Archive for ‘MAP’

Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Ruin lust: our love affair with decaying buildings | Art and design | The Guardian.

As much-admired photographs of decayed Detroit go on show in London, Brian Dillon charts the history of a literary and artistic obsession with ruins, from Marlowe to The Waste Land to Tacita Dean

Photograph of dilapidated interior of Michigan Station in Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Waiting Hall Michigan Station, Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Early in May 1941, the novelist and essayist Rose Macaulay was staying at the Hampshire village of Liss, attending to family arrangements following the death of her sister Margaret. On the 13th she returned to London – since the start of the war she had lived in a flat at Luxborough House, Marylebone, and worked as a voluntary ambulance driver – and discovered that her home and all her possessions had been destroyed in the bombing a few nights before. In a letter to a friend and literary collaborator, Daniel George, she wrote: “I came up last night … to find Lux House no more – bombed and burned out of existence, and nothing saved. I am bookless, homeless, sans everything but my eyes to weep with … It would have been less trouble to have been bombed myself.”

The loss of her flat, and especially the destruction of her library, had a profound effect on Macaulay: it was a decade before she completed another novel. In 1949, she lamented: “I am still haunted and troubled by ghosts, and I can still smell those acrid drifts of smouldering ashes that once were live books.” But her memory of the blitz also nurtured a fascination with destruction, decay and the ambiguous emotions conjured by the sight of buildings and entire cities reduced to rubble. In 1953 Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, a lively and eccentric history of the “ruin lust” that gripped European art and literature in the 18th century, reached its height in the romantic period, and had apparently declined in the first half of the 20th century in the face of wreckage that could not be turned to aesthetic or nostalgic advantage.

The story that Macaulay tells in Pleasure of Ruins is essentially a modern one: it is still alive today in photographs of post-industrial Detroit and recent responses by the likes of Iain Sinclair and Laura Oldfield Ford to the demolitions wrought in the name of the London Olympics. The taste for heroic destruction or picturesque decay cannot thrive without a sense of progress for which it fulfils the role of brooding, sometimes gleeful, unconscious. There were few if any classical or medieval enthusiasts of ruination. Even in renaissance painting, which is littered with mouldered remnants of Greco-Roman statuary and architecture, ruins are ancillary to the main pictorial event, providing a fractured backdrop to a serene madonna, or a handy bit of broken column to support a wilting St Sebastian. But by the 16th and 17th centuries, Macaulay wrote, something like the later literary and artistic obsession with ruins is in the air: Shakespeare and Marlowe inhabit “a ruined and ruinous world” of blasted heaths and crumbling castles, and there are resonant examples in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi: “I do love these ancient ruins: / We never tread upon them but we set / Our foot upon some reverend history.”

It was in the 18th century, however, that the ruin arrived centre-stage in European art, poetry, fiction, garden design and architecture itself. A cult of melancholy collapse and picturesque rot took hold, especially of the English aristocracy, for whom no estate was complete without its mock-dilapidated classical temple, executed in stone, plastered brick or even (as the garden designer Batty Langley advised in 1728) cut-price painted canvas. The craze inspired some well-known architectural absurdities: in Westmeath in 1740 Lord Belvedere built a ruined abbey to block the view of a house where his ex-wife had taken up with his brother, and in 1796 William Beckford first contrived his fantastical Fonthill Abbey, “a sort of habitable ruin”, according to Macaulay – “sort of’” because the thing kept falling down.

Alongside such follies there flourished a literature of pleasing desuetude, encompassing aesthetic theory, romantic poetry’s rubble-strewn excursions and the dank precincts of the gothic novel. In his Elements of Criticism of 1762, Lord Kames had approved ruins, real or confected, for their embodying “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought”. And the English romantics took to ruination with a paradoxical energy, Wordsworth uncovering his poetic self among the remnants of Tintern Abbey, Coleridge in the unfinished “Kubla Khan” deriving a whole aesthetic of the literary fragment out of his botched architectural fantasia.

If all of this seems like so much picturesque maundering, it was also evidence of a fretful modernity. It was in painting that the vexing timescale of the ruin was most accurately broached – ruins, it seemed, spoke as much of the future as of the classical or more recent past. For sure, romantic art is dominated by the sublime vistas of Caspar David Friedrich, whose lone figures look dolefully on the vacant arches of medieval abbeys. But the gaze might as easily be turned on catastrophes to come: in 1830 Sir John Soane commissioned the painter Joseph Gandy to depict his recently completed Bank of England in ruins. In France, Hubert Robert had already painted the Louvre in a state of collapse, prompting Diderot to write: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.”

This sense of having lived on too late, of having survived the demolition of past dreams of the future, is what gives the ruin its specific frisson, and it still animates art and writing. But it’s historically bound up with more pressing worries about the fate of one’s own civilisation: nowhere more so than in the literary and artistic afterlife of a ruinous motif conjured by Rose Macaulay’s grand-uncle Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1840. Reviewing Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes in the Edinburgh Review, Macaulay speculates that in the distant future Catholicism “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s”. Macaulay’s New Zealander, gazing at the wreckage of the metropolis (and by extension on the fall of the British empire), was for decades a popular image of London’s future ruin – its most notable avatar is Gustave Doré’s engraving The New Zealander.

Images of the modern city in ruins proliferated in the Victorian period – Richard Jefferies‘s 1885 novel After London is the best-known example, with its vision of a city reverting to nature following some unnamed calamity – but the following century had another perspective on the now venerable and even hackneyed trope of ruin: for modernism the city, even (or especially) as it pretended to progress or novelty, was already in ruins. The Waste Land is an obvious instance, with its fragmentary vision of the unreal city. But consider too the photographs of Eugène Atget, which capture a Paris being demolished and rebuilt at the same time, or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project: a critical-historical phantasmagoria conjured from the already decaying Parisian shopping arcades of just a few decades earlier. In architectural terms, the most thoroughgoing visions of the city of the future were haunted too by ruination: Le Corbusier’s projected Ville Radieuse depended on the wholesale ruin of the existing city, and the classical kitsch that Albert Speer planned for Hitler’s future Germania was designed with its potential “ruin value” in mind.

The second world war tested the taste for ruins to its limits – such wholesale destruction was surely unsuited to melancholy thoughts of an aesthetic cast. Rose Macaulay worries at the problem in the “Note on New Ruins” that she appended to Pleasure of Ruins: the bomb sites of London, she fears, are still too jagged and raw in the memory to qualify as ruins. And yet many of the most affecting images of the depredations of total war and, especially, of the bombing of cities are clearly indebted to romantic precursors. Macaulay herself was not immune to their pleasures: in 1949 her novel The World My Wilderness hymned the Eliotic wasteland that London had become, her feral teenage protagonists running wild among gaping cellars and ruderal meadows. One thinks, too, of Cecil Beaton’s blitz photographs, or Paul Nash’s 1941 painting Totes Meer and its rhyming of wrecked aircraft with Friedrich’s Sea of Ice. In the immediate postwar period, it was cinema that frankly embraced the visual allure and import of the ruin. In Germany, an entire genre of “ruin films” arose out of the devastation caused by Allied carpet-bombing, though the signature film in terms of capturing the plight of Berlin’s orphaned Trümmerkinder, or children of the ruins, was by an Italian director: Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero of 1948.

Postwar culture is littered with images of ruins past and potentially to come, the levelled cities of Europe becoming mixed up with photographs and footage of real or anticipated nuclear destruction, the whole apocalyptic imaginary hardly alleviated by a sense that urban reconstruction was in itself a form of ruin lust: cities rising into wreckage and the earth poisoned by new industries. Chris Marker‘s La Jetée (1962) begins with views of post-apocalyptic Paris that are clearly mocked-up from photographs of real cities in ruin in the 1940s; Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) shows the factory districts of Ravenna as a lurid, smoky hell that already looks post-industrial and decayed. And in the same decade JG Ballard began to formulate a view of ex-urban modernity — the concrete non-places of motorway flyovers and airport environs — as the landscape of a decidedly post-romantic sublime.

If Ballard is the English laureate of late-modern ruins, his influence still palpable in the writings of Iain Sinclair or the poetic dross-scape of Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley’s recent book Edgelands, the figure around whom the artistic fascination with ruins has crystallised in recent years is the artist Robert Smithson. In the years before his death in 1973 Smithson, who had certainly been reading Eliot and Ballard, combined ambitious land-art projects (his Spiral Jetty of 1970 is the best known) with a series of inventive and wry essays on the ruinous condition of the modern American landscape. Writing of his native New Jersey in 1967, in an essay titled “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic”, Smithson affected to have found, on the outskirts of a declining industrial town, the contemporary “eternal city”: an agglomeration of half-built highways and rusting factory relics to rival the architectural and artistic treasures of ancient Rome. New Jersey, writes Smithson memorably, is “a utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass”.

Smithson’s influence – and especially his notion of “ruins in reverse”, in which construction and dissolution cannot be told apart – is all over the ruinous turn that many artists and writers took in the last decade or so. Tacita Dean’s films are a case in point, with their frequent focus on defunct technology or architecture. Jane and Louise Wilson followed Ballard and the French urban theorist Paul Virilio in exploring the derelict remains of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall fortifications. Younger artists such as Cyprien Gaillard and collaborators Karin Kihlberg and Reuben Henry have continued to explore the idea of modern ruins, while Owen Hatherley’s 2011 book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain essayed a critique of the ruinous effects of recent urban planning in the UK. (Later this year Hatherley’s sequel, A New Kind of Bleak will show that process nearing its endgame, from Aberdeen to Plymouth, Croydon to Belfast.)

An obsession with ruins can risk a fall into mere sentiment or nostalgia: ruin lust was already a cliché in the 18th century, and its periodic revivals may put one in mind of Gilbert and Sullivan: “There’s a fascination frantic / In a ruin that’s romantic.” The great interest in the remarkable images of decayed Detroit – in the photographs, for example, of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, on show at the Wilmotte Gallery in London from this week – is easily understandable but seems oddly detached from analyses of the political forces that brought the city to its present sorry pass. It may be that as a cultural touchstone the idea of ruin needs to slump into the undergrowth again. But the history of ruin aesthetics tells us that it would likely resurface in time, charged again with artistic and political energy, and we’d find ourselves looking once more at blasted or burned cities with a visionary or melancholy eye, just as Rose Macaulay did in 1941, ambiguously lamenting a bombed-out house where “the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky”.

Italian Neo-Realism

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

GreenCine | Italian Neo-Realism.

