Light Illusions Artists and Cinema; Filmmakers and Galleries

By Felicity Sparrow



Artists have used the medium of film since the early twentieth century. Although marginalised by the institutions of cinema, artists’ films have nevertheless been exhibited like any other film: in cinemas, designed like theatres with fixed seats facing a white screen, often framed by a proscenium arch and plush velvet curtains. These darkened auditoria, proscribed by the conventions of projecting and perceiving moving pictures on a two-dimensional surface, kept filmed images separate from other twentieth century forms of pictorial representation. Even the work of artists and avant-garde film-makers of the 20s and 30s was mediated via cinema’s institutional gaze. For the most part these works, originating on 35mm and later 16mm film, were ignored by the art world and galleries which so prized the same artists’ paintings and photographs. Luckily film print copies proliferated and were collected by specialist distributors and enthusiasts in the US and Europe, some even ending up in the distribution libraries of film-makers’ co-operatives which sprang up around the globe in the 1960s.

reel-time-annabel-nicolson.jpgReel Time, Annabel Nicolson, 1972

The artist-led, film co-op movement of the 1960s grew up in tandem with that decade’s artists’ “happenings” and multi-media performances in galleries, theatres and outdoor spaces, and the Fluxus interventions which embraced all art forms and were staged in lofts and public places. Simultaneously many artists and art students were abandoning painting and sculpture in favour of film (and later video), performance art and what became known as Expanded Cinema. Non-sedentary audiences experienced and often participated in artworks as they were being made – a new form of spectatorial relationship from that of conventional art and cinema. To this artistic explosion came the Structuralist film movement with its formal concerns and experimentation, which foregrounded film’s materiality over its inherent illusionism. The aim was to draw spectators away from the passive consumption associated with mainstream narrative cinema to a more radical, participatory engagement with film and its apparatus.[1]

malcolm-la-grice-gill-eatherley-william-raban.jpgLe Grice, Eatherley and Raban multi-screen projection in Gallery House, 1973

Film installations made their first appearance in the late 60s and early 70s. The term was descriptive of the spatial arrangements for continuous presentation: usually one or more projectors running a loop of film within a bare white-walled space. Once installed the artist was no longer present, but the audio visual presence of the projector, and of the filmstrip whirring and clicking through the gate, were as integral to the work as the images seen on the wall. The whole emphasised the fragility of the filmstrip’s surface (which deteriorated) as well as the mechanical means of representation.

These Expanded Cinema performances and installations were shown in alternative cinema and gallery spaces during the 70s, culminating in the Festival of Expanded Cinema at the ICA in early 1976, and revisited in the Arts Council’s Perspectives on British Avant-Garde Film of 1977 and Film As Film of 1979, both at the Hayward Gallery. Since then the practice has continued intermittently , often in Super-8mm form, and influenced by a revival of the figurative in art and the ‘new-romantic’ in film, thus moving away from structural concerns. However, in the early 80s, video became the preferred medium of delivery both for television with the start of Channel 4, and for the gallery. Film retreated once more to the cinema.

point-source-tony-hill.jpgPoint Source, Tony Hill, 1973

What the 70s proved was that the experience of watching or participating in a film event could be far more exciting when liberated from the proscenium and fixed gaze of cinema, and not hidden behind the walls of a projection booth. This experience was re-created during the Whitechapel Gallery’s 2000 exhibition, Live in Your Head: concept and experiment in Britain 1965-75. Over two weekends gallery space was given over to Expanded Cinema: from Tony Hill’s shadowgraphic projections to the multi-screen installations and performances by members of the Filmaktion group: Gill Eatherly, Malcolm Le Grice, Annabel Nicolson and William Raban.

New Technologies

New technologies have had a major impact on film and video exhibition, enabling both to be mastered on to either analogue formats or digital versatile discs (DVD) for multiple playback without image deterioration, and projected via computer-assisted high lumen projectors capable of showing high resolution images under varying ambient light conditions. But it’s not just technology that has created the current scene whereby it has become practically obligatory for video images to adorn the walls of so many public and private galleries, but the art market which now deals in the moving image as product.

