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Essays

The Imperfect Light:
Cinema and the Gallery

 


Dedicated to the memory of Jean-Louis Comolli (1941-2022)

 

 

I.

 

One of the aims of filmography taken as a science is to arrive at a scientific understanding of the qualities (sharpness, depth, subtlety) of how a film is seen. The only way to achieve this is to subordinate the very existence of these qualities (which are abstract properties) to the conditions of that viewing, which one imagines to be more tangible.

         Jean-Louis Comolli, 1966 (1)

 

This essay investigates the changeover between two eras, or at any rate two phases, in the modern relationship between cinema and art. The first phase is difficult, suspicious, fraught with complications; the second phase holds out some hope for a rapprochement.

 

“A proliferation of black boxes in the white cube”. This is how Raymond Bellour once described, in shorthand, the history of the encounter between cinema and the institutions of art (gallery or museum). The occasion was an event in Zagreb in 2007 called Filmske Mutacije, inspired by the book Movie Mutations. Bellour, however, was keen to issue a Call to Order, to put a halt to the ceaseless mutation of image-formats and support-systems. A bold rhetorical move, since it was he, more than anyone else, who had ushered in (across two volumes of collected essays) the era of what he termed the entre-image or between-image: beginning with video art and arriving at the digital age, we saw images continually migrate from one medium to another, mixing up all conventional wisdoms about form and content in the audiovisual arts. Still photography became cinema, cinema was streamed onto digital monitors, video vacillated between television and film, and all the other arts (music, theatre, literature) were dragged into this promiscuous fray … (2)

 

But no more, declared Bellour. It is time, he proposed in 2007, to return to a concrete, historical definition of the cinema apparatus, in its most mythic, ideal and essential form – the form on which it has worked on us, for over a century, as experience, sensation and artistic medium. Cinema is all about (according to this account) the projection, in a darkened room, of a work of fixed duration, which clearly begins at one moment and ends at another. A piece of space-time, in images and sounds that are rigorously prepared and presented. Maybe it is no longer always a matter of celluloid material passing through the gears and gates of projectors (film prints wear out, after all) but it must be, at the very least, this: the beam of light, the screen, the captive audience, the screening-time session.

 

During the triumphant days of the between-image (especially the 1980s and ‘90s), as any visitor to a contemporary gallery anywhere in the world could attest, it was not always – in fact, rarely – like this ideal cinema experience. Video or digital pieces on small monitors in over-lit rooms, which the spectator might stand or sit to regard, or maybe stroll by, casting a distracted glance; always a problem with soundtracks, either too soft or too loud, in the total architectural space; always a problem with the placement of multiple works, supposedly “in dialogue” with each other, but more often just cancelling each other out in their frantic or too-modest bid for our jaded attention-spans.

 

In 2006 at the Pompidou Centre of Contemporary Art in Paris, an ambitious show titled Movements of Images bravely (or foolishly, and certainly territorially) announced cinema’s death in its old-fashioned form and its rebirth as a creature of the gallery/museum. It was, to my eyes and ears, the nadir of this cinema-into-art tendency: dozens of films, classics old and new, playing on facing walls down a long corridor, through which thousands of paying customers streamed while hardly breaking their stride. Tellingly, the only pieces in the show that riveted anyone’s gaze were the especially constructed black boxes: little havens of the cinema-apparatus where one could view, for instance, the famous 43-minute slide-show by Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979-2001), and actually hear its delicate song accompaniment – with the crowd adapting itself to a specific quasi-narrative, chronological, linear sequence that needed to be seen from start to end in order to be fully understood and appreciated. Projection times were, indeed, listed on a sign outside the large booth.

 

In Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery took a decisive step in late 2005 with the construction of what it rightly calls a dedicated Cinémathèque space – two well-appointed cinemas at the heart of its new building. Now, at last, cinema had a chance to enter the cultural milieu of the art gallery proudly, on its own terms, bearing its own history, demanding it own specific mode of attention. But, as became immediately clear, there was a lot of heavy conceptual baggage to be evaluated and discarded before this union could truly take place.