Italian Neo-Realism
by Megan Ratner

Roma: città aperta (Open City, 1946)


Before the indies and even before the French New Wave, Italian neo-realism staked out new cinematic territory. One of those blanket terms that mean all things to all people, neo-realism has few absolutes, though there are elements that set the Italian version distinctly apart. Screenwriter and poet Cesare Zavattini wrote an actual manifesto to guide these films, but their creation was just as much a result of timing, chance and fluke. Unquestionably, their greatest single influence was the anti-Fascism that marked World War II’s immediate postwar period. Key elements are an emphasis on real lives (close to but not quite documentary style), an entirely or largely non-professional cast, and a focus on collectivity rather than the individual. Solidarity is important, along with an implicit criticism of the status quo. Plot and story come about organically from these episodes and often turn on quite tiny moments. Cinematically, neo-realism pushed filmmakers out of the studio and on to the streets, the camera freed-up and more vernacular, the emphasis away from fantasy and towards reality. Despite the rather short run – 1943 to 1952 – the heavyweight films of the period and the principles that guided them put Italian cinema on the map at the time and continue to shape contemporary global filmmaking.


A little history goes a long way toward understanding Italian neo-realism. By the outbreak of World War II, the country had been under Benito Mussolini’s hefty thumb since 1924. In the regime’s 1930s heydays, swank productions set in big hotels, tony nightclubs and ocean liners made up the “white telephone” movies, the shorthand term for their decadent Deco interiors. The protagonists always found a resolution to their insipid dilemmas, the prevailing Italian style as unchallenging as blowing bubbles. There were also plenty of American imports, equally unreflective of Italian realities. Describing this time, Federico Fellini said, “For my generation, born in the 20s, movies were essentially American. American movies were more effective, more seductive. They really showed a paradise on earth, a paradise in a country they called America.”

Whether they were being shown the glories of their Roman past, their fascist future or of l’America, a country unreal outside the movie-house, what Italians rarely saw were images that reflected their lives. As early as 1935, anti-Fascist journalist Leo Longanesi urged directors to “go into the streets, into the barracks, into the train stations; only in this way can an Italian cinema be born.”

Aside from the political realities, it’s worth remembering that Italy was still in the first stages of a huge transition from agriculture to manufacturing. People struggled; the economic miracle was still more than a decade away. Yet few films showed this, the exceptions being Treno popolare (1933) by Rafaello Matarazzo and, paradoxically, in documentaries produced by LUCE institute, under complete control of the regime.

For many Italians, neo-realist films put images to the ideas of the Resistance. In the film journals Cinema and Bianco e Nero, writers called for a cinema that resembled the verismo (realism) of literature. This had begun as a 19th century literary movement which was expanded by Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Pier Paolo Pasolini, most of whom wrote for – or about – the movies as well. Although philosophical ideas informed Italian neo-realism, it is very much a cinematic creation. As Calvino pointed out, “neo-realists knew too well that what counted was the music and not the libretto.” The aim was not to record the social problems but to express them in an entirely new way.

Jean Renoir‘s Toni (1935) and Alessandro Blassetti‘s 1860 (1934) influenced neo-realism, but the movement was to a great extent a matter of 1940s practicalities: with Cinécittà (Rome’s studio complex) relegated to refugees, films had to be shot outside. Surrounded by the shambolic ruins of World War II, human and structural, filmmakers had ready-made drama even in their backdrop, the atmosphere anxiety-charged and utterly uncertain. After twenty-one years under Mussolini, all bets were off as to what direction Italy would take. In the war’s aftermath, members of the Resistance (including several of the neo-realist directors) had to come to terms those who collaborated. Though unstated, this almost civil war-like tension fuels neo-realist cinema.

So what is neo-realism? André Bazin called it a cinema of “fact” and “reconstituted reportage,” its antecedents in the anti-Fascist movement with which these directors identified. Although they owed a debt to Renoir (with whom both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni had worked), the neo-realists “respected” the entirety of the reality they filmed. This meant occasionally showing scenes in real-time and always resisting the temptation to manipulate by editing. Scenes are shot on location, with no professional extras and often a largely unprofessional cast. Set in rural areas or working-class neighborhoods, the stories focus on everyday people, often children, with an emphasis on the unexceptional routines of ordinary life.

Cesare Zavattini, who functions as a kind of godfather of the movement, stated: “This powerful desire of the [neo-realist] cinema to see and to analyze, this hunger for reality, for truth, is a kind of concrete homage to other people, that is, to all who exist.” The aim, method and philosophy was fundamentally humanist: to show Italian life without embellishment and without artifice. Breezy fare this is not, but it did significantly alter European filmmaking and eventually cinema around the world. Neo-realism reflected a new freedom in Italy and the willingness to pose provocative questions about what movies could do. As director Giuseppe Bertolucci (Bernardo‘s brother) noted: “The cinema was born with neo-realism.”

Unexpected American Influences

It’s no accident that Michael Tolkin chose neo-realism’s classic Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) to rock his studio exec’s world in The Player. Though it’s in some ways anti-Hollywood, neo-realism drew a great deal from American noir writing and films. Luchino Visconti based Ossessione (Obsession, 1942) on James M. Cain‘s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti used long takes and complex shots to convey the dismal and ridiculous world of the three protagonists, the lovers (played by Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai) and the husband they bump off (played by Juan De Landa). Visconti’s neo-realism heightens the interplay between characters and surroundings, the bleak, unforgiving interiors and street shots reflective of the lousy hand these no-hopers have been dealt.

Ossessione (Obsession, 1942)

Visconti described his own style as “anthropomorphic cinema,” declaring, “I could make a film in front of a wall if I knew how to find the data of man’s true humanity and how to express it.” Although Mussolini himself approved of the film, his son Vittorio (who ran the film journal Cinema) had a fit about its bleak Italian landscapes, the natural light, and all the shooting on location in the Po Valley.

Roberto Rossellini‘s Roma: città aperta (Open City, 1946) shows most clearly neo-realism’s link with the Resistance movement. Set during the Nazi occupation of Rome, it mines the tensions of the foreign presence and the divisions among those who abetted and those who opposed. Made under duress (black market film stock, little studio shooting, rushes unexamined, sound synchronized in post-production, and, no surprise, a tiny budget), Open City has an eyewitness immediacy tempered with operatic emotion. Pragmatic realities drove the film as much as the script, co-written by Sergio Amedei and Federico Fellini. The hybrid of melodrama and actual footage was the result of Rossellini’s populist, episodic approach, the story told in bursts, intense and unsparing details of ordinary lives undone by the trauma of occupation. Veracity rather than comfort informed the narrative. As the Gestapo search for and find a key member of the Resistance, Rossellini keeps his primary focus on Pina (Anna Magnani), engaged to marry an unassuming but Partisan typesetter by whom she is already pregnant. Open City may be most cited for two unforgettable scenes – a torture scene, to which Reservoir Dogs‘s lopped-ear scene bears a marked resemblance; and a sudden and dramatic death scene, a final posture evocative of painterly renditions of Christian martyrs. It also emphasizes the futility of war, its senselessness, a theme Rossellini struck throughout his war trilogy.

In Paisà (Paisan, 1946), Rossellini directly engaged the effects of the American presence in Italy, complicated by the Yankee shift from enemy to ally. In each of the six episodes, he examines the expectations and disappointments inherent in the crossing of two such different cultures and the inevitable – sometimes fatal – misapprehensions. Newsreel footage separates the vignettes and, throughout, Rossellini plays with the stereotypical images held by each side, his overall theme being that war is an equal-opportunity brutalizer.

Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1947) has a more personal feeling, influenced, no doubt, by the death of Rossellini’s eldest son in 1946. Set in the rubble of Berlin, the film has a young protagonist (rare for Rossellini), a 15-year-old who lives with his father and sister, who falls under the spell of a pedophile, eeking cash from the sale of this scammer’s Third Reich memorabilia. Potent and unbearable images make the desperation of the city clear; early on, for example, a horse lies dead in the street, hit perhaps by a tram, as people matter-of-factly carve-and-carry its meat away. Corrupted on all sides, the boy eventually resorts to the most desperate of measures.

As in Obsession, the cityscape is here used to reflect the anomie and disconnection. Open City ends horribly but with a glimmer of hope as young chidren witness an execution yet, together, return to the city; in Germany Year Zero, life is as stony as the razed city. It completes Rossellini’s World War II trilogy, strikingly ending his work from the German perspective, the devastations occasioned by Third Reich policies no easier on its own people.

La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948)

Labor Intensive

La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948) took Luchino Visconti to Aci Trezza on Sicily. Far more documentary in style than the other neo-realist films, The Earth Trembles relies on a completely nonprofessional cast. Visconti explained the day’s shooting to the villagers and used ambient sound, allowing the people to speak their dialect (necessitating subtitles even for the rest of Italy). The film is loosely based on Giovanni Verga‘s novel, I Malavoglia (The House of the Medlar Tree). When an island family risks their savings to buy a boat and fish for themselves, they struggle to pay it off, fishing in bad weather until a storm destroys their boat. Classically organized – Visconti was a veteran of opera – the film allowed him to linger on a cyclical life on the verge of disappearance (Orson Welles once noted that Visconti photographed fishermen as if they were Vogue models.) He used deep focus shots, lighting only the nighttime fishing scenes, showing their lives as an organic whole, with each aspect accorded value. The extremely spare soundtrack comprises few words, several silences, sometimes only the peal of bells and little music. And yet there’s a timeless and deeply mythic quality to the film, its emphasis on the honor and dignity that had been attached to a life earned from the unpredictable sea.

Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946)

Vittorio De Sica‘s Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946) begins outside Rome, in a kind of idyll of the countryside. Two shoeshine boys set aside what they’ve earned to buy a horse. Back in the narrow and unforgiving streets of Rome, they’re roped into a blackmarket deal that goes sour. Nabbed by the authorities, they’re sent to a juvenile prison, their friendship strained nearly to breaking. After an escape, one of them accidentally dies, his death blamed on his friend. De Sica kept his exposition short, detailing the boys’ existences through carefully composed scenes such as their neighboring prison cells, each one headed for a different fate. Opening and closing with the horse, De Sica shows the freedom that’s denied these two boys. His use of nonprofessionals allowed him to draw natural, seemingly improvised performances from his actors and remain, in his term, “faithful to the character.”

This is especially true of his next feature, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), the leading roles of father and son occupied by two nonprofessionals. (David O. Selznick was willing to back the film, but only with Cary Grant as lead, an offer De Sica fortunately had the confidence to refuse.) When the bicycle he needs to do his job is stolen, the young father and son scour Rome to find it; the father is finally driven to steal a ride of his own.

