Simply titled "Film," Tacita Dean's commission for Tate Modern's gigantic Turbine Hall is an homage to the old-fashioned analog format of that medium, which she has used since her student days — and which is now threatened with disappearance. At the end of the museum's dark hall, a monumental cinema screen, turned on its side and standing upright like a glowing monolith, is filled with tightly spliced images of buildings, flowers, and snails, all framed at the edges with sprocket holes. An egg floats in the air; mushrooms change colors. The British-born, Berlin-based artist has marshaled a cornucopia of filmic skills: the masking and multiple exposures, hand-tinting, and glass matte painting that, until recently, were a moviemaker's stock in trade.
For months, Dean has been fighting for the survival of traditional film, a campaign partly triggered by the decision of London's Soho Film Laboratory's new owners to stop printing 16mm. Today no one is doing it the U.K., and the number of laboratories printing film worldwide is dwindling. The artist had to produce her Tate commission in an Amsterdam lab, which is now also at risk. "Film" is an urgent plea for the medium and a festive collage of motifs and techniques, engaging at a very visceral level — a potent artwork, and a convincing manifesto.
You've said that "Film" was, in a way, a continuation of the campaign you are leading for the preservation of analogue film, and against the closure of labs printing 16mm. But film has also very often been the subject as much as the main medium of your work. "Film" could be seen as a culmination of this ongoing concern of yours.
I suppose it's more deliberately and clearly about film, because, for example, of the way I'm putting the sprocket holes on the film. My films are connected to the material, to the time of film. It becomes more clear when less of it is about. For me it is entirely connected to the medium, that's why I'm so bereft.
Do you have any hope that 16mm will be rescued?
I don't know how much of a will there is. There has to be a will. I think it's a matter of knowing that there is a difference [between analogue and digital film], and that [analogue film] is really under threat. People have to think, "It's really under threat, so let's do something about it."
Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have contributed to this exhibition catalogue. They have responded to your call. Surely, people like that could have an effect on the situation.
Spielberg can actually buy the last lab if he has to — I wish he would. Steven Spielberg, buy the lab!
The piece occupies the space of the Turbine Hall in a very sculptural way.
My connection has always been to painting more than sculpture, but of course, [my pieces] are very sculptural. It's art, it's physical. Art the last place that is, actually, everything else is going into another realm. Art is about the encounter.
You've turned the landscape-format cinema screen into a vertical monument. Its sheer size is daunting. It even has something of a funeral quality, an oversized gravestone for film.
Really? Oh god. We always call it the monolith because it's very much like Stanley Kubrick's monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey, " which was a cinema screen on its side apparently. The gravestone, I have to say didn't happen for me.
Tate's Turbine Hall is heavily present in the film. Was it important to fictionalize the space you were working in, or for?
It was. Film is about artifice and inventions, and it was nice to turn the Turbine Hall into a strip of film. And once I had done that I could do what I like: I could fill it with mist, I could make a mountain, I could do anything I wanted because it was a fiction.
Do you find the Turbine Hall inspiring as a place?
I'm so not impartial anymore. I can't remember what I used to think. It has a very strong identity; as Matt Mullican says it has a huge ego. And you have to deal with an ego; you can't pretend it's not there.
This film is 35mm. Why not 16mm?
It had to be, initially just because of the scale. There's no way you can project 16mm and have it survive well at that distance. That screen is 13 meters high. It might look small but that's the size of an apartment block in Berlin. But then, as soon as I began to use masking, it could only be 35mm — that stuff you can't do with 16mm.
If you could rewind, is there anything you would do differently?
No. They are mistakes in the film, there are some shots misregistered that I use deliberately. Mistakes don't exist in our digital world anymore. An effects man I spoke to in Germany said, "Analogue mistakes can sometimes be magical. Digital ones never are." You know, the magic of mistakes and the magic of not knowing what you are going to get, these things are important.