Andy Warhol’s eight-hour fixed-camera shot of the Empire State Building marked a literal entrance—to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s Cinema Paradiso exhibition—and an historical and metaphorical one that invited us to engage with (according to acca’s own publicity material) the ‘magic of celluloid in an exhibition that explores the intersection between cinema and art’. But if we were here to celebrate the magic of celluloid then why was Empire being projected from a dvd in a light- saturated doorway?
My complaint is not the essentialist one that film—to qualify for the term—must be shot and presented on celluloid. Today’s high definition (hd) digital video mocks those who’d argue that celluloid will always be superior to, or even distinguishable from, pixels. Yet, in the acca context, there was something highly problematic about the projection of a bleached-out video version of Warhol’s film, preceding as it did its later catalogue presentation as a 16mm film, complete with film stills that fetishistically gloried in the damage and scratches done to this iconic object in the thirty years since its creation.
It’s this trading in auratic talismans while presenting only an anaemic marker for the work’s reduction to a creation myth for a particular avant- garde that galls. It assumes that a viewer would only want to mark Empire present and correct, while expressing no interest in its actual content. Warhol’s dispassionate interrogation of cinema and its constituent elements of light, (non) action, time and space is whittled down to a totem marking precisely everything that, too often, goes missing in art exhibitions that profess to the cinematic.
In Melbourne in 2007 at least three exhibitions explicitly probed the intersections between cinema, video and art. Along with Cinema Paradiso there was the ‘Post-Cinema’ section (the only part I’ll look at here) of Centre Pompidou Video Art 1965–2000 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (acmi) and a smaller exhibition, Post-Cinema at RMIT Project Space.1
Monash University based academic and film critic Adrian Martin has recently noted in an article in Artlink that ‘(h)istorically, the relation between art institutions and film has been fraught with every imaginable problem and inequality’.2 He looks back on moving-image exhibitions of the 1980s and 90s as ruled by hybridised technologies proliferating on screens in too-close conjunction to each other, with competing soundtracks blaring across over-lit exhibition spaces. It’s easy to agree with him, and if he dates these tendencies to that era it’s only to argue—following film theorist Raymond Bellour—that it’s now time to return the cinematic apparatus to its privileged historical position of a singular screening with a beginning and an end, projected to a captive audience. No one in their right mind is suggesting this is the ideal way to view Empire, but his point is clear.
While it might sound like special pleading, Martin’s focus is cinema not video art and perhaps his linear approach should be understood as a ‘horses for courses’ one. After ridiculing museological approaches to ‘film as art’ that ignore cinema’s more mainstream achievements he goes on to excoriate (video) artists that make ‘artist’s films’ that pretend to the ‘cinema effect’ but which exist in a retarded state that shuns any real knowledge of cinematic history and form. Matthew Barney is singled out, but Isaac Julien’s Baltimore, a glossy but ultimately meaningless muti-channel homage to blaxploitation films (screened in the Post-Cinema section of the Pompidou show) would serve just as well. hd is used here in an unselfconscious imitation of film’s language and technical qualities but with little of its gift for old-fashioned storytelling—the superficial complications added by the work’s simultaneous multi-channel elaboration notwithstanding.
Obviously, for every ‘bad’ example such as Barney or Julien we could find a ‘good’ one. In the same acmi show, for example, there was Pierre Huyghe’s complex layering of narrative and ‘truth’ in his double-channel examination of the events portrayed in Sidney Lumet’s film Dog Day Afternoon. This Brechtian re-enactment—in which the original robber directed actors on an anti-naturalistic, black- and-white set—of the bank robbery at the heart of that film was something much more interesting than any denuded cinema-envious ‘art film’—and its proper place could only be the gallery. However, this sorting of good from bad, of lambs from goats, would be interminable and gets no one very far.
We need to ask, rather, if anything has been learnt from this painful courtship between cinema and art. What is the current tone? An elegiac mood for love past? This would characterise much of Cinema Paradiso (reflecting its appropriation of the title of Giuseppe Tornatore’s sentimental and nostalgic film), especially in the beautiful, funereal light-filled theatre screens featured in the series of Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs, or Callum Morton’s models of broken down drive-in screens.