De Sica orchestrated the film carefully, shooting some scenes with multiple cameras and drawing attention to its existence as fiction, not a documentary. Bazin termed it the “only valid Communist film of the whole past decade” and the film was often seen as simply a criticism of working conditions in Italy at the time, when unemployment stood at 25 percent. But unlike the clearcut moralizing of Rossellini’s films, De Sica’s works focus on a humanist sense of individual and mass. Bicycle Thieves has a mythic feel, the father ultimately forced into thievery, each moral quandary no sooner solved than De Sica poses yet another, the father sympathetic but flawed.

Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948)

Italian audiences hardly embraced these new films. To be shown their country in such stark terms made the majority very unhappy. It even became part of the law: the Andreotti Law (1949), named for its author Giullio Andreotti, offered subsidies for those who followed the neo-realist style in a manner “suitable… to the best interests of Italy,” but with the proviso that they avoid the blemishes on Italian life.

Legislation had little immediate effect on what was made, though the stories began to reflect the scramble for work and stability that defined this period. Visconti’s terrific Bellissima (1951) centers on a daughter and fanatic stage-mamma, the inimitable Magnani, eager to get her modestly talented daughter a spot in a movie. To her husband’s dismay, she squeezes every extra penny into lessons and cosmetic improvements for the little girl. Ultimately, the mother all but puts herself on the market to get the recognition she’s convinced will make life worth living. Set in a working-class Roman neighborhood, Bellissima gives rare insight into how provincial big-city life could be, each neighborhood a virtual small town, the neighbors sometimes helpful, often petty and jealous of any advantage. Though not traditionally considered a neo-realist film, Bellissima did focus on people’s lives in the wake of war, the sense of wanting to better oneself and the struggle to find a way out of the grind of poverty. It becomes yet more poignant in this context.

Umberto D.

This sense of Rome as a small town is especially acute in Umberto D. (1951), which was De Sica’s favorite film and is in many ways the masterpiece of neo-realism, an overall superb piece of work. The crisis-filled days of a pensioner, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), and the complications of his relationship with his dog and a young maid in his apartment building become a study in the difficult drama that constitutes an ordinary life. As played by a dignified nonprofessional – a professor, who, in the event, was often subsequently taken for his character on the street – Umberto D. is stodgy, fussy, irritating and curiously sympathetic. Unlike other films of the era, this was shot nearly entirely in the Cinécittà studios. The indignities of the family-less and indigent old-age are laid out with sensitivity but not sentimentality. Umberto is vulnerable and all but invisible, barely distinguishing himself in a crowd of protesting pensioners, desperately trying to maintain his independence and self-respect. There is no real plot other than the minuscule and life-shaping crises of late-life impoverishment. Even the end strikes a melancholy note of ambiguity.

And Suddenly It Was Over

Giuseppe De Santis‘s Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) was described at the time as the “last gasp of the neo-realist movement.” Like Obsession, its strongest overt influences are American films – noir and westerns and even a hint of musicals). It introduced audiences to a smoldering Sylvana Mangano, who played a rice weeder. By the hundreds they descended on the Piemonte region in the postwar years and into the 1960s. The brutally exhausting work demanded precision, suited, as the voice-over states, to the delicate “hand that rocks the cradle or threads the needle.” Mangano’s characters long to go to America, where she’s sure “everything is electric.”

In Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951), De Sica kept to neo-realism’s focus on the marginalized mass, but his approach marked a break with just about every other neo-realist premise. Miracle in Milan is a kind of neo-fantasy. He showed postwar conditions and real locations – in this case, the run-down outskirts of Milan – the dreariness leavened with make-believe. When his foster mother (Emma Grammatica) gives him a white dove, Toto (Francesco Golisano) can suddenly grant the wishes of his neighbors in the periferia or shantytown where they live. De Sica jettisoned chronological time, replacing logic with magic. And yet, this has some of the grittiest urban landscapes of any of its contemporaries, the long shots of the shantytowns conveying a sense of how imprisoned the characters are. De Sica termed it a “fairy story and only intended as such,” yet the film had the unintended effect of essentially signalling neo-realism’s official end.

A Long Shadow

In general, people look backwards when talking about neo-realism, acknowledging its roots, according it artifact status. But the films stand on their own even without the movement they’ve come to represent. More important, they pointed out new directions for filmmakers in Italy and elsewhere. Both Fellini and Antonioni worked on neo-realist films and even in Fellini’s later, extremely fanciful work and Antonioni’s brooding studies of men and women, there’s a similar urge to document Italy’s social realities.

Among the filmmakers influenced by Italian neo-realism are the French New Wave, Dogme 95 and, as Images writer Chris Norton points out, the Los Angeles School of Black Independent Filmmakers (known as the L.A. School). The latter include directors such as Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima and Julie Dash, all of whom have at some level addressed the working-class experience in America with methods borrowed or inspired by neo-realism.

Even such apparent non neo-realists as Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ermanno Olmi, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Gianni Amelio and Lina Wertmüller carry over the ideas of neo-realism with their emphasis on class conflicts (the eternal north/south tension) and use of non-professional actors, particularly children, to great effect.

The last word on this goes to Fellini. He agreed in principle, he said, with the neo-realist idea of taking films from life but he redefined it for himself as “looking at reality with an honest eye – but any kind of reality; not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him.” Fellini taps into the essence of neo-realism, the reason the films of that particular era still appeal and the reason they continue to inspire: they address the human condition which, despite technological advances and special effects, remains very much what it was when these filmmakers took to the streets and captured what surrounded them.

Megan Ratner is an Associate Editor at Bright Lights Film Journal. Her work has appeared in Black Book, Filmmaker, The New York Times, Senses of Cinema, and Frieze.

Icons as Fact, Fiction and Metaphor

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Essay: Icons as Fact, Fiction and Metaphor –

Truth-telling is the promise of a photograph — as if fact itself resides in the optical precision with which photography reflects the way we see the world. A photograph comes as close as we get to witnessing an authentic moment with our own eyes while not actually being there. Think of all the famous pictures that serve as both documentation and verification of historic events: Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War; Lewis Hine’s chronicle of industrial growth in America; the birth of the civil rights movement documented in a picture of Rosa Parks on a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Ala. Aren’t they proof of the facts in real time, moments in history brought to the present?

Of course, just because a photograph reflects the world with perceptual accuracy doesn’t mean it is proof of what spontaneously transpires. A photographic image might look like actual reality, but gradations of truth are measured in the circumstances that led up to the moment the picture was taken.

In John Szarkowski’s seminal book, “The Photographer’s Eye,” Robert Capa is referred to as “the great war photographer.” Capa’s most famous picture, “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Córdoba Front, Spain, September 5, 1936,” commonly known as “The Falling Soldier,” was taken in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Though long considered a defining war picture, its veracity has also inspired decades of debate among scholars, curators and critics. While the picture’s iconic stature rests on the precise moment captured when the Spanish soldier was shot, the possibility that it was staged undermines the historic proof it has come to signify.

New evidence reported by the Guardian has reignited the debate. José Manuel Susperregui, who teaches at the University of the Basque Country, recently published a book that includes research challenging the stated location of “The Falling Soldier.” Several previously unseen Capa pictures in the archives of the international Center of Photography, taken in the same sequence as “The Falling Soldier,” show a broader view of the landscape behind him. Mr. Susperregui uses these additional images to make a convincing case that they were taken in the Espejo countryside, some 25 miles from Cerro Muriano. This information, along with the many stories about Capa staging the picture, add to the intrigue, now rekindled in the Spanish press on the occasion of the International Center of Photography‘s traveling exhibition, “This Is War! Robert Capa at Work,” which just opened at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

“Everyone engaged with this photograph is trying to find out the truth,” Willis Hartshorn, the director of the center, said in a phone conversation. “The new information about the landscape is compelling.” Nothing is conclusive yet, Mr. Hartshorn added “We’re all trying to build the research together,” he said.

The impulse to define, perfect, or heighten reality is manifest in a roster of iconic photographs that have come to reside in the world as “truth.” Mathew Brady, for instance, rarely set foot on a battlefield. He couldn’t bear the sight of dead bodies. In fact, most pictures of the battlefield attributed to Brady’s studio were taken by his employees Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan — both of whom were known to have moved bodies around for the purposes of composition and posterity.


In “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, 1863,” by Gardner, the body of a dead soldier lies in perfect repose. His head is tilted in the direction of the camera, his hand on his belly, his rifle propped up vertically against the rocks. There would be no question that this was a scene the photographer happened upon, if it weren’t for another picture by Gardner of the same soldier, this time his face turned from the camera and his rifle lying on the ground.


In the Library of Congress catalog, the photograph “Dead Soldiers at Antietam, 1862,” is listed twice, under the names of both Brady and Gardner. In the image, approximately two dozen dead soldiers lie in a very neat row across the field. Could they possibly have fallen in such tidy succession? Knowing what we do about Gardner’s picture of the lone rebel soldier, the possibility lingers that he moved some of these bodies to create a better composition. Or it could be that other soldiers had lined the bodies up before digging a mass grave for burial.

Whatever circumstances led to this picture, it is at least verifiable that the Battle of Antietam took place on this field. We know that many, many soldiers were killed. Evidence of the battle remains — the soldiers that died on that date, the battlefield on which they fought, the clothes they wore, and so on. Just how much of the subject matter does the photographer have to change before fact becomes fiction, or a photograph becomes metaphor?


Lewis Hine’s 1920 photograph of a powerhouse mechanic symbolizes the work ethic that built America. The simplicity of the photograph long ago turned it into a powerful icon, all the more poignant because of its “authenticity.” But in fact, Mr. Hine — who cared about human labor in an increasingly mechanized world — posed this man in order to make the portrait. (In the first shot, the worker’s fly was open.) Does that information make the picture any less valid? Isn’t it a sad fact that the flaws in daily life should prevent reality from being the best version of how things really are? In our attempt to perfect reality, we aim for higher standards. A man with his zipper down is undignified, and so the famous icon, posed as he is, presents an idealized version of the American worker — his dignity customized, but forever intact. Still, the mechanic did work in that powerhouse and his gesture was true enough to his labor. The reality of what the image depicts is indisputable. Whether Hine maintained a fidelity to what transpired in real time may or may not be relevant to its symbolic import.


