The Unilever Series and Tacita Dean’s Film: an analogue marvel at Tate Modern

The floor of the darkened Turbine Hall in Tate Modern is covered with people lying on their coats, resting their heads on their bags, shifting their bodies uncomfortably before getting lost in the 13 metres screen in front of them. For the next 11 minutes, the reflection on their eyes shows flowers, streaming water, escalators, mushrooms, trees, all framed in strange architectural borders. Children play underneath the screen, interacting with the piece as if it was a game: they run away from the falling objects, or try to catch details that capture their attention. The result is captivating; then again, what would you expect from Tacita Dean‘s Film?

Shot in a 35mm fim, Film is the twelfth piece commissioned from the Unilever Series, and the first to include the art of the moving image. Dean’s main tool has been the 16mm film, a dying medium, in which she captures the architectural beauty of the fleeting moment, not focusing on depiction, but rather on visual representation. Best known for her work surrounding Donald Crowhurst‘s tragic maritime ending (with a variety of material, from the Teignmouth Electron book to the Disappearance at Sea Film), she was nominated for the Turner Prize on 2008.

Dean is also an incredible writer, expressing herself with such immediacy and candour that it is impossible not to get lost in her narration (quite similar to W. G. Sebald’s style). In the Tate Modern Shop, you can find a collection of her books, as well as the latest publication Film: The Unilever Series (edited by Nicholas Cullinan) that looks closer the issues embedded in this piece, with contributions from the most important contemporary voices in art and cinema.

The magnificent part of this work is that it genuinely serves as a visual manifesto of the analogue. In a digital world, film is becoming obsolete, and memories are captured in code on memory sticks, instead of light on film. In Film, there is no post production digital trickery, as all the effects are created either in the studio or in the camera: you witness the combination of different forms, films, colours, techniques (including hand-tinted film), glass matte painting, multiple exposures, mirroring and masking, creating layered imagery and breathtaking sequences, making it impossible not to marvel at the human accomplishment of putting all of this together. This is why Dean transforms film into art, as the virtuosic manipulation of a strip of photosensitive material turns into a depiction of beauty.

Pioneers like Ben Rivers (also working in 16mm film) have shown how film can transcend reality and be elevated to art, by real world creativity. Pieces like Stan Brakhage‘s Mothlight are a testament of taking something and turning it into something else.

The sight of film running through a projector, the sound of the wheels turning, the texture and richness of the image are just incomparable. It is almost as if film is not capturing reality, but depicting life. It is very hard to describe how a space is transformed through the lens of a 16mm camera; how the colours seem distant but inviting, the details blurred but imaginative, the image complete yet distinctly mysterious.

So, in the premature funeral of a medium that breathes its last breath, Tacita Dean is singing the most beautiful and haunting gospel, giving it back the life it so fairly deserves.

If you have 11 free minutes, make sure you spend them in the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. It is worth it.




10 thoughts on “The Unilever Series and Tacita Dean’s Film: an analogue marvel at Tate Modern

  1. I went to London (from Norway) just to see Tacita Dean – it was SO worth it! I have been keeping an eye on her work since I first saw her chalk drawings. And then, when at Tate Modern, I had the opportunity to visit the Richter show as well. To my mind these are two very different, but both very very interesting exhibitions.

  2. Your post reminded me of something I observed yesterday at a budget cinema showing of “Happy Feet 2” here in the U.S. The movie was delayed and all of us in the audience were looking up to the film booth. I watched the attendant load the film into the projector and felt the warm glow of nostalgia wash over me like an old friend. When I turned around and saw these three little kids mesmerized by the same thing I was watching, I realized that this was probably the first time they had even seen an actual film projector! These little boys were the most well behaved and completely engaged in watching the man up in the projector booth. Perhaps with artists like Tacita Dean, young kids will be inspired to delay the funeral of analog film a bit longer.

  3. I shall definitely go to thr Tate when I’m next in London – it’s been too long.

    Thank you for entertaining this insomniac bookseller with your post, and the like 🙂


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