirror the tension and velocity of the chandelier imaged on screen. It’s a luscious image and the whole effect, pure spectacle.

Italian artist Rosa Barba’s piece The Long Road (2010) is a looped film of an abandoned racetrack in the American Midwest. Shot from above, the track is reminiscent of Land Art and appears like a giant drawing inscribed on the ground. Aerial footage is intercut with footage shot on the road itself—low to the ground zooming through the curve of the track. A large 35mm custom built projector whirs and clicks as the looped film moves through the illuminated lens. Seen from behind the projector, the loop of film bisects the screen like the giant slash of a "Do Not Enter" sign. The slash underscores some of the work’s themes—the line of road, time, and the dissonant line between image and actual experience.

A second, smaller work by Barba, Stating the Real Sublime (2009), installed in an adjacent gallery animates this dissonance. Composed of a smaller 16mm projector which is suspended precariously from the ceiling by the fully exposed, 16mm loop of celluloid film itself, the whole contraption in endless motion seems to reach impossibly towards its own projection—a moving target, registering the accumulating dust and scratches in a fading box of white light. Its self-destruction seems imminent; the whole thing might crash to the floor pulled as much by the weight of its metaphoric trope as the weight of its projector.

Trained as a painter, artist Tacita Dean is drawn to the photochemical process of analog film. Varied by film stock, processing techniques and impacted by time, Dean likens this process, with all its flaws and hand-made qualities, to something alchemical. Her subjects are often elusive, fleeting natural phenomena, or ruins or relics on the verge of disappearance. The Green Ray (2001), a 2 ½ minute 16mm film witnesses a sunset and the natural phenomenon called the green ray. Most often seen by sailors and pilots where clear horizons and atmospheric conditions are hospitable, the green ray is a momentary green flash in the last rays of the setting sun as its light is refracted into its component colors. Glimpsed in Dean’s work, the celluloid of the film seems as elusive, magic and rare as the phenomenon itself.

Lisa Oppenheim, a still photographer and film maker, "teases apart the individual steps of picture making, wringing from them … a surprisingly broad range of meanings."1 Her two channel video installation, Smoke (2013), features imagery originally culled from a variety of internet sources. The digital images were transferred to 35mm film; then each frame was individually printed, exposing and solarizing the photo paper with various forms of firelight (fire, blowtorch, etc…) In a third step, the images were scanned and compiled into a digital animation. The final result, with its long and multi-iterative process, is the show’s most sensual, abstract, and immersive work.

Matthew Buckingham (b. 1963 Nevada, Iowa) False Future, 2007 Continuous color 16mm film projection with sound, folding chairs, canvas, steel cable Dimensions variable Courtesy the artist and Murray Guy, New York

Matthew Buckingham (b. 1963 Nevada, Iowa)
False Future, 2007
Continuous color 16mm film projection with sound, folding chairs, canvas, steel cable
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and Murray Guy, New York

Mathew Buckingham’s False Future (2007) investigates an alternative history for cinema’s start as it recounts the work of Louis Le Prince, an inventor whose early motion picture system predated the Lumière Brothers by several years. Had it not been for Le Prince’s mysterious disappearance in 1890, from a train somewhere between Paris and Dijon, cinematic history may have taken a different course. One of Le Prince’s early known films is a minute long static shot in Leeds, England. For his film, Buckingham placed a camera in the same spot on the Leeds Bridge. The resulting scene is not a re-enactment or re-staging of Le Princes’s work but a record of what Le Prince’s camera would see there presently. The scene is visually nondescript, like the bland product of what could be a traffic surveillance camera. Over this a narrator shares moments of Le Prince’s life through historic and anecdotal details; then, in excruciating detail, describes the moments of Le Princes’s original film—how many people cross the street from the left of the frame, what they wore, looked like, notable gestures they made, etc... It clearly doesn’t match what’s being seen now and there’s a weird disconnect, like when a foreign film’s dubbed speech doesn’t match the moving lips. Additionally, the narration is in French (in future tense) with English subtitles and the whole effect feels enigmatic and impenetrable. The typical seductions of cinematic narratives are gone but the over-arching question as to why aren’t we seeing Le Prince’s film remains.
The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor is challenging to fully digest. Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes have written meaningfully and extensively about photography/celluloid and their ideas might inform much of the included work. In his book Camera Lucida Roland Barthes paraphrased Susan Sontag and wrote "… (the) photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From the real body which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me… as Susan Sontag says… like the delayed rays of a star."2 It’s an evocative power that conjures reality as much as it faithfully records it. Time figures here too; there’s the time it takes to record an event and the space in time between recording and viewing. Work in the show seems to amplify that gap in time—inserts itself in it—and the museum setting helps. The show raises some provocative ideas about photography/celluloid, our perception of time and how all this impacts experience—aesthetic or otherwise. There is a lot here for filmmakers as well and the show is best appreciated through repeat visits.

[1] Brian Sholis, "Lisa Oppenheim: Elemental Process," Aperture Magazine Blog, http://www.aperture.org/blog/lisa-oppenheim-elemental-process/
[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, (1980) pg. 80

"The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor" is on view at MASS MoCA through mid-February, 2015.
For more information visit massmoca.org

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About Author

Artist Ramona Fabregas earned a BFA in Painting from Syracuse University and was awarded a postgraduate residency at the Glassell School of Art, MFA Houston. A Texas resident for over twenty-five years, she’s worked extensively in the film, theater, and computer game industries. She is intrigued by language and narratives of all sorts—from the day-to-day stories followed on Facebook, or among friends, to the stories we tell to ourselves or shape in communities. Mother, painter and writer, Ramona Fabregas resides in North Adams, MA.

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