Despite its overexposure on posters and postcards, “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville, 1950,” (“Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville”) by Robert Doisneau, has long served as an example of photography capturing the spontaneity of life. How lovely the couple is, how elegant their gesture and their clothing, how delightful this perspective from a café in Paris! What a breezy testament to the pleasure of romance! But despite the story this picture seems to tell — one of a photographer who just happened to look up from his Pernod, say, as the enchanted lovers walked by — there was no serendipity whatsoever in the moment. Mr. Doisneau had seen the man and woman days earlier, near the school at which they were studying acting. He was on assignment for Life magazine, for a story on romance in Paris, and hired the couple as models for the shot. This information was not brought to light until the early 1990s, when lawsuits demanding compensation were filed by several people who claimed to be the models in the famous picture. Does the lack of authenticity diminish the photograph? It did for me, turning its promise of romance into a beautifully crafted lie.


Ruth Orkin was in Florence in the early 1950s when she met Jinx Allen, whom she asked to be the subject of a picture Ms. Orkin wanted to submit to The Herald Tribune. “American Girl in Italy, Florence, Italy, 1951” was conceived inadvertently when Ms. Orkin noticed the Italian men on their Vespas ogling Ms. Allen as she walked down the street. Ms. Orkin asked her to walk down the street again, to be sure she had the shot. Does a second take alter the reality of the phenomenon? How do you parse the difference between Mr. Doisneau’s staged picture and Ms. Orkin’s re-creation?


The birth of the civil rights movement is often dated to a moment in 1955 when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a crowded city bus to a white man. Many people assume that the famous picture of Mrs. Parks sitting on a bus is a record of that historic moment. But the picture was taken Dec. 21, 1956, a year after she refused to give up her seat, and a month after the United States Supreme Court ruled Montgomery’s segregated bus system illegal. Before she died in 2005, Mrs. Parks told Douglas Brinkley, her biographer, that she posed for the picture. A reporter and two photographers from Look magazine had seated her on the bus in front of a white man. Similar photo opportunities were arranged on the same day for other civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here is a staged document that has become a historic reference point, and a revealing parable about the relationship of history to myth.

As a witness to events, the photojournalist sets out to chronicle what happens in the world as it actually occurs. A cardinal rule of the profession is that the presence of the camera must not alter the situation being photographed. The viewer’s expectation about a picture’s veracity is largely determined by the context in which the image appears. A picture published in a newspaper is believed to be fact; an advertising image is understood to be fiction. If a newspaper image turns out to have been set up, then questions are raised about trust and authenticity. Still, somewhere between fact and fiction — or perhaps hovering slightly above either one — is the province of metaphor, where the truth is approximated in renderings of a more poetic or symbolic nature.

Jack Pierson – Broken debris of glamour

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Frieze Magazine | Archive | Archive | Jack Pierson.

Cluttered with the broken debris of glamour, the universe of Jack Pierson is one in which personal and collective dreams are always incomplete. His recent exhibition was fitted out with such alluring fragments spanning more than a decade, from shattered text pieces to an installation of collected ephemera. Room keys hanging on the pegboard of a vacant motel, plastic letters on two oracular diner menus reading ‘Breakfast: Hope’ and ‘Dinner: Fear’ – through these fits and starts of evocation Pierson’s work describes big dreams underscored by even bigger disappointments. Although it traverses a shared set of American fantasies, its final emphasis rests on sentiments of loneliness and psychological isolation.

Pierson’s art is built on reference and counter-reference. The allusions forming his world are familiar enough: Diana Ross and the Yellow Brick Road, Vegas motels, empty corridors and Marilyn Monroe. The cultural and even emotional landscape suggested by his work is instantly recognizable as one of tawdry glitz and glamour, melancholy and nostalgia. There is an ethos of specificity involved here; every object, whether a book or a photograph or a single scrap of newspaper, carries with it a culturally conditioned sense of significance. In this aspect his work is deeply set into its chosen context and historical period. Nonetheless, individual pieces seem designed to function as a rebuttal of context. A single unidentified page from Joan Didion’s seminal collection of essays The White Album (1979) floats in a white frame; elsewhere a spread of pages clipped from a Diane Arbus monograph reads as blank space, with images removed and only captions remaining. In these works Pierson seems preoccupied with isolating iconic artefacts of culture and stripping back their acknowledged meaning.

The specific quality of Pierson’s work lies in the contradiction between these two impulses, between the overproduction of allusion on the one hand and its near obfuscation on the other. Deftly playing with notions of meaning and interpretation, it hinges on the simultaneous evocation and denial of context. The fragmentary elements that constitute his work are never restored, and their meaning never wholly fixed. In Pierson’s world dreams perennially elude their context and interpretation, and it is for this reason that they are so haunting.

That question of allusion and subversion of reference is closely linked to Pierson’s use of cliché. The sentiments aroused by his work arrive to us cloaked in trite and formulaic language. In many ways Pierson’s art draws its vibrancy from that vocabulary’s persuasive power – from its universality, its emotional efficacy and its sometimes over-determined naivety. At the same time he signals the fundamental paradox of cliché: for all its potential richness of signification it remains simultaneously hollow and unyielding. Certainly there is an element of insistent flatness in Pierson’s work. I (Cracked) (1990) features a gilded capital letter ‘I’, shattered but still intact; similarly the photographic work A Million Dollars (1992) simply features a literal representation of its title.

If Pierson is able to manipulate tired clichés with such skill, it may be because he manages to integrate an ironic self-referentiality into the very world he evokes; a distance that is itself a part of the language of camp. However, the most persuasive exhibits here were those that collapsed his cagily maintained distance, integrating expressions of pathos and, at times, something approaching despair. In the best cases, as in the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ pieces, Pierson even managed to revitalize the power of sentimentality. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Part II (1990), a segment of ‘pavement’ composed of individually inscribed yellow soap bars, communicates a strong sense of loss even as it remains embedded within a particular set of camp references to Judy Garland, mus-icals, fantasy and the glamour of Hollywood. The brick-like soap bars engraved with the names of friends and strangers resolve into the familiar form of the magical yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the later Diana Ross disco remake The Wiz (1978), but not without subverting their associations. Pierson’s road leads nowhere; it provides neither hope nor solace. It is in this multi-tiered fashion that his work exceeds the limitations of camp knowingness and referential smarminess, reaching a sustained pitch of emotional power. These may be fragments, but it is as bits and pieces that they achieve their total meaning – as the remains of times past.

Katie Kitamura

Jack Pierson – Self-Portrait as Obscure Object of Desire

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Self-Portrait as Obscure Object of Desire; Jack Pierson’s Autobiography, of Sorts, in Photographs of Unidentified Men – New York Times.

 Jack Pierson, Self Portrait #19

A new book of photographs by Jack Pierson features 15 images of beautiful men, arranged to suggest the arc of a lifetime — beginning with a young boy and progressing to old age with men in various stages of undress. There’s nothing surprising about that; Mr. Pierson has been photographing beautiful naked men for years. In this case, though, the photographs are offered under the title ”Self Portrait.” But none of the images is of the artist himself.

Mr. Pierson has fashioned an autobiography from a collection of images of unidentified men. His photographs affect the casual look of a vacation snapshot, one you might expect to find clipped to a page of a personal diary. Often there is an implicit, offhand eroticism to his pictures of men, as if something sexual is in the cards, or might have just taken place.

While there is a canny intimacy to these new pictures, languorously attuned to the temporal glamour of ordinary moments, the subject of this self-portrait series is desire — when it begins, how long it lasts, what it tells us about ourselves or, at least, about the artist.

Mr. Pierson is part of a group of photographers known as the Boston School — David Armstrong, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin and Mark Morrisroe, among others. All of them knew one another in the early 1980′s and photographed their immediate circle of friends in situations that were, or appeared to be, casual or intimate. Mr. Pierson was often the subject of Mr. Morrisroe’s photographs, and the object of Mr. Morrisroe’s desire. The photographs in this self-portrait series take their cue from the template of pictures of the artist taken 20 years ago. In an attempt to establish a mythology of self, Mr. Pierson is presenting new photographs of other men in the manner of his own portrait, claiming their appearance to represent his own identity. The book is published by the Cheim & Read gallery in Chelsea, where the exhibition ”Jack Pierson,” featuring other works of his, runs through Jan. 3.

”Self Portrait” is the flip side of what Cindy Sherman accomplished in her series ”Untitled Film Stills.” Dressing up to enact a wide variety of female archetypes, Ms. Sherman photographed herself in fictional scenes alluding to Hollywood films. That body of work expresses an idea about the way identity is formed by the cultural forces all around us; yet, despite Ms. Sherman’s insistence that her ”film stills” are not self-portraits, the series flirts with the very idea of identity and self-portraiture. Mr. Pierson, by eliminating his own likeness from his ”Self Portrait,” comments on the same postmodern idea about the cultural construction of the individual, but in this case the work suggests that assumed identities both define and obscure the individual in society.

The idea of the constructed identity is nothing new. In an age of cosmetic surgery and on-line communication, it’s easy to customize our appearance or hide behind an invented persona. How often do we look at a picture in a magazine and imagine ourselves with that haircut, in those sunglasses, on that beach? No matter how strong our own sense of who we are, the lust for some idealized version of ourselves is invariably summoned in the barrage of images endlessly flashing before us. Mr. Pierson’s self-portrait series attests to this, underscoring at its core his own erotic impulse to be as desirable as those he desires, to become the very object of his own attraction.

In naming his pictures of others ”Self Portrait,” Mr. Pierson also owes a nod to the Dada legacy of provocation. The catalog of ”The First Papers of Surrealism,” a 1942 group exhibition in New York organized by Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, used the self-portrait as a symbolic equivalent in photographs and drawings of completely unrelated or unknown people. Titled with the names of the participating artists, these ”ready made” portraits, or found faces, took on new meaning in place of other expected identities.

Jack Pierson - Self Portrait #16 - 2003 - stmpa ai pigmenti - cm 134x109,2 - ed. di 7 - courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

In an essay for a show of portraits at PaceWildenstein Gallery in 1976, Kirk Varnedoe wrote, ”If, in the extremes of modern portraiture, the artist sees the other almost wholly as himself, so in the self-portrait he often sees himself as somebody, or something, irrevocably ‘other.’ ”

Portraiture has always revealed as much about the artist as the subject. If you think about the difference between portraits by Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe, each photographer has a signature style. Remove the names of their subjects and you’re left with a collection of portraits that become as much a self-portrait as the artist’s own likeness. In effect, Mr. Pierson has taken that idea one step further by omitting the names of his subjects, assuming their identities and calling his collection ”Self Portrait.”

Picasso, unsatisfied with the face of his portrait of Gertrude Stein after 80 sittings, painted one based on a mask of an Iberian sculpture. When people protested that the portrait did not resemble the subject, he is said to have commented: ”Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait, but never mind. In the end, she will manage to look just like it.”

Published: December 18, 2003

Stan Douglas – Double Take

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Frieze Magazine | Archive | Double Take.

