Arts Review, Movies
Curated by Laurel MacMillan
This is my first film review in more than a year. That’s because the “films” we see in commercial theatres are actually digital files known to projectionists as DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages). Even TIFF generally uses DCPs unless archival prints are being screened as part of a special retrospective on a filmmaker or country.
Who is using film these days? More and more, artists or experimental filmmakers are the only ones who still believe that the texture and fragile depth of film is preferable to digital equivalents. So it’s a pleasure to view the works of acclaimed British film artist Tacita Dean and the Canadian duo of Daniel Young & Christian Giroux, expertly curated by TIFF’s Laurel MacMillan. The installations will be shown throughout the summer for free on the first floor at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Tacita Dean’s JG is a major work by the highly regarded artist, who has won both the Hugo Boss and Kurt Schwitters prizes, been nominated for the Turner Prize and received an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire). She has spent decades working with film in the wide-angle anamorphic (Cinemascope) format. Her films are exquisitely shot, intellectually engaging and meditative.
In JG, she engages with a key work of contemporary land art, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. In the early 1970s, Smithson created an immense earthwork sculpture that resembled a counter clockwise coil made out of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks and water on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The mathematically beautiful sculpture was deliberately constructed to engage with the environment and, indeed, Spiral Jetty has spent years submerged beneath the waters of the Lake.
In 1997, Dean created a soundpiece entitled In Search of the Spiral Jetty, in which she documented her quest to find Smithson’s sculpture, which was then completely immersed in water. Soon after, she started a correspondence with the British writer J.G. Ballard, whose futuristic novels and stories Highrise, Crash and others made him world famous. A story about a sculpture in an early Ballard collection The Voices of Time is the likely inspiration for Smithson’s piece. Soon after Ballard’s death in 2009, Dean decided to make a film about the jetty, which had emerged during the drought that took place in Utah during that period.
JG is a gorgeous film, set in Utah and California. Rising to Ballard’s challenge to understand Smithson’s work, she uses voice-over to explore the meaning of the Spiral Jetty—and the short story by her now deceased friend. Dean uses a technique involving the masking of the aperture gate to allow the film to move through the camera more than once. By doing so, she creates a layering effect, which corresponds to her contemplation of Smithson and Ballard and their works.
Once again, Dean has created a marvelous work of art that is worth seeing again and again.
Daniel Young & Christian Giroux’s Berlin 2012/1983 is a rigorous work by the Sobey Prize winners, which catalogues all of the new buildings erected in Germany’s capital city in 2012 and contrasts them to the structures created in East and West Berlin 30 years earlier. While the historic shots were selected from old aerial photographs, the new footage was all made in early 2015, using a digital architectural camera. Over 1500 images were shot, registered at one frame per second for nine seconds and then printed on 35mm film. In the installation, there are two screens, the left showing the new architecture and the right, those made 30 years ago. The shots are organized from the northwest to the southeast of the city.
On first viewing, the visual effect of the installation is quite hypnotic. One can see the wealth in contemporary Berlin’s buildings, especially when compared with the functional pieces made in the East during the dying years of Communism. But after a while, one’s overall impression changes as the banality of most of the modern buildings become apparent. They may be building a lot of new structures in Berlin but most of them don’t look very interesting. There’s a neo-Bauhaus look to some of the better buildings but many of the new homes seem deliberately old-fashioned with tiled roofs that are inappropriate to a modern environment.
While it’s unlikely that most visitors to TIFF’s gallery space will watch all two hours of Young & Giroux’s piece, they’ll find even a brief journey an interesting one. Has Germany gone from the banality of evil to the banality of architecture? I’ll leave that for others to contemplate.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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