 

Historically, the relation between art institutions and film has been fraught with every imaginable problem and inequality. Art patrons are familiar with the many out-of-the-way little theatrettes, often showing (sometimes on celluloid but usually on video) film programs that are conceived largely as pedagogical or human-interest footnotes to a central gallery exhibition: TV documentaries about the lives of artists, films on which some grand dude fleetingly worked (like Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, [1945]), films that include some striking architectural monument (the Casa Malaparte in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris [1963]). Cinema, at that stage, seemed doomed to remain art’s poor cousin, and it would be foolish to imagine that this situation has entirely disappeared in many parts of the world.

 

Even at a more evolved level of curatorial culture, this détente didn’t necessarily improve much. Cultural snobbishness has always ruled, and severely constrained, the artworld’s adoption of cinema. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, group shows would provide rigged surveys of “film as art” – laying out a tidy avant-garde history that, just like the Pompidou show, refused to consider the vast majority of commercial, narrative, feature-length production as art (or even as interesting cultural production). The mind truly boggles: a history of film art without John Ford’s Westerns, without Italian comedies, without Egyptian musicals, without even the French Nouvelle Vague or the New German Cinema, without stars and sensation and spectacle? (3)

 

This was the sorry trend that Alexander Horwath’s admirable film program for the 2007 Documenta aimed to overturn once and for all, forging the link between the most severe formal experiments of (for instance) the Austrian experimental scene with the grandest thrills of a passionate and intelligent Hollywood movie. Yet even this visionary program probably tested the limits and patience of art-goers suddenly confronted (some surely for the first time in their life) with the likes of George Romero’s Marxist zombie flick Land of the Dead (2005). And, as Shep Steiner has noted in reference to this farming-out of the medium of film by the Documenta head to a specialist curator, the potential “result of this hierarchisation of forms is to tighten the definition of the art field in the wake of various pressures to expand it”. (4)

 

The last hangover of this snobbishness is to be found in a phase we are still, alas, living through: the art world’s promotion and spotlighting (even funding) of “artists’ films”, as if films by artists are somehow going to be naturally superior to, purer than, run-of-the-mill cinematic productions. This indefensible philosophy has bolstered the careers of overrated “stalwart” artists who now work the international art circuit, such as Peter Greenaway and Bill Viola, and thoroughly mediocre filmmakers such as Matthew Barney and Rebecca Horn, not to mention a host of other pale pretenders to the “cinema effect”.

 

The story of Barney’s success is sad but instructive: his supposedly Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk known as the Cremaster cycle (1994-2003) is a cross between a catwalk fashion parade, a sculpture show, a celebrity photo shoot, and a bunch of lame, slow-burning gags. In this attenuated and exploded/expanded performance art, the only things that people tend to immediately understand are the jokes – while the interpretive key to the piece is, in this case, a cryptic system of supposedly universal bodily references that do their best to evade any particular history, politics or ideology.

 

From the birth of video art in the ‘60s to the so-called Artist’s Film of today, we see (as Australian artist-critic Philip Brophy eloquently argued in a lecture on the Pompidou’s touring video program) a form of stunted thinking, and hence stunted art-making: this is cinema without cinema, a deluded “virgin cinema” free of any incisive knowledge of cinema history, its forms and experiments.

 

The lesson and the task here are clear: any Cinémathèque worthy of the name, that forges its identity and destiny within the umbrella of an art institution, must take on the onerous but ultimately noble burden of instructing the art world, artists and art audiences of the cinema-realm they know far too little about at the outset! Otherwise, cultural prejudice and ignorance will rule, and cinema will always lose out.