Stan Douglas talks about history and landscape, puzzles and storytelling


Nearly two decades after puzzling Canadian TV viewers with his ‘Television Spots’ (1988), originally conceived as cryptic 15- or 30-second adverts selling absolutely nothing on commercial networks, Stan Douglas has gained a reputation as an enigmatic artist; his films, videos and photographs refining an aesthetic in which meaning is provisional and migratory. It should come as no surprise that he has made a film reworking the idea behind Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece. In Klatsassin (2006) Douglas constructs a coastal rainforest Western, populated by a cast of unreliable narrators whose multiple accounts of a violent incident are as much a philosophical statement as they are episodes in a film narrative.

Douglas understands history as a string of contingencies. This recognition sets an elegiac tone for much of his work, marked by a fascination with those moments when historical events might have taken a different turn. What if the Cuban Revolution, the colonization of Vancouver Island, the political unrest in Paris in May of 1968, had turned out differently? In posing these questions he constructs lost histories in the guise of newly imagined narratives. These re-imaginings reflect on their own conditional nature, and their way of telling mirrors the tale being told. Douglas’ films and videos have no beginning and no end. As he says, ‘life is all middle’.

Before we talked at his Vancouver studio, Douglas showed me his most recent project, Vidéo (2006), which conflates two extant film sources: Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) and Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962). Hybridizing the style and tone of his sources, he sets his story in contemporary Paris and comes up with a haunting narrative that insinuates a sense of disturbing watchfulness and past and present danger.

Robert Enright: How did you come to make Vidéo using the two sources you chose?

Stan Douglas: Early last year I was teaching in Berlin and being harassed, for odd reasons, by the university administration. One evening I was to meet two curators from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to discuss the possibility of me doing a new work for the Beckett exhibition. I had been thinking about Beckett’s Film as a kind of cinematic lipogram, in which we never see a reverse shot of the protagonist until the very end, but I didn’t really know what I would do. As I was getting ready to go to the meeting I noticed a copy of Kafka’s The Trial (1925) on a bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying and everything clicked: I remembered seeing Orson Wells’ version of The Trial, filmed in the derelict Gare D’Orsay and, what I presumed, were the then-new Paris suburbs, then I remembered that I had been staying in the same apartment while the riots were going on in Parisian banlieues during the fall of 2005. Wells actually shot his exteriors among housing projects in Zagreb but I stuck with my original inclination and used locations on the outskirts of Paris. It turned out that the place I was most interested in, La Courneuve, was the site of the most violent demonstrations in November 2005, and the tower I liked best was the fictional home of the heroine in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967).

RE What’s notable is the way film history is implicated in your making of a film.

SD Yes, people often say that it’s impossible to have an original idea because everything has already been thought of, or that every book is the rewriting of a book that has already been written. I try to be honest in the way I work with these source materials and admit freely and immediately what I am elaborating upon. But since these stories are very basic and shared in a certain way, it is the time, manner and matter of the telling that makes one thing unique or different.

RE Does it matter whether people are as aware as you are of the sources and references in the film? Does the viewer need to bring the same knowledge to the seeing that you bring to the making?

SD It is, and it isn’t necessary for the viewer to be as aware. At a certain point, if you can’t parse the work just by experiencing it and having everyday knowledge of television and film – if it doesn’t work from the level of a person coming at it cold, then it really isn’t successful. If you have to have an exterior text to explain what the work is, then the work isn’t complete in itself. Somebody who does know these historical references can have a more complex understanding of what’s going on, but it’s absolutely not necessary.

RE Can you ever look at a film innocently?

SD Of course, but no filmmaker is truly innocent. They’ve looked at other films in order to make their own, so they’re never pure to begin with. And being aware of other approaches helps any filmmaker break their habits, especially when they discover their own habits in the work of someone else.

RE Is your looking invariably a kind of research?

SD I can go to a film just for fun or distraction. But I do have a memory. I never imagined when I watched The Trial that I would make a film either based on it or that refers to it. But it was somewhere in the back of my mind so that I was able to make the connection when I needed it. This is how intuition works. An artist’s experience becomes a tool kit, an inventory of techniques, that can be put together in a quick fashion.

RE You may start with intuition, but you are quite serious about inquiring into every aspect of what making the film might entail.

SD Yes, but a lot of the research turns out to be of no use. I do research to a point where I know enough about a situation that I don’t have to think about it anymore. That’s what the research is for; it’s not to illustrate something you’ve researched directly, but to have an understanding of the flavour of a situation or a moment in time. This is the difference between what Marcel Proust called ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ memory.

RE Is it an inevitable development that your work gets more complicated? If I think of what happens in Overture (1986) and compare it to Inconsolable Memories (2005) or Klatsassin, I realize how much more layered these later projects are becoming.

SD They’re certainly more complicated than Overture, which was just a matter of taking the Edison Company’s pre-existing film and Proust’s pre-existing novel, chopping them up, duplicating them and then putting them together in a certain order. Now I’m writing the words and making the pictures myself, with the help of a 30- or 40-person crew. Those two pieces are certainly less complicated than a studio film, but I got a taste the kind of work that any independent filmmaker has to do in order to make a feature.

RE Do you think of yourself as an independent filmmaker?

SD Because I’m self-trained, I’m still a little uncomfortable when I’m around a real filmmaker. Neverthless something I really enjoy these days is working with actors and learning to work with their skills in maintaining a character over a period of time. A lot of what I asked actors to do before was quite technical but the recent projects have allowed me to develop dramatic situations. It took me a long time to figure out what a director’s responsibility was, but I was able to deduce it from what the cast and crew expected of me. You don’t go too far into the minutiae of your collaborators’ respective crafts, or you will just piss them off, but you have to be either extremely precise or confidently vague about what you want in order to avoid some nasty surprises. Editing is extremely important also, it’s something I like too because it is, in effect, the time when you make the final draft of your script, if there is one.

RE You spent the good portion of a year researching and working on a Beckett project, so he’s obviously been a seminal figure for you.

SD I was interested in theatre when I was in high school, and particularly in Waiting for Godot (1952). I guess teenage angst played a certain role, but then I forgot about Beckett when I went to art school. Towards the end of my studies I found a copy of Company (1979) and I realized Beckett was still alive and writing. I thought he wrote Waiting for Godot and Endgame (1957), then gave up. I was so impressed that I started reading Beckett in reverse order and discovered that his later books were much more successful than the canonical ones.

RE So he re-seduced you back into his world?

SD Exactly. For example, Not I (1972) became my favourite work of art: a voice talks about herself coming into being through language. Language is something she doesn’t really trust, but it is the only thing she has to make herself exist. That’s the fascinating tautology of the work: the writing is suspicious of itself, but it’s the only thing it has to realize itself. The thing I owe to Beckett is an understanding of the impossibility of communication as something a priori but not absolute. The received wisdom is that his work circles around an endgame and collapses into pure interiority, but I think it stages a condition of doubt and suspicion from which communication can begin.

RE You seem invariably to start from the interstitial, from the in-between.

SD Yes. Working in the form of loops with these recombinant pieces you can’t really talk about beginnings or ends, which are arbitrary and often produced by the ideological or formal requirements of a narrative form. I mean, life is all middle.

RE You’re articulating a lack of certainty inside a frame that has a certain degree of certainty about it. Isn’t that an inherent contradiction?

SD Sometimes the certainty is false. To instil confidence in the people you’re working with as a director you have to pretend to know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Sometimes you have to make leaps that allow the process to continue. You also have to allow a space for improvisation. So it’s a matter of creating a space that’s flexible enough that things can go wrong, where you can let other people contribute ideas to make the project more than you expected. If it’s not different and more than you had planned originally, it’s probably not worth doing. It should have probably remained a script. What I end up with is never what I expected and always different from what I intended. When I was developing Klatsassin, I was inspired to revisit Rashomon after walking through Stanley Park one day and seeing dappled light coming in through the trees. Kurosawa shot the trial scenes in direct sunlight and the contradictory versions of the murder under the cover of trees with only specks of light punctuating the scene. We planned to shoot our murder scenes in a similar way but the weather didn’t cooperate, it was cloudy. This meant that the visual metaphor would change. It was not what I had imagined, but it still works.

RE There is an interesting sense of layering in Klatsassin; you go to Kurosawa and you end up with a Western set in British Columbia. How did that work?

SD Kurosawa was criticized for being too Western. He often took Western narratives and applied them to his films, or people in the West would make Westerns from his Samurai stories.

RE There’s a murder that happens outside 11th-century Kyoto in Kurosawa’s film, and there’s a murder in Klatsassin as well. How much play do you allow yourself with the narrative you inherit from Kurosawa?

SD There was a lot of play. In Rashomon you have a bandit, a ronin and his wife; in Klatsassin a thief, a deputy and his prisoner. In both cases there is a scene with rain, from which the strangers who meet are seeking shelter, but the ruin of a city gate is very different from a relatively new roadhouse. In Rashomon the characters have arrived by chance, in Klatsassin they are where they are because of their different reactions to a gold rush.

RE It’s a pretty fantastic-looking cast of characters evident in the related photographic portraits you made. They seem more filmic.

SD They all have great faces, faces with peculiar kinds of experience, but they were all types. In that historical situation you would meet people and not care to know them well, but you would care about their function. Are they useful to you or will they be a problem? What is their function up here and how will it affect me? I never gave them names: they all go by their profession or function.

RE Do you always develop photographic work out of a film, either prior or afterwards? Has that become a necessary part of your practice?

SD It’s not necessary, but it’s a parallel thing. It’s often a way of understanding where I am and what I’m looking at. For the recent ‘Western’ series (2006), I followed the Gold Rush Trail up the Fraser Valley to Barkerville in order to understand the landscape. Obviously it’s not the same as it was in the 19th century, but I could at least start to imagine the situations miners were walking through. I visited a spooky ghost town at a place called Quesnelle Forks that I didn’t expect to find. But I must say that my ‘destination’ was a bit of a disappointment, when I discovered that Barkerville had been made into a theme park, with actors walking around in 19th-century clothing, speaking with English accents and doing street theatre.

RE It’s interesting that very few people appear in the photographs you made in Cuba in 2004–5. There is evidence of human activity, just not much human presence.

SD I consider those photographs to be less about absence than the stage of an action. As soon as you put in a person, it becomes theatre. We try to understand what they are doing there, what they are thinking, instead of viewing it as an architectural space or an environment with some kind of social potential.

RE You say you want to avoid theatre, but there’s a lot of theatricality in the film work you’ve been doing.