The market for modern art is mediated by dealers and agents working with or for the artist, and the curators and buyers who exhibit the art. The product is no longer just the image – itself limited to an “edition” to ensure rarity – but the whole context, including the playback machines, projectors, speakers, screens or scrims and any other element. Thus video installations, and in particular those using large screens and discrete playback, have become valuable as ‘rare’ limited editions and collectable as commodities, just like oil paintings. This is very different to the 70s, when everyone aspired to have a decent number of distribution prints (just like mainstream movies) but economics dictated a maximum of two or three….. The irony now is that negs for many of the films made in the 60s and 70s have been lost, so what exists are limited editions by default.

New contexts for Art and Film

Postmodernism has brought about new contexts both for making and seeing art and film. New sites, new sponsors, new means of spectacular display and fluidity of movement by artists between media have brought new forms of art spectatorship. Like their predecessors of the 60s and early 70s, artists today are increasingly using a range of media, as a palette or tool bag from which can be chosen the most suitable means of making the work of art, whether paint on canvas, sculpture, film, video, digital media or installation combining any or all of these forms. There is now an eclectic mix with artists moving freely from one medium to another, without necessarily defining themselves in terms of one. This pluralism is not new, though it is grossly under-represented in the museums of art.

colours-of-this-time-william-raban.jpgColours of This Time, William Raban,1975

Video cassettes, laser discs, or DVD, are the preferred show formats, so artists are encouraged to produce work in these formats or to transfer to them if the original is on film. However, as the screenings of 60s and 70s artists’ films to enthusiastic capacity audiences during the Whitechapel Gallery’s Live in Your Head exhibition proved, there is a uniquely physical sense of occasion created by a room full of clattering film projectors. This is a revelation to a generation of gallery goers who have previously only experienced discrete, silent video projection.

Tacita Dean at Tate Britain

Some younger artists are now choosing to work with the fragile, mechanical materiality of film projection, artists such as Tacita Dean whose work is now showing at Tate Britain.[2]  Separate darkened rooms house plinth-mounted 16mm projectors with loop table attachments for the continuous running of 16mm filmstrips. These are projected onto the gallery walls, some in traditional academy format, others filmed with and projected via anamorphic lenses in a horizontally elongated format, like Cinemascope but on a smaller scale. Unlike most gallery installations, each screening-room is sound-proofed so sound doesn’t leak from one to another. Seating is neither formal nor obligatory: for the longer films, like Banewl (1999, 63 minutes) and Fernsehturm (2001, 44 minutes), it is obviously more comfortable to watch seated. Or, one can choose to wander in and out, sampling, maybe watching and comparing with movies in adjacent rooms. Because most films play continuously one enters at no set point and can remain indefinitely. That’s one of the great things about seeing movies in art galleries; it liberates the way we watch them, giving the viewer a choice in the same way that we are accustomed to seeing paintings in an exhibition.

Tacita Dean’s work is full of resonances. The physicality of the film strip, which one can see going through the projector gate at 24 frames per second, underlines the temporal nature of the medium and its artifice: a succession of small still images given life by the magnifying lens and the light from the projector lamp shining through. The projectors also have an aural presence and the recorded film sound vies with the whirr of the motor and of the film on its path through the machine. Anachronisms in this digital age, they nevertheless echo the subject matter, like the lighthouse in Disappearance at Sea (1996) in which the concentric circles of a Fresnel lens are seen first in daylight, refracting and reflecting back the exterior seascape, then as dusk falls capturing the light from twin lamps and emanating a single rotating beam which penetrates the night, illuminating the sea and rocks in its path. Disappearance at Sea II, made in daylight in 1997, shows the view from another lighthouse, the camera, this time mounted in the place of lamp and Fresnel lens, looks out to sea, slowly sweeping the horizon in a 360° panning shot which tracks the light from the sun as it glances off the water. Both films have a formal quality afforded by the crisscross of the railings around the lamp house which frames and mediates the camera’s, and thus our, view of the world outside. In essence the image is a romantic one, reminiscent of the seascapes of 19th century painters. The Fresnel lens was one in a line of optical inventions during the 19th century which ended with the birth of cinema. Both lighthouses and film projectors are now on the verge of “rationalised” obsolescence.

sunset-strips-william-raban-lost-lake-chris-welsby.jpgLeft: Sunset Strips, William Raban, 1975 Right: Lost Lake, by Chris Welsby