 

At the limit, some of the hierarchies must be confronted and overturned. In conventional, old-fashioned galleries – especially the major, national galleries representing a sanctioned view of what is and has always been deemed art – painting and sculpture take up most of the space, money and attention. Thus, for instance, it was striking to observe the use of a single painting (Gran Via, 1974-1981) by Spanish painter Antonio López García within the entire dispositif of the international touring exhibition Collaborations by Víctor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami. The intention of Erice, who chose and included this artwork, was doubtless not polemical: he was simply probing and laying-out the genesis or underwriting of his masterpiece El Sol del membrillo (1992), including a series of eye-level monitors (which begin screening only as you approach them) featuring video Apuntes (Notes). These sketches or drafts – watching the painter at work, comparing the locations in Madrid as he renders them to how Erice finds them years later – lay the groundwork (in image, sound and word) of the eventual feature film. They are placed in relation to the physical presence of the López painting, itself dramatised with cinematic lighting and a soundtrack mix.

 

Yet the effect for many gallery visitors was startling: rarely has the sight of a conventional figurative – if hyperrealist – artwork in a gallery space seemed so strange, or so completely displaced from its usual sovereign spot! By contrast, Kiarostami’s series of black-and-white snowy landscape photographs, however remarkable, functioned in a far more normal, conciliatory way for such spectators.

 

Let me return to the example of the Queensland Art Gallery – representative of a growing movement towards a better relationship between art and cinema. It is in this ongoing experiment (somewhat watered down since its inception, alas) that we see the first steps of a new effort to bring these forms and media into a reciprocal, mutually respectful arrangement. There have been, and will continue to be, teething problems – some quite banal and logistical, since no gallery in this country is used to running itself like a picture theatre, with evening sessions, ticket sales, queuing crowds … And it is, of course, never enough to simply put film screenings (however well selected and presented) and art exhibits (including audiovisual performances and installations) into close proximity within the gallery space  – or across the courtyard, which is the longed-for-but-not-quite-firing model of “synergistic interactivity” used within the open space of Federation Square model in Melbourne, housing in its hive the ambitious Australian Centre for the Moving Image, now formally known only as ACMI.

 

So, how to truly bring cinema and art into dialogue, to create real interpenetrations and hybrid forms that move well beyond the ephemeral fireworks of yesteryear’s between-images?

 

First, there needs to be a real effort of pedagogy – and I do not say this lightly. The cultural conditions vary from country to country, but I have noticed across several decades that, whenever film enters the gallery, a certain entertainment factor takes over, and the felt need to explicate, teach, explore and critique the work is extremely lessened – precisely at the time and place where it needs to be strengthened.

 

The exhibition of Correspondences over four months at ACMI in Melbourne was a prime example: instead of a major international conference or weekly lectures from prominent members of all the pertinent arts and intellectual disciplines, there were only a few weak sessions on Spanish and Iranian cinema background contexts. This is truly selling the work short for what should have been a major cultural occasion and event. Indeed, not even the complete catalogue edited by Alain Bergala and Jordi Balló was made available to the Australian public – only a very reduced selection from it, as if too much film analysis would scare off the average artgoing patron. Bergala himself was in and out of the country, for the exhibition opening, before anyone significant even knew about it!

 

But, even more profoundly and far-reachingly, the gallery needs to take its filmic pedagogy outside its lecture rooms and onto the gallery floor: in works that themselves inform the viewer, in dazzling and instructive ways, about cinema’s history and its forms. This is what the deliberately messy but wildly ambitious Pompidou project by Godard, Voyage(s) en utopie in 2006 did; or, on a more modest scale, similar projects by Philip Brophy (Ads, 1982; Club Video, 1986) and Harun Farocki (Section/Interface, 1995).

 

By the same token, film works need to be fully valued in themselves – by curators, audiences and the entire, increasingly dominant promotional machine attached to our major galleries – for their history, their value, their power, and (yes!) their art. It is only when the average gallery goer has it in her or his head that they can catch a rare film by Raúl Ruiz, James Clayden or Howard Hawks at a particular Cinémathèque session stationed somewhere inside the institutional white cube – allowing due time to take in the related audiovisual installation by Chantal Akerman, Agnès Varda or Dirk de Bruyn – that this particular revolution in the arts will be well and truly underway.

 

 

II.