SD It’s very easy for me to do moving pictures of people, but still images I find very difficult because in a moving picture the person exceeds your expectations in some way. They’re always moving, they’re always fleeting; you can’t hold them and say ‘this is what they are, this is what they represent’. When they’re static, it imposes a certainty on their condition with which I have trouble.

RE The Cuban photographs for Inconsolable Memories (2005) seem to function differently from the ‘Nootka Sound’ photographs (1996), where you’re doing more traditional landscapes.

SD The ‘Nootka Sound’ pictures cover an area which to the untrained eye seems like a natural situation. But if you look at it carefully, you realize it’s been logged at least twice. Plus I was looking at different traces of human presence there: either swamps created by the run-off from logging, a fish trap that is 3,000 years old and still in use, a well that was built by the Spanish when they were there in the 18th century or the replica of a longhouse inside a Catholic church that was a gift from the Spanish state, perversely commemorating their conquest of the area.

RE So your engagement with a place is always implicated in its political uses?

SD In this work I was conscious of doing an anti-Group of Seven piece [A group of Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s]. Instead of being a landscape ready for exploitation because it is supposedly empty, I wanted to show a landscape that was full of people, that was full of human presence, native as well as European.

RE So in that sense it’s the same as what you call your ‘re-purposed’ places in Cuba. There is a history of political and economic use in both those places.

SD For me it was like a microcosm of the revolution itself. You re-purpose a state or a country when you have a revolution, but you still see what it was prior to that. You can’t completely revolutionize a country. In a way it’s an analogue of what was going on in a larger scale in Cuba.

RE You can’t tell from the Cuban photographs whether this is a place that is being rehabilitated or an image that traces the destruction of that place.

SD That’s exactly what it’s like. Is this going forward, is it going backward, is it in stasis? A lot of the locations in Cuba are like that.

RE Is looking for places like that your reckoning with the failure of Modernism? I guess what I’m thinking is that all places carry a similar sense of failure. The Modernist project wasn’t the only one to put forward that notion, but don’t all Utopias fail? By its very definition, Utopia is ‘no place’.

SD Or they don’t last forever. Maybe there was Utopia in Cuba for a little while and it’s not there any more. Maybe it’s working towards a future that it can never realize but that desire is the Utopia. Literacy in Cuba is higher than in the US even now, and there were probably moments in the 1960s when the revolution was functioning very well, in spite of the fact that the US was actively attempting to depose Fidel Castro. Maybe it’s just me, but there had always been something mythical about Cuba. I went to Cuba because I was curious. I’d met a lot of Cuban artists, and I wanted to see what their home was like before it changed, because it will be a very different place once gerontocracy is over.

RE So much of your work has been concerned with finding a notion of social justice and freedom inside society. Where did that come from, and why has it seemed so persistent a search in your work?

SD It would seem self-evident that these things are important. The social utility of art is that it provides a language to talk about something that is very complicated in a very condensed manner, or to experience something that you thought was familiar in a new way. In my work I am addressing things I don’t initially understand. I try to make a model of transient or mutable conditions in order to understand them. Hopefully, it will have the same use for other people.

RE People remark on the complications of your looping. You have a piece that the viewer has to look at for three days before they see all the permutations. Why not make a simpler version of that narrative?

SD It’s not a matter of seeing every possible combination, because it really doesn’t change that much after a certain point. Once you’ve seen all the elements, it’s there in your head as a possible construct. It’s just that I’m not forcing a certain narrative sequence that determines its being understood in a particular way – I’m allowing associative possibilities for an audience, depending on when they arrive and when they decide to leave the work. These aren’t linear works, there is no beginning or end, and there’s absolutely no reason to see all the permutations.

RE I’m not Gary from the ‘Monodramas’ (1991) is a very focused example of how we can thoroughly misunderstand the notion of race: maybe in a benign way, maybe in not so benign a way. How much has your being black played into your work? The question of the Other and its relation to mainstream culture seems so central to much of what you do.

SD I grew up black in Vancouver, which in my youth was a mostly white culture with a large Asian and South Asian component, but not so many people of African or Caribbean descent. So I felt quite isolated and was always in that condition of being the Other. There is an outsider figure in all of my works, who is, I suppose, a surrogate for myself. If you want to psychologize – which I don’t. In any event, the situation in I’m not Gary actually happened to me. I was walking down the street and some guy said, ‘Hi, Gary, how are you doing’, and he seemed so certain I was Gary that for a second I doubted myself.

RE You have resisted the autobiographical as a way of reading your work, haven’t you?

SD Yes. Even though I began this interview with a personal anecdote. I just don’t think that works of art should be treated as symptoms of an artist’s biography. It’s bad enough to say that a work of art is a riddle to be solved, what’s worse is to say that the artist’s personality is the key. The suggestion that a work of art is an effect of personality is highly reductive and shuts down interpretation unless, as in the case of Warhol but very few others, persona is your medium. We know very little about Shakespeare, but Shakespeare is still interesting to us.

RE Has film been the thing that has interested you the most? Why did you choose that medium as the principal focus of your practice?

SD Is that true? I guess it was always ‘film’ in quotation marks. It didn’t begin there; I began with video, and even then I wasn’t a real video artist, I made ‘video’ so I could work with television — and those videos were all shot on 16 mm film. I have used different idioms of representation – silent film, news broadcasting, musical entertainment, television programmes – working within the language and vocabulary of a pre-existing medium.

RE The ‘Television Spots’ and the ‘Monodramas’ are absolutely perplexing for a television viewer. They don’t follow through on the delivery of our conditioned expectations for the medium or the message.

SD I suspect they’re obsolete by now because we’re used to teaser ads which seem to have no apparent point. When I was first invited to do Hors-champs (1992) at the Centre Pompidou, I think I was invited to make French Television spots. But when I finally saw French television, I realized they wouldn’t work at all because the look of their TV was already heterogeneous. The strict genre rules of advertising and broadcasting that we knew in North America didn’t really exist there, and I had to look at something else.

RE The two-sided screen in Hors-champs allows you to see what’s happening off-screen. Where did the idea come from for structuring the piece in that way?

SD Good question. It had to do with the Hors-champs – the out-of-field, the thing you cannot see. I didn’t know what would happen until it was actually made in space. I just thought of un-opposing things being withheld in a certain way. But having one image surrounded by the halo of an absent image was quite powerful.

RE Do you ever set yourself a problem in making a work of art?

SD The idea of a work of art being a puzzle that has a solution is not very interesting. Why wouldn’t you simply state the problem and the solution? Why go through the process of making the thing? The ambiguities or, to put it positively, the possibilities of an image that does not have a clear-cut answer allow me to be productive in different and unexpected ways. The thing I always wait for is to be told something about a work of art that I didn’t anticipate.

RE A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway sets a problem in his films, or uses a puzzle as a point of departure. Then the film is an elaborate way of inquiring into that puzzle, as if there were a solution to it.

SD In Greenaway it’s sort of a mannerist Structuralism, where you’re taking these systematic notions and applying them to a narrative form. In my work the systems are there, but they’re not as important. The recombinant ones are typically for maximum distribution of the narrative elements so that they don’t repeat the same sequences too often. In Win, Place or Show (1998) I adopted a technique from Serialist composition and from Arnold Schoenberg, where you don’t repeat any note until you’ve played all the notes in the tone row.

RE How important are music and sound in what you’re doing?

SD Sound has become more and more important. Early on I would run out of money before I got to the sound mix, but now it plays a crucial role. Suspiria (2003) is intimately involved with being there while the music was being recorded, and then breaking it down to be reassembled by the computer system.

RE The music in Hors-champs also carries heavy political associations, in that it’s connected to May 1968, a period when France had no government for three days. This is one of those times when a revolution almost happened, when things could have turned out differently.

SD This was in the early 1990s, when Wynton Marsalis was saying that Free Jazz was a mistake, an experiment of youth. In a way the revivalists were saying this period of experimentation didn’t happen, and that they should legitimate jazz by making a new museum of its tradition. When I was in Paris doing research, I met various expatriate American musicians who felt betrayed. They had been intimately involved in the culture, and their music was an emblem for a revolutionary idea. Then, as the people who were involved in 1968 became part of the status quo, they either associated the music with a mistake, or they were reminded of revolutionary ideas they had abandoned. So on the one hand the music was being ignored in a general sense, and on the other it was being ignored in France for a very specific reason.

RE We’ve discussed the influence of Beckett, but someone else who seems to have informed your work is Bertolt Brecht. Brecht allows us to engage a work of art by being conscious of what are our choices as viewers. Your work also invites that.

SD Sure, although the alienation effect has a pretension to objectivity that I don’t really agree with. Probably more important for me were the writings on music by Theodor W. Adorno, the idea that in music, which we assume to be either the most expressionistic or formal of media, could be found very discrete social residue or indices. And in the very musical structure of the sonata or the symphonic form he could discover social content. What I found interesting were his close readings of Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. His critique of jazz is notoriously dubious, probably because he never really heard it, but his sociology of European music is amazing. I came across his work the year after art school. Typically in art school there was an antagonism towards reading in general, so as an antidote I decided to take on some long books, including Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry, The Making of Americans (1925) by Gertrude Stein, and Doctor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann, for which Adorno was the musical adviser. I said, ‘Who’s this Adorno guy?’ and that led me to The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), In Search of Wagner (1938/52) and The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949).

RE Did you read theory because it was useful?

SD It just helped me understand things. As I said before, the function of art is to help me make a model of how the world works, or an aspect of how the world works, in order to understand it better. That’s what a theory is. In the social sciences, or in physics, theory is a proposition, ‘Maybe the world is like this,’ and then pursuing your research according to that idea. In my work I’ve said maybe globalization feels like Journey into Fear (2001).

RE You also seem to be attracted to stories that have been told filmically at least twice before. It seems like doubleness appears a lot in the work.

SD It’s a bad habit, which I hope I have kicked by now. It was something that occurred a lot early on in my work, things always had this binary structure; in Hors-champs, in Der Sandman (1995), in Nu•tka• (1996) in Win, Place or Show and in Journey Into Fear.

RE Did you feel it was a structural limitation in the way you were using it?

SD I just felt it was becoming a bad habit. It began because two is the smallest unit with which you can have conflict. But lately I have shied away from the double screens that I was using.

RE Does one piece of yours naturally lead you to the next? Is there that kind of causality in the practice? I guess what I’m asking you about is musing, about the source of inspiration.

SD I try to start from scratch with each new project, but obviously by now I have a tool kit of techniques I use and ways of working with actors and language and the camera that appear again and again. I try to make them as different as possible from each other.