The circular 360° depiction of landscape from an elevated position recalls another precursor to cinema: the panorama or all-embracing view which was popular at the turn of the 18th century and revived periodically during the 19th and early 20th century. Fernsehturm (2001) takes its name from the television tower in former East Berlin, which houses a slowly revolving restaurant (like the GPO Tower in London) where diners can contemplate the changing light on the cityscape spread below them. In a series of static shots the film records the passage of time as the room slowly fills with people who dine then leave. As in the lighthouse films the image is dominated by the structure of the windows whose vertical frames separate each segment of glass, like the frames of a filmstrip. These remain stationary; it is the floor which rotates, like a giant turntable, and everything on it moves with it including the camera. But the effect is the opposite: it seems to be the window with its changing backdrop which is moving while the diners remain still. In fact the window structure is like the slot-pierced outer drum of a zoetrope – only instead of looking in from outside to the revolving images on its walls, we’re inside looking out. The film tracks the effects of time and how this is measured as light shining through or reflected off the glass of the windows, from afternoon sunlight through sunset to nightfall when interior lighting obliterates the world beyond the window.

Dean’s work is beautiful to look at; full of elegant conceits about the nature of film, duration and the measurement of time at 24 frames per second. Like many contemporary artists using film, Dean’s work is underwhelming when seen in a cinema auditorium yet absorbing for the gallery visitor – which is not to denigrate the films, merely to point out that they are suited to certain contexts. Their content, predominantly rural or coastal landscapes, echoes centuries of tradition in other British art housed at the Tate. They also reference a nearer past in terms of 70s Structuralist film-making – not just in the presence of the film projectors but in the aestheticising of its subject matter. Landscape, mediated via scientific devices for observing and measuring the natural world, effects of weather, light and cyclical time, was a strong feature of the English avant-garde film movement, particularly in the early work of William Raban and Chris Welsby, and in the twin-screen 8mm work of Jane Clark.

disappearance-at-sea.jpgDisappearance at Sea, Tacita Dean, 1996

These antecedents are not acknowledged here. This would not matter if the latter were available for viewing and comparison. But they’re not. In 1975, British Landscape Films featured at the Tate, in the auditorium, not the galleries. Today, however, a visit to Tate Modern’s Collection 2001 display in the themed Landscape/Matter/Environment galleries will reveal not one single film, British or otherwise. 

Future in Focus

The current collection at Tate Modern features very few films by artists before the 1990s. The exceptions are Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (video-projected large), Marcel Duchamp’s Anaemic Cinema and Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (both on tiny monitors); two Kurt Kren “materialaktion films” from the 1960s (on small monitors); and four Fluxus film anthologies from the 60s (excellent, but showing on two miniature monitors within the black squares of a wall-painted chessboard). This gives a very skewed picture of artists’ use of film over the last century. Good though they are, the screenings in the auditorium do not make up for this deficit. Last year’s video projections in the Tate’s Turbine Hall attempted to give some historical perspectives with Performing Bodies, four programmes of film and video extracts, which travestied the originals but were nevertheless extremely well attended despite the discomfort of the viewing conditions.

The success of these and the Whitechapel screenings demonstrates that there is an increasing desire among the art-going public to know more about the antecedents for the current crop of ubiquitous moving-image installations. But this curiosity is largely unsatisfied given the proportional under-representation of the moving image in art museums’ collections, in art college audio-visual libraries and lecture programmes, and in art journals and cinema magazines alike. Much curatorial, educational and critical work needs to be done. For the moment, those who wish to know about and experience the multi-faceted delights of artists’ use of film, in a living, historical context, have to make do with attending intermittent screenings where they can find them.


[1] See Deke Dusinberre’s catalogue introduction in The Festival of Expanded Cinema at the ICA, January 4-11 1976.
[2] Tacita Dean: recent films and other works, Tate Britain, London, 15 February-6 May 2001.

Felicity Sparrow was co-curator with Andrea Tarsia of films for the Live In Your Head exhibition, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2000, and Museu do Chiado, Lisbon 2001. She is working on a PhD at the Royal College of Art, London, looking at artists’ use of projected light and sound from the 18th century to the present.