 

What modern cinema needs is lighted theatres which, unlike the darkness, neither absorb nor annihilate the clarity which comes from the screen, but on the contrary diffuse it, which bring both the film character and the spectator out of the shadows and set them face to face on an equal footing. (5)

 

In March 2010 at the Adelaide International Festival of Art, in a section titled Alone, We are Together curated by Victoria Lynn, I began to notice something unusual happening in the gallery spaces: a lot of digital video screens, many film references – nothing out of the ordinary there – but the first strong signs of a new, more reciprocal, productive exchange between cinema and art.

 

An elaborately produced video by Korea’s Donghee Koo called Static Electricity of Cat’s Cradle (2007) (6) marked a change between yesterday and today. It was, at first glance, the mere document of a performance piece, a man and woman attached to wires and ropes, getting pulled in and out of a potential embrace. Behind the mid-air gyrations of this absurdist couple was another old-fashioned trope: back-projection of an endlessly rolling, one-take view from a moving vehicle. Suddenly, at the end, there was a twist. A strange Dr Mabuse figure – in a cowboy hat – was revealed, pulling the strings and also working the remote controls of the video machinery. Special effects of fireworks emerged to frame and extinguish the action. We had just passed over from happenings and ambient video art to something like cinema.

 

In another room, a two-screen projection, Spelling Dystopia (2009) by the German duo Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani (7), shot – like their haunting 2006 “remake” of Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) – on glorious 35mm film stock, explores the deserted Japanese island-city used as the backdrop for the fiction of the Battle Royale movies. A superb, kinetic montage of image and sound ping-ponged between the screens, as the reality of cinematic location morphs with the digital artifice of video game settings.

 

The work of the Italian artist (resident in the Netherlands) Rossella Biscotti offers us a still more thoroughgoing glimpse of a cinema in transit. One of her most arresting pieces – which, as is par for the course for the contemporary multimedia artist, exists in several collapsible or expandable formats and versions – is The Undercover Man (2008), a weird re-take of the Hollywood true-life crime film Donnie Brasco (1997), except for the fact that it uses (with the creepy co-operation of the police authorities) the actual guy upon whom the movie is based. (8) Like some works by Pierre Huyghe or Johan Grimonprez, The Undercover Man takes cinema – its texts, its mythologies, its social circulation – as its very subject, and ends up (in the words of Bill Krohn) reflecting cinema, this medium of the past with an “extinguished brilliance”, back to itself at “quirky angles, and with a lunar pallor”. (9)

 

Another of Biscotti’s works takes us even further into movie mutation. In the Adelaide event, her stark installation The Sun Shines in Kiev spanned several possible versions of a grim reality: the fate of the official Russian cameramen sent in to film Chernobyl after the toxic meltdown. As an installation, it was the usual mixture of screens, media and relational-aesthetic elements laid out in a quite large, unwelcoming, almost underground-cave space: a wall of text, projected video, a bank of slides. The narrative – or slice of history – is not spelt out in a linear way. As almost always in art galleries, we enter and exit at our own whim, coming in at the middle, looping the ending (if we stay this long) back to the beginning.

 

The entire work rests upon a grim epiphany: if we look and listen closely enough, if we figure out how to read and cohere the pieces, then, at a certain, chilling moment, we realise that the white spots on the surviving celluloid traces left by these unfortunate cinematographers sync up with bursts of static noise on the sound recording – marking the exact moment of radioactive contamination. It is something between a Chris Marker essay-film and a true-life horror movie.  

 

But what was most striking about The Sun Shines in Kiev was its quality of light. Neither fully dark nor wholly illuminated, the room that housed the piece was a deliberately messy compromise between a theatrical cinema space and a well-appointed art gallery. In the terminology of curators – or, indeed, projectionists – light was leaking and bleeding all over the place: the large door could not be shut, the text could not be entirely deciphered in the semi-darkness, the moving and still photographic images swam in and out of clarity or obscurity, depending on the shadows of mobile spectators’ bodies falling upon them.