RE But it seems that story is often a point of departure for you…

SD I’ll have to think about that. The stories tend to come from a place rather than from a story itself. It’s not like ‘I have a story, so let’s find a place where I can make that story’; it’s more like, ‘Here is this place – what is its story?’

RE I’m struck every time I come to Vancouver at how distinctive and pervasive a place it is.

SD I’ve noticed that people who are born here don’t like to leave. I tend to make works that alternate between something very local and something that is away, so it’s away and at home, away and at home. Klatsassin was the home story, but then Vidéo was shot in Paris. But Vancouver has been important to me, absolutely.

RE What about your role inside what is recognized within the art world as the Vancouver School?

SD I wasn’t a really a part of it. Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ken Lum were a group of artists who’d met every week at the bar. They’d do projects and exhibit together; they’d discuss and write about each other’s work. They developed a very productive relationship. Even though you had the Western Front being part of the Fluxus network, Ian and Ingrid Baxter as N.E. Thing Company establishing international connections within the museum world, it was those four artists who made Vancouver a go-to place for curators and critics. But it’s easier for critics to talk about the Vancouver School brand than it is to talk about the more complex conditions that really exist here. They really can’t get over the fact that so many good artists have developed in this tiny out-of-the-way place on the edge of North America called Vancouver. The really disappointing thing in this city is the general indifference to its own history and culture. Beautiful buildings get torn down all the time and are replaced by monstrosities that aren’t built to last. This neighbourhood is so unhinged because drug dealers and users have been given no-go zones elsewhere in the city. The neighbourhood has been left to go fallow, but that will change because there is only so much real estate here, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.

RE Are you optimistic about this area? You’ve built your studio here.

SD Yes. I always had studios in this neighbourhood, from a time when my milieu was not so much just artists as it was artists and poets. The formal and informal discussions instigated by the first incarnation of a writers’ collective here called the Kootenay School of Writing, was a fundamental influence on my practice. The level of conversation at art school wasn’t all that satisfying but the series of artist/writers talks sponsored by KSW were great, if only because there was something one didn’t understand about the other’s medium and you had to explain things that you otherwise took for granted.

RE Are you surprised by the success you’ve had?

SD Right place at the right time.

Robert Enright

The Architectural Vision of Michelangelo Antonioni – The Eclipse (1962)

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

dvisible magazine | Exploring our Creative World » Archive » The Architectural Vision of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse (1962).


When a film by the late Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni comes to mind, I think of a quiet, contemplative place full of bold, mysterious, almost overwhelming images. Not since the silent era has a director placed such dependence on the image to convey his vision. His films, in fact, indicate a clear lack of faith in words and dramaturgy, which he felt only served to conceal the truths he sought to discover. If he failed then as a “conventional” dramatist, he succeeded in so many other ways: as a photographer for his exquisite fragmented compositions, a poet for his dedication to divulging the essence of a moment, and a painter for his feeling for light and texture. But perhaps, above all else, Antonioni’s vision, like Jacque Tati, is that of an architect.

Antonioni once said, “The subject of my films is always born of a landscape, of a site, of a place I want to explore.” This sounds more like the words of an architect than a filmmaker, but then Antonioni is both. In the third film of his so-called alienation trilogy, he created his boldest and most architectural work, The Eclipse or L’Eclisse, which focuses on the Roman suburb of Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR).

EUR came as result of Italy’s miraculous economic boom in the post-WWII period when the country’s landscape was forever changed as man-made structures began to dominate, cities expanded and rural areas became suburbs. Although EUR was commissioned by Benito Mussolini in 1935, it was not completed until the 1950s. Italians found its rather odd geometric shapes and sterile surfaces inconsistent with the sensuousness of their culture. Antonioni, on the other hand, was inspired. He was curious about what psychological effects this environment could have on people.

In The Eclipse, Antonioni transforms EUR into a sci-fi-esque backdrop for the existential anguish of Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a young bourgeoisie woman and translator. For much of the film, Vittoria wanders around EUR puzzled by its apathetic residents and bland modernist architectural design. It’s as if she is living on a distant alien planet at odds with human feeling. After her miserable break-up with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), she becomes reluctant to start a new relationship with Piero (Alain Delon), a materialistic stockbroker. She doubts whether genuine love is even possible in a place like EUR.


To address this issue, Antonioni creates a mise en scène in the form of a maze that confines and constricts the feelings of his characters. He separates Vittoria and Piero through various man-made barriers, like a large marble pillar at the stock exchange when they first meet, and, when Piero calls on Vittoria at her apartment, a steel balustrade near the sidewalk and a wooden balcony fence, which creates a large empty gap between them. They couldn’t reach each other with a ten foot pole. Furthermore, bars are utilized to signal doomed or lost love. As Riccardo tries to rekindle his relationship with Vittoria, he is framed through the bars of her apartment window. Later on after she promises to see Piero again, we now see Vittoria imprisoned through diagonally crossing bars, foreshadowing the end of their relationship.

Antonioni also isolates his characters within the geometric lines of doorways, crosswalks, curbs, and rails. This further complicates his mise en scène and, metaphorically speaking, leaves the characters emotionally dazed. It is during these instances when the future of Vittoria and Piero’s relationship is at its most uncertain. On the other hand, even when the characters are freed from these constrictions in spacious wide shots, the modernist structures of EUR overwhelm them, so that by comparison they look like little toy figures. Here Antonioni emphasizes how man has been outsized by his own creations.


The Eclipse concludes with a chilling seven minute abstract sequence that brings the incompatible relationship between Vittoria and Piero and to their surroundings full circle. After they make love and promise to see each other again that night at their meeting place, Antonioni’s camera lingers on the iconography of EUR, which he had established in the first two acts of the film – the rows of housing complexes, the mushroom-shaped water tower, the white lines of the crosswalk, a wooden stick that Vittoria put in a barrel of water, a horse-drawn carriage passing by, etc. He intersperses these images with varying angles of Vittoria and Piero’s meeting place – both from ones we have seen before and newer ones, including wide shots connecting the half-built housing project, a metaphor for the incompleteness of their relationship, with the contours of the intersection.

The difference this time is that Antonioni almost completely vacates the environment. Our focus instead turns toward its geometric lines, spaces and objects, while we contemplate the glaring absence of Vittoria and Piero, who, for some reason, have not showed up at their agreed upon time and place. In this way, Antonioni metamorphoses EUR into an architectural model to re-examine and investigate how its architectural and spatial design serves the characters. Although it may conform with Piero’s unfeeling material existence, its cold modernist rationality conspires against the earthier Vittoria. So when night falls and the blinding light of the street lamp fills the screen and fades to black, human feeling and Vittoria and Piero’s relationship have been obliterated.


Coupled with the mushroom-shaped water tower, the nuclear imagery here is quite frightening yet appropriate. The astounding advances of scientific man (i.e. the A-bomb and, in general, his modern designs) have been so great that his capacity to work out his problems on a moral level (i.e. the US and Soviet Union conflict during the Cold War) cannot measure up. Antonioni, thus, foregrounds The Eclipse’s undertones of science fiction and presents a nightmare scenario. The problem lies not with man’s designs, but with moral man. Moral man must somehow adjust to the modern environment and advance forward or he will cease to be human or, in the worst case scenario, face extinction.

>Written by d/visible contributor Kevin Hogan.

Tacita Dean – The history of future technology

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

TATE ETC. – The history of future technology.

Tacita Dean, Palast, 2004

In the mid-1920s, Austrian novelist and reporter Joseph Roth wrote a series of articles on the metropolitan frenzy of Berlin, a city which, as its citizens and visitors have seemingly never ceased noting, appears always on the edge of reinvention. According to Roth, the city is a giddy blur of movement, much of it circular, mechanical, repetitive. And yet these circuits are always new, ever about to spin out of control: he is thrilled by the noisy tangle of a railway junction, a roller coaster ride in Luna Park, a department store’s escalator (“it doesn’t even climb, it flies”), the hot centrifuge of a six-day indoor cycle race. All of this circular speed has the odd effect of making time slow down: “Everything is spinning, only time stands still. The rotation goes on forever.” At the same time, another observer, the exiled Vladimir Nabokov, was watching the Berlin traffic with an equally visionary eye, but coming to a less enchanted conclusion. In the twenty-first century, he conjectured, “some oddball of a writer” would look at a tram from the Berlin of the 1920s and see only a kitsch remnant, an obsolete exhibit fit for “the Museum of Past Technology”.

Tacita Dean is not quite that oddball writer, nor does her work exactly curate the defunct machinery of the past in the manner imagined by Nabokov. It is instead something like a deft amalgam of the vantage points of Nabokov and Roth: a cultivated perspective that is both spiralling towards the future and unravelling into the past. In the essay that accompanies her film Fernsehturm (2001), Dean writes, with Stanley Kubrick in mind: “The revolving sphere in space still remains our last image of the future, and yet it is still firmly locked in the past.” The film itself is a sort of terrestrial 2001 . Atop Berlin’s iconic television tower, a restaurant suavely revolves: a space Dean first visited on an art college excursion in 1986. At that time, it took an hour for the surrounding city to orbit the tower. It has since speeded up, but although it now takes only 30 minutes for the view to complete a single revolution, everything else seems to have stood still. The visitors are mostly elderly, and have probably been coming here for years; West-Berliners show little interest in this revolving allegory of the East. Before Dean’s static but mobile camera, the tower looks to be adrift, airlocked and serene, above a history which is visibly being rebuilt by the cranes below. At the end of Fernsehturm, the dimly lit restaurant is suddenly aflare with light as the staff prepare to close, and Berlin has vanished, as if, all along, this televisual ghost had dreamt it into being.

Dean’s art has long been exercised by this sort of spatial and temporal confusion. She is intrigued by eccentric images of the future that have been abandoned, left to leach their enigmatic energies into the surrounding territory. Such structures seem to bypass the present, setting up instead a strange relay between past and future, between utopia and nostalgia. Which is not to say that they partake merely of that generalised retro-futurist sensibility that has been everywhere, for example, in the cinematic futures of the past twenty years or so. Dean’s anachrony is altogether more precise and more mysterious than that: it appears, specifically, in the relationship between the hectic and fuddled history of the object itself and the long, calm meditation of the artist’s camera. It’s not, in other words, a matter of iconography, but of lingering presence, of a time that allows the historical shadows to gather.

