Visionary Landscapes: The Films of Nina Danino

By Althea Greenan


The unseeing eyes and flaying drapery of Bernini’s St. Teresa in the grips of theoria survives as a religious icon because it daringly rendered the visionary’s state rather than the vision of God. Though religious belief has become more elusive or militant, contemporary society still claims ecstasy as an individual’s entitlement. Meanwhile the visionary has become someone who sees ahead, a product of self-belief not religious faith. Visions that are not about the future are distortions, ghosts from our archaic past. So, is seeing no longer believing? Visionary Landscapes presents the work of Nina Danino whose avant-garde films focus on the multi-sensory phenomenon of the mystical vision. How does this test the book’s capacity to make the uninitiated reader see and believe?

Danino filmed Bernini’s masterpiece for Now I Am Yours (1992) with a soundtrack of incantation, improvised noise and song. Visionary Landscapes introduces this and five other films through essays distributed between sections dedicated to individual films. Danino writes well and the editor balances the critical articles squarely with the artist’s immersive accounts. From this tension, spring curious images. Danino is moved by details akin to postcard kitsch: the tear-faced Madonna, roses, the bloodied knees of a Christ figure, more roses, the shadows of lone trees and serenely beautiful sculpted hands. The images are as seductive as stills from movie advertising campaigns. Do they evoke more than the films can deliver?

The book’s emphasis on Danino’s experimental rigor works comfortably with the poetics of the stills. Visionary Landscapes delves into the filmmaker’s practice: working in improvised performance, being on location, filming in the dark. Danino gets to grips with the religious experience. It is a physical moment though what she is doing is not so incomprehensibly radical. Spiritual practice has always been instructively illustrated with the graphic accounts of visionaries and saints; not all are martyrs or even dead. In contemporary ancient societies the living saint is endowed with social status, as likely to be addressing a UN peace conference as “starring” in a film screened in Cannes. Look at Darshan – The Embrace (2005), a documentary directed by Jan Kounen following the Mahatma, Amma. The visionary still has the capacity to influence and be listened to, but it’s not their words alone, or even the sight of them that convince people that they embody grace. They “feel” different.

temenons-1998.jpgTemenos, 1998

The multi-sensory nature of the spiritual encounter implicates what we understand as the aesthetic experience, and its origin. In Visionary Landscapes S. Brent Plate discusses this, describing Danino as “participating in the religious activity of setting apart”, revealing “human rhythms that have often been submerged under the surface of the symbolic realm.” Ellen Dissanayake’s book Art and Intimacy (2000) identifies the evolutionary purpose behind our need for art. She relates the way humans establish intimacy, the matrix of associations that make life worthwhile, i.e. love. Citing the modern perception that “for most of us religion has been usurped by art and sex”, Dissanayake argues all three are examples of the “rhythmic-modal structurings” that human beings were born to find profoundly moving.

Visionary Landscapes reveals Danino to be a filmmaker who explored her ‘personal feminine rapture’ to break through to the wider landscape of the human condition as in Temenos (l998). She is not alone in her ranging across the mystical experience, but the idea is more often realized as installation produced by the likes of Bill Viola, James Turrell and – as demonstrated by a commission in St Paul’s Cathedral –Rebecca Horn. They all remind us that the religious experience is as likely to usurp art as the other way around but Visionary Landscapes allows us to savour the process.

More information on the book from Black Dog Publishing:

Althea Greenan's reviews on publications and exhibitions have appeared in Make magazine, Contemporary and elsewhere. They were produced in tandem with her work on the collection of the Women's Art Library/Make, now at Goldsmiths College Library, London. Other research interests include contemporary Albanian art and graphic novels.