 

It was a disconcerting but also intriguing experience for a cinephile like me. I wanted to fix this imperfect light, but I also learnt, eventually, to surrender to it. The artist, surely, was using this light, shaping it, playing with it – and also leaving it open to chance.

 

Imperfect light: let us recall that, long ago in 1966, the critic-filmmaker Jean-Louis Comolli, in his radical youth, wrote a manifesto in Cahiers du cinéma titled “Notes on the New Spectator” (from which the prefatory quotes throughout this essay are derived). It was, in part, an ode to television, this relatively new medium that – very precisely – did not depend on cinema’s darkness, but unfolded within the variable light of the domestic, suburban home-space. For Comolli – and his faith in a new medium today seems charmingly optimistic – this meant that TV could free the new spectator from his sinister enthrallment, her ideological seduction, from the “phenomena of fascination, transference, ecstasy”, and thereby allow more open, critical reflection. (10) And, if not exactly welcoming of everything streaming through this box, Comolli was willing to welcome new developments in TV documentary (a form in which he would himself extensively work in his future filmmaking career), and embrace the possibilities of watching films re-screened and remediated in this way.

 

Comolli’s argument proceeds by attempting to turn a commonplace assumption on its head: the dark theatre is not (contra Bellour’s 2007 assertion) a natural condition of cinema, but rather a form of ideological conditioning. “There is a long-standing and constantly renewed agreement between the darkened film theatre and the commercial cinema; each represents the other’s means of survival”. (11) Furthermore: “Conditioning to darkness activates to full effect a kind of reflex in the spectator entering a cinema – expectation, desire even, for familiar forms, recognised patterns, the whole homogenised apparatus”. (12)

 

Comolli’s ‘60s call to question the cinematic became, in other cultural sectors, a trigger to flight and denial. By 2010, we have surely come a long way from a video art based, for at least four decades, on exclusions of the cinematic (and thus a last-gasp High Modernist attempt to ground the “medium specificity” of video). This mindset is best captured in a rather ludicrous manifesto written in 1982 by the Australian duo Robert Randall and Frank Bendinelli for their exhibition Screens.

 

Video upfront. Recording time equals viewing time. No editing. Real time.  A beginning and an end. No progression or development. Purely aesthetic information. Beyond informing or documenting. No messages. Combining, superimposing and transforming found images. No narrative. Video montage. Fixed camera. No zooming, panning or tracking. (13)

 

Today, by contrast, the relation between cinema and art is clearly becoming less neurotic, less defensive. The Hollywood mainstream itself seems to be moving closer to the conditions of the gallery, and not only because of the ongoing renovations in home cinema viewing: Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) is, in fleeting ways, uncannily like Spelling Dystopia. The “projection intervention” once staged by Biscotti between sessions at a film festival says it all: “Cinema is the strongest weapon”. But it is cinema configured otherwise and put to work differently.

 

 

III.

 

If you review films in a half-light that helps concentration, you see them differently and better than in the cinema. You watch them from a level of confidence and equality. The formulae no longer create an illusion. The aesthetic pleasures are charged with more meaning. (14)

 

To conclude this essay, I would like to reflect upon an exhibition of particular importance and ambition that was presented by ACMI in Melbourne in 2009: Len Lye, An Artist in Perpetual Motion. There was a homecoming fervour attached to this show: although the name of Lye (1901-1980) is generally known, less well recognised is the fact that, in France, Portugal and many other places, he is considered the greatest artist from the New Zealand-Australia axis to emerge during the 20th century. The exhibition offered up an extraordinary work of documentation, much of it collected by the subject himself. There were rarities on display, such as his paintings and drawings of sea life.

 

Nonetheless, I wondered: for the spectator new to Lye, did this show provide the best introduction, the best (as the marketing departments love to say these days) immersion?

 

Comolli may be right in arguing that mainstream cinema has conditioned us to darkness; but Len’s art, in all media, certainly was not dependent on it. What you see is what you get in Lye: his art is all on the surface, traced in lines and colours, cuts and sounds. It moves, it twinkles, it shines. It is, we might say, radically infantile. There is nothing Gothic about it, nothing that craves shadowy corners or secret spaces. It can play, variably, in the light or the dark, or in any imperfect half-light.

