The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean, Tate Modern

What irony that the first work made entirely by the artist’s own hand in Tate Modern’s Unilever Series is not a painting or sculpture but “FILM”, Tacita Dean’s 11-minute, silent 35mm looped film projected on to an enormous monolith at the end of a darkened Turbine Hall. “FILM” is also one of the most abstract – its subject is the medium of film itself – as well as the least bombastic of the Unilever Series.

Turbine Hall commissions test nerve: Dean’s risk has been not to rise to the scale of the setting, not to make a political statement or riff on the nature of spectacle, but to co-opt the space to suit the medium to which, for the last two decades, she has dedicated her working life. Nonetheless, this piece involves Turbine Hall’s architecture and history more precisely than any commission so far.

Projected as a film strip with sprocket holes exposed on to the emulsion as in old-fashioned negatives, “FILM” is composed of a series of images – trees, seascapes, a fountain, a grasshopper, a rolling escalator – juxtaposed with panels of brilliant colour and shots in different hues of the grid structure of the east wall of this huge space. It looks striking and strange because it is in portrait not landscape format – Dean has turned a cinemascope lens 90 degrees, achieving a verticality that mirrors Turbine Hall’s shape and proportions.

Projecting lyrical, layered imagery on a screen in front of the east wall also makes “FILM” appear as transparent as a strip of celluloid, as if we see through the screen itself to the wall that is one of its key motifs. This is more than a trick: it draws attention to light as the essential basis of analogue film, and to the distinctive texture, graininess, sense of apparition and vanishing, which characterise celluloid film. This in turn is polemical: Dean conceived “FILM” as a portrait of analogue, photochemical non-digital film because that medium is rapidly disappearing. Few labs continue to make it, few cinemas use it, it will survive if at all as an artisanal product, depriving us of the opportunity to watch a century of film-making in its original form.

An accompanying book with scores of contributions – from Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard to Thomas Demand, Jeff Wall, Roni Horn – explains why this matters. The elegiac tone of “FILM” itself, though, is more widely embracing. For film and Modernism were born around the same time, and Dean’s abstracted interior world here is flooded with images recalling the Modernist dream – Mondrian’s geometric blocks of colour, the eyes and eggs favoured by surrealism, Paramount’s studio logo – and also its unravelling: the vertical orientation is reminiscent of Warhol’s postmodern film “Empire”, an orange sun playfully refers to “Weather Project” by Dean’s Unilever predecessor Olafur Eliasson.

After years of mostly monochromes – Ai Weiwei’s white seeds, Miroslaw Balka’s black box – not since Eliasson’s sun has so much sensual colour filled Turbine Hall. This is the optimistic part of Dean’s vision: like its frame, the industrial Turbine Hall – Dean includes sequences overlaying Giles Gilbert Scott’s rectilinear windows with those from a derelict Berlin factory and a cathedral’s gothic stained glass – “FILM” posits a new reviving setting for its medium: the museum. On the other hand, the twinning of beauty and ruin that defines Dean’s art – “Disappearance at Sea”, “Palast” – here reaches its melancholy apotheosis.

Dean has joked that the old artists she films – Merce Cunningham, Cy Twombly – tend to die soon afterwards, so her arrival heralds doom. “FILM”, though, is celebratory, and I think will become very popular. Its capacity for shadow-catching spectacle is endless, as crowds draw near to see their own reflections washed over by a wave or a sunbeam; its slow pace, intimate touch and detail – the result of hand-editing, and techniques such as double-exposure and glass matte painting, with discs of colour sprinkled like confetti across some surfaces – rewards attention and contemplation. Though lacking the force of astonishment and single-gesture aplomb of some of the more dramatic Turbine Hall installations, “FILM” invites the long view and declares an expressive individual sensibility – in today’s conceptual climate a brave, bold statement.

Until March 11,

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