The relationship between the moving image and contemporary art has been an uneasy one since the invention of film in the late 19th century. The defining characteristics of mainstream film-fictional subject matter, linear progression, narrative structure and adherence to conventions of realistic representation-were diametrically opposed to the dictate of radical experimentation in Modernism. Avant-garde films by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter and Viktor Ekkeling, to name only some of the most prominent protagonists, were by definition limited in duration, abstract and non-narrative. Until video became commercially available in the 1960s, the production and editing process of film remained expensive, time-intensive and technologically challenging, conditioning the survival of these fundamental characteristics.
However, much of experimental film and video work from the 1960s through the 80s continued to deliberately negate its technical possibilities. Shaky camera movements, jumpy cuts, out-of-focus images, appropriated
material, repetition and seriality contravened the development of narrative progression and employed boredom as a central (though not always premeditated) ritualistic artistic device. Grainy black and white continued
to be preferable to high-definition colour as if the true artist had to virtuously resist the allure of cheap entertainment, commercial seduction and, above all, the decadent indulgence in unnecessary excess. Residues of modernist aesthetics continued to impact on formal choices as ideological commitments precluded the use of those aesthetic modes of expression that might approximate the work of art too closely to mass-cultural products.
Continuing rapid technological advancements over the last decade have made sophisticated, compact and easy-to-use digital equipment widely available and freed its application somewhat from the stigma of aesthetic excess. The reciprocal infiltration of the worlds of contemporary art and pop culture has further led to a more liberal, at times intense exchange of stylistic idioms.
Clare Langan is at home both in the world of commercial, big-budget film and the more rarefied atmosphere of contemporary art. With a number of other contemporary artists working, in particular, in video, film but
also photography (Jeff Wall, Doug Aitken and Chris Cunningham, with Bill Viola as pioneering father figure), she has overcome the purist resistance to the seductive gloss of high-end production and the fallacy that authenticity of expression is inherently embedded in modest production values. In her film installations she continues to afford the luxury of using the “old-fashioned,” mechanical medium of film, shooting on 16mm stock which is then transferred to DVD and projected. The artist deliberately refrains from the elaborate manipulation of images in post-production (except for some careful editing and overlaying of some additional
sound elements) that today is standard practice in both commercial as well as experimental film and video production, relying instead on the inherent sensuality of film.
In Forty Below, 1999 and Too dark for night, 2001 dramatic landscapes tinged in shades of aquatic blue-greens and glowing in atmospheric sand tones are the product of relatively primitive technology applied on location.
In both films, Langan has experimented with hand-made filters painted with glass paint that are placed in front of or inside the lens. This simple procedure combines an economical creative technique with the gesture of artistic integrity, resulting in stunning scenes of great immediacy that can easily compete with the latest digitally manipulated images. Langan practices what could be defined as “pastoral heroism”- a reconfigured continuation of the genre of 19th-century landscape painting into the 21st century. In it, simplicity of means coincides with the splendid grandeur of nature or, as Thomas Crow defined it, the “incorporation of the commonplace within the exalted,” while the film continuously asserts its actuality as work of art and inscribes the presence of the spectator through a succession of arriving or departing ghostly figures. [i]
Too dark for night is a post-apocalyptic Lawrence of Arabia that gives in to the alluring beauty of decay as nature gradually claims back territory no longer of use to humans. Of breathtaking magnificence, the exotic desert sequence courageously play with the comforting Kitsch of National Geographic magazine and quality nature documentaries popular on public television and the Discovery Channel. As the dunes move through the doorway
of an abandoned building with its walls covered in a cloud-like pattern, inside and outside are perplexingly reversed, recalling third-generation Surrealist effects popular in the 1960s and 70s and promulgated in millions of posters and photo wallpapers. Rescued from history’s rubbish heap of bad taste, unbearable beauty is given a newlease of life as visualisation of distant memories – comforting dreams mitigating unspeakable loss.
This is, however, no pastoral Technicolor Eden in the long, particularly American tradition of special effects landscape painting by, for example, Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School and its filmic continuation in Hollywood Westerns of 1950s. While Langanupdates the Cinemascope wide-screen effects and engulfs the viewer in the contemporary medium of large-scale video projection, the ultimately utopian projections of an idyllic pastoral of these earlier visualisations of landscape has little justification at the turn of the 21st century.
The overblown monumentality of the sublime landscape with its humbling diminution of human presence here stands in contrast with Romantic convention of pathetic fallacy and its direct identification with and emotional immersion into nature. The rugged ice cliffs of Forty Below are distant reflections of Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic icon of The Ice Sea (1823 / 24) where the extremes of nature become an allegory of mankind’s hopeless struggle and the inevitability of one’s fate.
The ocular image produced by the manipulated lenses presents the spectre of a distant past viewed through the tunnel vision of memory while, at the same time, Langan draws attention to the cinematographic origin of her images and its human perceptual equivalent in the eye. This stylistic device revives another Romantic compositional formula used, amongst others, with great effect by William Turner in his visionary Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge, 1843. The painting’s title points to its origin in scientific and, in particular, optical studies while the circular composition asserts the intense corporeality of vision.[ii]
There is nothing more beautiful than a natural disaster on a monumental scale, when the grandeur of nature and the frisson of death observed from afar coincide in a panoramic catastrophe, arrested in time for our viewing pleasure. Langan’s refrains from the spectacular fireworks of hurricanes, volcano eruptions, earthquakes or deluges and indulges instead in recording the slow progress of destruction, respectively nature’s reconstruction through its extremes states.
Her landscapes are largely unpopulated exotic locations, with only a few reminders of human existence that have remained strangely intact, as if preserved in some kind of Pompeiian deep storage. The catastrophe has already happened and we are confronted with an apocalyptic aftermath as nature pushes back the boundaries of human civilisation. Nature itself knows no destruction but only an endless cycle of growth and decay. Despite the gloomy, turbulent mood of eternal change permeating these film installations, there is also serenity and peacefulness as nature asserts its rightful place.
Forty Below concludes with a shadowy figure emerging from the sea into which it had previously disappeared. Langan’s trilogy ultimately projects not a dystopian view of the end of human race through self-annihilation but the beginning of a process of cleansing and rebirth, playing on the universal significance of water as an agent of change and transformation.
[i] Thomas Crow, “The Simple Life: Pastoralism and the Persistence of Genre in Recent Art” in Idem., Modern Art in the Common Culture. New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p. 176, 201.
[ii] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 1990, pp. 139-141.
Director of Tate Liverpool and former curator at The Institute of Contemporary Art ,Boston.
© Christoph Grunenberg / Clare Langan