 

In the short films Lye was commissioned to make for the UK postal service, for example, he merrily played with many techniques: animation, graphic design (printed words and overlaid shapes) in motion, the rhythmic fusion of image and music (often an eclectic mix of popular musical styles), and the vibrant exploration of colour. (15)

 

There are, logically, many ways such works can be combined and exhibited today. One can, for instance, imagine Lye (if he were still alive) being an enthusiastic explorer of public screens and urban projections – a topic that has garnered much specialist attention in recent years. (16)

 

What does it mean to introduce a no longer living, sanctified (or: hopefully one day to be sanctified) art cinema auteur – and Lye, with a little bending and stretching of the categories, can fit this label – into the gallery, and more particularly into the museum context? The distinction between gallery and museum needs to be kept loose, but the everyday observation anybody would make holds good: the museum trades in turning things into history, sanctifying them, inscribing and legitimating their significance and importance.

 

Although the space in which ACMI displayed the Lye show is technically a gallery, it tended more to a museum, in that the project inevitably took on museological dimensions: in some senses, it was now or never that Lye could be introduced into the artworld of the 21st century.

 

One of the most intriguing researches on the passage of a cinema auteur into the museum or gallery has been carried out by Thomas Elsaesser [1943-2019], collaborating with a team of curators and artists, in relation to Ingmar Bergman. In his crucial essay “Ingmar Bergman in the Museum?”, Elsaesser defines the challenge to the art world in these terms: “Not to find a home for the homeless artist, nor to make the museum take over the task of a cinémathèque, but to bring about a different kind of event and encounter”. (17)

 

Echoing the line of Steiner’s critique of the Documenta art institution, but finding something potentially redemptive in it, Elsaesser diagnoses the museum as a physical and cultural space which marks itself “as deceptively open and fiercely bounded, which is to say, as both liminal and territorial: to be crossed and entered only by guarded acts of negotiation and agreed terms of mutual interference” – and hence (in an invigoratingly paradoxical turn of mind) a “valuable gift” to cinema, since “it forces [cinema] to double itself, and in the process also divest, divide or subtract itself”. (18)

 

A comparison is instructive here. At the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris in 2006, Johan van der Keuken: Photography and Cinema brought alive its central curatorial premise – that the Dutch artist’s work in these two media constantly crossed over in decisive, fruitful ways, to the point where he could continue exploring certain aesthetic problems by switching from one to the other – in an ingenious sequence of displays and projections. Van der Keuken’s work in film and video partakes of a hybrid form that seems to be peculiarly Dutch: beginning from a documentary pole, passing by way of the chronicle, diary, travel-report or essay, he ends up at the severely rigorous, formal structures of avant-garde cinema. Or vice versa. (One of the only comparisons to this particular fusion or hybrid that I can think of is the aforementioned Dirk de Bruyn – a Dutch-Australian.) Inspired and open at the moment of filming the world (and especially its poor, struggling and dispossessed castes and classes), van der Keuken was equally brilliant at creating interrogatory forms and structures on the editing table.

 

The ideas evident in the presentation of the exhibition were simple and elegant, and nowhere more so than in this salutary dispositif: a multi-monitor assemblage of three screens stacked vertically, the top screen collating movements-to-the-left in van der Keuken, the middle screen featuring static tableau shots, the bottom screen gathering movements-to-left. Three separate montages, almost scientific or statistical (“data driven”) in nature, and an overall montage between the three elements: a mesmerising, even surreal analysis in images that literally makes us see any further work by this filmmaker in a different, more perceptive light. It is Comolli’s youthful dream come true: in the well-lit space of the exhibition, this dispositifbrings both the film character and the spectator out of the shadows and sets them face to face on an equal footing”.