Or perhaps the funereal tone is that of a forensic autopsy: a Hitchcockian look back through a rear window, post cinema. These exhibitions consisted largely of video art (Cinema Paradiso included other media, and benefited for it) that entered into the crisis discourse of the ‘death of cinema’. A vast range of voices have in recent years posited emergent sociological, technological, aesthetic and commercial imperatives as factors contributing to the death of communal movie-going and the cinema itself, at least as we have understood it for an approximate one-hundred year period. So we find artists ‘doing it to death’—evidenced in reworked footage of a st-st-stuttering scream as a man repeatedly bangs his head against a car in an endless loop in a work by Nicolas Jasmin at acca.
It follows that the need is still there to compulsively examine the anxieties that film has helped us to both articulate and repress. The post 9/11 desire for martial reassurance, for example—made real through the paradoxical filmic fantasy of terrorist spectacle—is successfully deconstructed in the action-disaster-catastrophe film montage Doomed by Tracey Moffat in collaboration with Gary Hillberg, also at acca.
Originally I had been struck by how the use of the term post-cinema seemed to differ, and was seemingly being contested, between its retrospective use in acmi’s Pompidou show (and, by extension, in acca’s Cinema Paradiso) and the exhibition Post-Cinema at rmit. Post-Cinema curator Shaun Wilson took the term for a technologically- driven ontological enquiry into what the death of cinema might pave the way for. Post cinema, post-YouTube hybridised video technologies are meant to proliferate, redefining means and terms of production and distribution in ways entirely ‘other’ to the hierarchiesbetween film and video art I complained of in Isaac Julien’s work. Typifying Wilson’s approach was his inclusion of prominent media theorist Lev Man- ovich’s database-driven ‘pick-a-path’ Soft Cinema, in which genre narratives are reconfigured with every viewing from a closed set of predetermined elements.
It’s enough to give pause to back-to- fundamentals proponents like Martin and Bellour, and at first glance Wilson’s show seemed to have little to do with any cinematic legacy. The evangelical claims made for the work sometimes yielded the kind of bad video art that gives the genre a bad name: an eight-minute video of cars passing left me demanding a refund on my time.
I can however now see Wilson’s use of the term post-cinema as not entirely at odds with the rest. The inclusion of Brendan Lee’s Out of the Blue I, a reconstruction of locations from Australian film Dogs In Space fused with political content informed by the Cronulla riots, conforms to other uses of the term post-cinema to categorise works that seek to democratise cinematic form and narrative, especially as used to examine history and memory. This is effectively what Huyghe’s work discussed above achieves and Lee’s work could, for example, have plausibly appeared in the acca show. Wilson’s use of the term post-cinema though is a knowing one that aims to take one step further, to position post-cinema (as a ‘genre’) as just one of many post- or ‘other’ cinematic possibilities brought about by the death of the original. In this goal I didn’t find the exhibition entirely convincing, but it is reassuring that someone is giving it serious thought.
I set out, in writing this piece, to try and puzzle out for myself how museums and artists have responded to cinema. Can art, and its sub-category of the moving image, find its own, native ways to meaningfully interact with film? Martin’s concern in his article was to find ways that film can ‘enter the milieu of the art gallery proudly, on its own terms, bearing its own history, demanding its own specific mode of attention’.3 Far from taking issue with this, and certainly not in an effort to freshly reinscribe the inequalities that he has identified in that relationship, I wonder how art can find ways to respectfully reciprocate the engagement, without losing what in turn makes it distinct from cinema. And if this sounds essentialist perhaps it is—because if art is just going to come on like the movies without a budget then I’m probably better off at a Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Transformers) blockbuster. Or, just because I like Rodney Graham doesn’t mean I don’t wanna see those Randolph Scott westerns again.4
Dylan Rainforth is a freelance writer and the president of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.
1/ Cinema Paradiso, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 16 October – 2 December 2007. Centre Pompidou Video Art 1965–2000, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 22 March – 27 May 2007. Post-Cinema, RMIT Project Space, 24 September – 19 October 2007.
2/ Adrian Martin, ‘Black Box / White Cube: Cinema in the Gallery’, Artlink, vol. 27 no. 3, 2007, pp. 36–38. (See also Adrian Martin, ‘Cinema (and Post-Cinema) Effects in APT5’, Art Monthly Australia, no. 197, 2007, pp. 11–15).
4/ With Graham I’m thinking specifically of his ‘western’ loop How I Became A Rambling Man (1999), which screened at acca in 2003. In the late 1950s Scott made six brilliant ‘existentialist westerns’ with director Budd Boetticher, collectively known as the Ranown Cycle.