Dean claims that she is no Luddite and is not anti-digital technology
It is a "big ask" of any artist to create a work for the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, the onetime hub of the old power station with its cathedral like proportions. The Unilever Series was launched in 2000 with Louise Bourgeois' I Do, I Undo, I Redo, a giant spider full of malignant, maternal intent. This was followed by one of the most successful installations of the series in 2001, Double Blind, by the late Juan Munoz. Other artists have had mixed success. Rachel Whiteread's Embankment, (2005), a take on the Arctic created with piles of white boxes that might have been filched from the fish market, always felt like that – just a pile of boxes. While Olafur Eliasson's 2006 Weather Project, with its vast sun was popular with both adults and children and last year, Ai Weiwei's Sun Flower Seeds, with over 100 million hand-made porcelain black and white seeds, was given added poignancy by his disappearance and arrest.
Now the Turbine Hall has been plunged into darkness for the 12th commission by the artist Tacita Dean. Simply entitled Film it is a hommage to the dying art of filmmaking. Shot on 35mm and painstakingly edited by her alone, it is both an act of love and of mourning for the analogue, photochemical, non-digital medium of film that is slowly and painfully being put to death, in a Darwinian battle of the survival of the fittest, by digital filmmaking. For, according to Dean, the number of laboratories left in the world capable of printing film is now in single figures and "this beautiful medium, which was invented 125 years ago, is about to go."
The fragility of film's future was highlighted by a near disaster, just before the Tate opening, when an inexperienced Dutch laboratory technician cut the film incorrectly. This would have resulted in white spaces between the images. The project was saved at the eleventh hour by a British technician from Professional Negative Cutting, who drove through the night to Amsterdam to help rectify the mistake.
Dean is an artist I have long admired, both for her seriousness and her poetic and metaphorical imagery, as in the beautiful Disappearance at Sea II (Voyage de Guèrison), 1997, filmed at two light houses on the Farne Islands, Fernsenhtrurm, 2000, taken from the top of Berlin's rotating TV tower, and her portraits of Cy Twombly and the late choreographer Merce Cunnigham. Now using CinemaScope turned on its side, she has created a portrait of film itself - a memento mori to a dying art. And just as a painter might leave traces of the original drawing visible under the layers of paint to show the process of making, so she has left the sprocket holes clearly visible on the edge of the film.
By blocking out sections and running them back through the camera, she has created a visual discourse that juxtaposes history and modernity, romanticism and industrialization. Arcadian images: leaves on water, waterfalls, a snail, and a pink flower appear against the windows of the old power station. A cascade of soap bubbles suggests not only the vulnerability of the medium of film but of all art in a digital, postindustrial age. References to modernist painters such as Mondrian are conjured in the color grids and circles that appear and then disappear.
Dean claims that she is no Luddite and is not anti-digital technology. It is just that digital filmmaking relies on what happens post-production rather than in the moment. In that sense this is a lament that goes beyond being a paean to the survival of film to highlight the paucity of contemporary values. It poses the question: is everything that is slick, packaged, honed and manicured always preferable to that which is experienced in the here and now?
Tacita Deam Presents Film at the Tate Turbine Hall from 11 October 2011 to 11 March 2012