 

Let us return to the case of Lye. As I took in the Melbourne exhibition, I found myself regretting that – despite its extensive nature – it lacked the sense of scale that Lye himself might have liked. I kept wishing that the films, paintings and drawings could be projected over the vast, black ACMI walls, rather than being sequestered in intimate viewing booths or arranged forensically in glass cabinets. As the effusions of a true 20th Century Man, Lye’s œuvre throws down the gauntlet to gallery exhibitors: what’s more important, finally, the Real Thing beautifully preserved – or should it be, rather, dramatised, extended in all its technical reproducibility?

 

A strange reversal has steadily happened in cinema-themed exhibitions over the first decade of the new century, in many countries. The touring Stanley Kubrick extravaganza, also hosted by ACMI, captured this moment in all its bureaucratic oddness: suddenly it was more important to see (through theft-proof glass) the real, crummy, fake old space suit that some actor wore on set (in 2001: A Space Odyssey, [1968]) than it was to experience the metamorphosis of this humble prop into dazzling, gleaming cinema on a big screen. So the reversal is, often quite literally, this: the films – presumably the reason why we are there in the first place – get smaller in projection size, while the behind-the-scenes ephemera become magnified.

 

The same trend has been evident in the Cinémathèque française shows devoted to Pedro Almodóvar, Tim Burton or Jacques Tati: the emphasis is on the minutiae of props, script notes, technical trinkets, design sketches, book covers, letters or postcards from famous friends, and the like. (19) There is a simple, obvious explanation for this bias: most such shows are based upon, and take place due to the benevolence of, special archives devoted solely to collecting every trace of an artist’s life and career – as is certainly the case thanks to the Len Lye Foundation. We should pause here to wake, in fright, at the glaring number of great filmmakers, long dead, who have yet to receive even a fraction of such archival attention.

 

Is a gallery space – and a blockbuster show – the best place to see, study and appreciate the work of Lye? A forlorn little Reading Room – a shelf of facsimiles of Lye documents and publications, which no visitor spent more than one minute flipping through in the hours I was there – pointed to the ill-fittingness between the ideal functions of Archive/Library and Gallery/Museum.

 

Len Lye: An Artist in Perpetual Motion was genre-bound and medium-bound: paintings here, sculptures there, film animations here, how-to tools there. It was too neat and categorical – especially given that the great constant of Lye’s career was his ability to keep exploring the same key obsessions through every medium he touched. Doodles, for example: Lye fastidiously kept every doodle he distractedly made even while talking on the telephone, because he believed the results aided in discovering forms and processes that need to bypass the conscious, rational, conventional mind.

 

OK, then: let’s, for the sake of a new curatorial vision, start with a doodle, and try to take it for a walk through the gallery space – turn it into a wave, tracing a transversal line through film, painting, and the rest. Since perpetual motion is the subtitle of the show, the spectator must be allowed to experience a living, visceral sense of how every work transforms itself into every other work, backwards and forwards during Lye’s ceaselessly productive life. This is what I mean, in the modern gallery context, by the concept of immersion.

 

Lye’s art strayed into many areas, including narrative and avant-gardism. The ACMI exhibition tended to gloss over such supposedly extraneous aspects for the sake of, on the one hand, a certain Fine Art vision of Lye – as the marriage of abstraction and technics, magic and science, expressionism and information-pedagogy – and, on the other hand, a very clean, distinct, chronological-biographical layout of Lye’s achievement. In other words, a very conventional narrative account. It was a significant show for what it imparted and represented – the official canonisation of Lye as an artist – but it was not such a great enactment or performance of the mind and matter of Lye, of the kind we might have dreamt. (20)

 

At a Monash University conference called Time Performance Transcendence held in October 2009, Art and Design lecturer Vince Dziekan gave an illuminating presentation about the ACMI Lye exhibition in the context of current curatorial practice – and specifically about the refiguring of Lye as, in a certain sense, a key prophet of digital media culture. (21) Doubtless many experimental artists of the 20th century will find themselves, during or after their life, conscripted to this agenda – and those who do not fit that agenda may be, this time around, left out of the history-making process.