In Sound Mirrors (1999), for instance, the vast concrete listening devices erected by the British military in the 1930s to detect German aircraft approaching the coast of Kent are not only images of an abandoned future (the kind of cheap frisson you get looking at a resurrected airship, say), but evidence of a protracted and uneasy accommodation of artefact and landscape. These ghosts are tragic, palpable, doleful presences. (Until recently, the largest of the mirrors bore this graffito: “I hate myself and I want to die.”) In Bubble House (1999), Dean had already discovered – on the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac, while searching for the abandoned boat of Donald Crowhurst, whose story formed the basis of her Disappearance at Sea (1996) and Teignmouth Electron (2000) – another misplaced and decayed relic of a time never to come: an unfinished, futuristic dwelling abandoned by an imprisoned fraudster. And in Boots (2003), she essayed a more complex reflection on architecture and memory, as an old man reminisces about (actually, invents) the past of an art deco villa in Portugal.

Tacita Dean, Sound Mirrors, 1999

Tacita Dean
Sound Mirrors 1999
© Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
Film still

But time and again it is Berlin, Dean’s adopted city, that has allowed her to give a special sort of historical resonance to her experiments in architectural time travel. (The Berlin films are also, as it happens, among her most beautiful: irradiated by sunsets so extravagant it seems the city, or the film itself, is on fire.) In the most recent, Palast (2004), she turns her attention to one of the city’s most controversial buildings. Among the last edicts of the old GDR in 1990 was an order to close the vast Palace of the Republic on Schlossplatz (then Marx Engelsplatz) when it was found to be riddled with asbestos. The building has stood empty ever since, and will soon be demolished. Opened in 1976, it was in part designed to demonstrate the ostensible modernising of the GDR, to foster a new cultural affinity between East and West. But in the era of actual unity it has come instead to symbolise a past many would like to accelerate away from as swiftly as possible.

Dean’s Palast is an effort to frame this doomed edifice, briefly, in the rear-view mirror of history. As always, however, the chronology turns out to be more convoluted. On the soundtrack, a modernity that Nabokov and Roth would have recognised can be heard: the traffic circles noisily out of shot, and occasional voices rise above it for a moment. But the building, clad in a pale brown glass that turns everything to gold, reflects mostly, at first, empty sky. Or rather, a sky roiling with ravishing, golden cloudscapes: the Modernist grid of the building’s façade encloses a slowly swirling turbulence that is practically Romantic in its hazy allure. Each expanse of glass is a screen on which is projected a separate scene from the city’s transformation. Gradually, other buildings and objects are reflected, but only ever obscurely: gleaming curves and spikes that might be glimpses of the nearby TV tower turn out to be streetlights, then the spire of a church, and finally, recognisably, the Fernsehturm itself. Equestrian statuary, rearing up in silhouette, is suddenly weak and hobbled beside the bold figures of contemporary graffiti. The city that the palace reflects might be already ruined, so dismembered does it look here, caught between the twin screens of the condemned building and Dean’s film (itself shot on the ruined, anachronistic medium of 16mm film). It is impossible to see these fragments of the city without recalling photographs of a bombed and shelled Berlin half a century ago.

Palast, however, is also a timely intervention in another era of the rebuilding of Berlin. The Palace of the Republic was constructed on the site of the Baroque Royal Palace, which had been damaged by bombing and finally demolished (as a supposed symbol of German militarism) in 1950. The now imaginary Schloss has been the object of a complex sort of nostalgia: itself the image of a future curtailed by the Communist regime, it may now be rebuilt as a monument to a future Berlin. In such a circumstance, both the supporters of the reborn Schloss and of the fading palace (there are predictably fewer of these) seem to oscillate between the roles of reactionary and renovator. Dean’s film sets this perplex of historical emotions into spectral movement, revealing the fabric of the city as a screen on which are projected wholly enigmatic impulses, unknown even to the citizens themselves.

Tacita Dean, Pie, 2003

Tacita Dean
Pie 2003
© Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
Film still

In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes:”Berlin is a city of monuments and unintentional memorialisations. In contrast to major monumental sites connected to German history, the involuntary memorialisations are material embodiments of this transitional present and are themselves transitory. With time they will only be preserved in stories and souvenir photographs.” The memories of the city are as fragile and as persistent as the bereft photographs Dean collected from the flea markets of Berlin for Floh (2001), or the mysterious opera programmes (with inexplicable holes cut in their covers), acquired in the same way, which are the subjects of her recent work. They are as fleeting as the magpies that she watches from the window of her Berlin studio in Pie (2003), and as certain to return. As Nabokov put it: “The future is but the obsolete in reverse.”

Tacita Dean: Berlin Works at Tate St Ives 8 October -15 January 2006. Tacita Dean will be published by Tate Publishing in October.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine. His book In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory is published by Penguin.

Tacita Dean: Boots

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Tacita Dean: talks about Boots, 2003 – 1000 words | ArtForum | Find Articles.

Image of: Boots

In the voice-over to Sans Soleil (1982), Chris Marker offers a typically aphoristic remark: “We do not remember; we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” The linkage between history and memory, their common constructedness, is also evident in the films of Tacita Dean, who, while ostensibly celebrating the formal languages of structural film–duration, framing, sound, and editing–engages the process of memory and resignification that sets in when history lets go of its protagonists, and their actions, objects, and characters become forgotten. Almost all of Dean’s films center around one simple element–such as an observed event, a discovered place, or a forgotten story–that seems obvious and miraculous at the same time. She has made films about a lighthouse off the Scottish coast of Berwickshire (Disappearance at Sea, 1996); the sound-reflecting concrete walls built on the Kent coast in the 1920s as an early-warning system against air raids (Sound Mirrors, 1999); a total solar eclipse as observed on a dairy farm in Cornwall (Banewl, 1999); the torso of a sailboat found on a tiny island in the Caribbean (Teignmouth Electron, 2000); and the leftover traces of Marcel Broodthaers’s Section Cinema in his Dusseldorf studio, now a storage space for a local Kunsthalle (Section Cinema, 2002), Dean’s films take issue with sites or found objects and point to the narratives behind them, which are often fascinating accounts of arcane footnotes of history, discarded utopian experiments, tragic events, or personal defeats. For Boots, 2003, which comprises three films in German, English, and French, Dean situates her protagonist in an unfurnished Art Deco villa in Portugal. In each version, “Boots”–an eccentric old friend of the artist’s family–moves through a different sequence of rooms while recounting anecdotes from the life of the quasi-historical persona he has spontaneously chosen to inhabit.

“I have an unmade film project: something I carry around with me for the future. I’m always surprised by how it transmutes into other works. The project has at its center a dialogue between Oedipus, which means “swollen foot,” and his daughter/sister Antigone. Antigone is my sister’s name and an old fascination. Twelve years ago, while still a student, I made a small drawing of three boots hanging from the top of the paper. Under the first boot was written OEDIPUS; under the second, BYRON; and under the third, BOOTSY. So Boots was on my mind even then.

Boots was my sister’s godfather. (I find it strange suddenly to be speaking in the past tense, because he has just died.) His real name was Robert Steane, but we knew him as Boots because of his orthopedic boot, which he would have elegantly handmade in the style of his other shoe by a top London craftsman. Multiple car accidents added to his rather baroque appearance and left him blind in one eye, but his charm transcended everything. His father was almost certainly the illegitimate son of King George V who left England to become a silent-movie star in Germany in the ’20s. So Boots grew up in Bavaria. He met the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo and lived a truly cosmopolitan life traveling with his parents from one film set to another across Europe. One of the many things that attracted me to Boots was exactly this undatable urbanity that he carried around with him without conscious nostalgia. He was somehow the perfect anachronism.

In 2002, I had a show at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto and visited the pink villa in the park, used by the museum as a second exhibition space. I learned that there were plans to renovate it in the autumn, which precipitated my desire to film it. The villa is an oddity in the French Art Deco style. The owner, Carlos Alberto Cabral, was obsessed by beauty and filled the house with extravagant detailing. He married a French model, Blanche, who pined for Paris, and even today the house retains a sort of melancholy. It was already a stage set, but for me it was the shabbiness and slight neglect that held its atmosphere.

I wanted to animate the house very specifically. So I got fixated with the idea of asking Boots to be in the film. He was an architect, and I wanted a fictional architectural account of the peculiarities of the villa. I also wanted someone who would not clash with the building, who would seem of its time. I had never worked with a person before in my films, and quite apart from whether he’d be any good or not, Boots was seriously disabled, in England, and unable to fly because of his pacemaker. But it had to be him; no one else would do. And it’s a testament to Boots’s courage, imagination, and probably vanity that he agreed to come.

It was no easy feat getting Boots by train to Portugal. I had by now taken the decision to film in the three languages he spoke: English, German, and French. I took with me three anamorphic 16 mm cameras. We had only three filming days, and it soon became obvious that Boots’s energy was limited. I also wanted to shoot only in the late afternoon and at dusk. Boots took a dislike to the villa and refused, even for the sake of fiction, to play the architect. Instead he took the part of Blanche’s lover. He picked up on the atmosphere of the house quickly and was unscripted. He spoke, when I pushed him, some German but less French. I was not, as I never am, organized enough, but I knew from the first take, when he walked across the main hall and the villa resounded with the sound of his boot and walking sticks, that alchemy was possible.

The heart of my process is the editing. It’s almost as if I court chaos in the filming because I know I have this period later when it will just be me and it. I always cut alone on a Steenbeck. On this occasion, I had the added complication of having my sync sound on magnetic track. I decided to cut the film into separate English, French, and German versions. Each version would show a different facade of the house, and Boots would enter a different room on the ground floor. As I hadn’t decided this when we were filming, it created no end of difficulty: For example, in the French version, he said only one word in French–”toutes”–in the designated room, so I had to edit around that moment using cutaways and artifice. In the end, each version is twenty minutes long and has its own personality–and each is a valediction that ends at night.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

Bookwise – Burgin – Grundberg

Thursday, January 19th, 2012



“Our relations with cities are like our relations with people. We love them, hate them, or are indifferent toward them. On our first day in a city that is new to us, we go looking for the city. We go down this street, around that corner. We are aware of the faces of passers-by. But the city eludes us, and we become uncertain whether we are looking for a city, or for a person.”

Victor Burgin recalls some of the cities he has known in a way familiar to all who have traveled, by showing photographs and telling anecdotes. Some Cities gathers places and moments along a life route that the author has taken from the north of England to his present home in northern California. Stops on the way include such disparate sites as London, Berlin and Warsaw; Singapore, Woomera and Tokyo; New York and San Francisco; and the islands of Stromboli and Tobago.

Some Cities is unlike anything Burgin has ever done before, although it explores characteristic themes of his earlier theoretical and visual works, such as the dimensions of politics and sexuality in everyday life.

“Burgin traces his life’s route from the north of England through such metropolises as London, Berlin, Singapore, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco in brilliant black and white photographs and in anecdotes presented in immaculate prose.”