 

But to carry through with the full weight of this conviction in relation to Lye would have required a more full-blooded style of curatorial gesture: less museological and more dramatic, mixing the works up and connecting them in relation to their motifs and intensities, rather than neat divisions of medium, genre or mode.

 

The ghost of Lye, like an eternal grinning Cheshire cat, is still tempting and daring us to do him justice. And other artists of his ilk are, no doubt, gathering in the half-light around him, clambering for our imperfect attention.

 

 

A Spanish translation of this text – which, in part, weaves together and reworks fragments from a number of my reviews of particular art exhibitions – appeared in issue 32 of the journal Secuencias (2010). There, it was part of a special dossier commissioned and edited by Antonio Weinrichter on “Cinema in the Space of Art”. The issue can be downloaded, in whole or in parts, here.

 

 

NOTES

1. Jean-Louis Comolli (trans. Diana Matias), “Notes on the New Spectator”, in Jim Hillier (ed.). Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 210 (translation slightly amended). Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 177 (April 1966), pp. 66-67. back

2. Raymond Bellour, L’Entre-Images: Cinéma. Photo. Vidéo (Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 2002) and L’Entre-Images 2: Mots, Images (Paris: P.O.L, 1999). English edition of the first volume: Between-the-Images (JRP/Ringier, 2013). back

3. See, for a representative example, Russell Ferguson (ed.), Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996). back

4. Shep Steiner, “Form, Formlessness, and Curatorial Formalism at Documenta XII”, Friendly Enemies (June 2007), pp. 12-25. Subsequent Documenta events in 2012 and 2017 did not continue Horwath’s initiative. back

5. Comolli, “Notes on the New Spectator”, p. 214. back

6. See brief video documentation here. back

7. See the artists’ website. back

8. For a brief excerpt and background notes, see here. back

9. Bill Krohn, “Translator’s Note”, Film Reader no. 4 (1979), p. 119. back

10. Comolli, “Notes on the New Spectator”, p. 211. back

11. Ibid. back

12. Ibid. back

13. Reconnaissance Gallery (Fitzroy, Australia), pamphlet (1982). Randell & Bendinelli (sometimes known conjointly as Randelli) appear to have vanished off the artworld map after the end of the 1980s. back

14. Comolli, “Notes on the New Spectator”, p. 214. back

15. For an illuminating discussion of Lye’s work, see Des O’Rawe, Regarding the Real: Cinema, Documentary, and the Visual Arts (Manchester University Press, 2016), Chapter 1. back

16. See Scott McQuire, “Public Screens, Civic Architecture and the Transnational Public Sphere”, in J. Doering & T. Thielmann (eds.), Mediengeography – Media Geography (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009). back

17. Thomas Elsaesser, “Ingmar Bergman in the Museum? Thresholds, Limits, Conditions of Possibility”, Cinéma & Cie (Spring 2009), p. 46. This has subsequently been reprinted in several places, including online from Journal of Aesthetics & Culture. (2009). back

18. Ibid, p. 48. back

19. See Dominique Païni, “Le cinéma aux risques de l’exposition, journal”, Cinéma, no. 6 (November 2003). 2022 Postscript: Païni’s 2017 touring exhibition Art and Film, 120 Years of Exchange was among the most egregiously conventional exhibitions in this genre I have yet seen, despite its curatorial claims to be evening the score between art and film by lining up digital clips on small LCD screens alongside paintings by the likes of Yves Klein. It was a “Modernist Art canon” project all the way down, with still no virtually no place for popular cinema – unless, of course, it had been referenced by the Surrealists during the 1920s! back

20. 2022 Postscript: An appreciative shout-out here for the far more dynamic, ongoing curatorial experiments of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, Aotearoa New Zealand, which opened in 2015.  back

21. A related presentation by Dziekan (which traces a path through several Lye exhibitions) can be found in the ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art) Symposium Archives online. His subsequent book was Virtuality and the Art of Exhibition: Curatorial Design for the Multimedial Institution (London: Intellect, 2011). back

© Adrian Martin October 2010


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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